A few weeks ago, I took my Asperger/ADHD/Bipolar/Asthma son Connor, 10, to COSI (Center of Science and Industry, Columbus) for a family workshop on Beginning Soldering. My prayers began as I went verbally over what he could expect and what my behavior expectations were of him on the car ride there.
“I don’t know if you or only I will be allowed to use the soldering iron,” I warned. “You can’t get upset if you’re not allowed, or they’ll throw us out.”
“I understand,” he said sadly, head down and mumbling.
My mind raced with all the potential issues that could occur. He could get hungry or frustrated and have a meltdown or throw a tool in anger. I tried not to visualize the hostile faces of the others in the class as I imagined my bright, above average-intelligence special needs son with a huge interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and myself being led out by angry staff. We walked upstairs to the classrooms and approached our lab door. This was the first test … how would he do? Connor spoke to the volunteer who took our tickets but made poor eye contact. So far, so good. Note to self: keep working on eye contact.
We found a work station and were almost immediately joined by a jolly COSI team member named Sam, who had a permanent smile. I liked this guy already; he was perfect to work with my son! I introduced myself and my son, lowering my voice to mouth the words “autism” and “ADHD” before realizing how ridiculous that was. Or was it? My son pouted and stomped his feet asking why everyone had to be told “private stuff”.
Connor was thrilled to be told he would indeed be allowed to use all the equipment, including the long-awaited soldering iron. A brown box I didn’t recognize was introduced as an exhaust fan for each work station to whisk away fumes. Fumes? This wasn’t in the class description? Special needs parents do diligent research and design social encounters so that their child won’t fail. Connor had just been diagnosed with asthma. I looked around as I took out the bag with his emergency inhaler, tubing and mask. Another test, I winced. I explained the items and was told that was fine. Thank goodness! Connor had been looking forward to this class for weeks. It would devastate him to be led out now. I saw another mother looking over with pity and judgment in her eyes as she made sure her Eagle Scout, Prom-King son the same age as mine didn’t walk over to socialize.
Time and reality quickly changed with anxiety fleeing as the instructor got the class rolling. Connor turned his back to me, facing the male volunteer at the table instead. I tried not to let the obvious reference to the ongoing divorce in our lives and the need for a male figure in his life hurt my feeling. Sam patiently guided Connor through the multiple steps, as I snapped pictures and watched my son in his element. The meltdown and horror scenes never came, and my son had the time of his life. He excelled at the project, and for an hour or so, my son wasn’t “Asperger’s” or “Bipolar” or any label except a bright young man with a future in STEM.
I ignored the curious and sometimes judgmental looks of other parents as they clearly labeled me a “helicopter parent” instead of knowing my son had only just been diagnosed with asthma and could have fallen to the floor unable to breathe. While there, I asked about class scholarships for future workshops and was disappointed as a soon-to-be-single mother of two special needs children to find none existed. I was also saddened to discover that no classes specifically targeting special needs children were offered. I can’t decide if mailing the directors of COSI a letter suggesting these changes and offering my help would be seen as a great suggestion or an act of arrogance.
The parent of a special needs child is always in the spotlight of judgment. We are “darned if we do and darned if we don’t”. We are either coddling our spoiled, pretentious off-spring or demanding too much of fragile individuals.
With all respect, as a special needs parent, I don’t want your judgment, pity or charity. I need your acceptance so that my children can contribute the amazing potential they show to the world. Please don’t immediately jump to conclusions about how I’m hovering over my child or ignoring their behavior. But by all means, bring your son or daughter over and ask to sit with us!
And schools, workshops and institutions — please invite us into your world, and listen with open minds when we suggest changes to your offerings in order to accommodate our children. You never know … you may just be installing a wheelchair ramp or offering sign-language for the next Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking.
All children are beautiful and have enormous potential. Let’s design our world so they can shine!