Now, before you think this post is going to be some hateful rant, calm yourself and read on. My brother was diagnosed in 1995 at the age of 3 with Autism, and I’ve been an advocate for the rights of special needs children ever since. However, about a week ago I found myself re-evaluating how I react to those with special needs.
Long story short, my brother has been participating in the Special Olympics for the past couple of years, and every year I try to attend his regional competition, which is located at one of our local high schools. This year, as my family and I sat down in the school’s cafeteria to relax before heading to the gym, a young, special needs athlete named Cole from one of the other teams walked up to our table, introduced himself, and started carrying on a conversation with me and my parents. Cole was hilarious, but at the same time he was very nosy and kept apologizing for asking questions. After awhile, he began to solely ask me personal questions, and it seemed he wanted to be friends (or something more) and know every detail of my life. I can’t lie, even though I spend a lot of my time around individuals with special needs, I was uncomfortable around Cole. Hell, I’m uncomfortable around all strangers! Finally, Cole’s dad realized that his son was talking our ears off and came over to our table to introduce himself and redirected his son to the gym.
The weird and sad part of all this was I felt a sense of relief and a burden lifted off my shoulders when he walked away. Phew, don’t have to deal with him again, I thought. But, I was actually wrong…Turns out, as luck would have it, Cole’s group ended up sitting next to my brothers, so I had to pass him on my way into the gym. Once Cole saw me, he immediately stood up and rushed to my side.
“How are you doing, ma’am?” he said as wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
“Great!” I said, mustering up every ounce of pep I had.
“Would you mind if I sat with you for awhile?” he proceeded.
“Um, I think we’re supposed to sit with our teams,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t have to sit with mine, that’s the point I’m trying to make,” he shot back.
Thankfully, before the moment got any more awkward, one of Cole’s coaches called him over to sit with his team. And, of course, the fun didn’t stop there. After the opening ceremonies, I noticed Cole coming over to my brother’s team. To avoid another uncomfortable encounter, I used my brother’s larger build as a barricade and hid behind him until Cole was finished talking to my brother’s teammates. Seriously, this kid would not let up. He seemed to be doing everything to try and get my attention.
And, of course, once I thought I was free of him, it turned out he was competing against my brother under the same division…that meant I was going to have to run into him again at the awards ceremony after the competition.
Flash forward to the awards ceremony and my brother took first place (of course he did, we’re related). So, after all of the pictures are taken and everyone disappears, Cole came running up to my family, and that’s when I decided to make a break for it. I grabbed my things and briskly walked down the hall to hide in the women’s restroom. Cole saw that I was busting my ass to getaway and yelled after me, “DON’T YOU WALK AWAY FROM ME YOUNG LADY!” And then..he proceeded to ask my dad what my name was. Of course, my father thought this whole thing was hilarious and told Cole…who ended up screaming my name down the hallway until I disappeared.
Just at the point where I thought I had gotten rid of him, I realized that the exit door was at the other end of the building, which meant I would have to walk past the cafeteria where I last saw Cole. After a few minutes, I stuck my head out of the bathroom only to find him talking to someone right outside of the cafeteria. Well, eventually Cole’s new found friend decided to head back towards the gym and get some popcorn, which prompted Cole to follow him. I realized then and there that it was now or never. I swiped up my stuff and RAN towards the exit. FREEDOM! I thought as I reached the parking lot. And as my family and I drove away, all I could think was, I’m safe now…
As I reflect back on the day that I had with Cole at regionals, of course I feel awful, but I’ve realized that even if he didn’t have special needs, I would have treated him the same way. With this situation, I’m reminded of the VERY FEW TIMES I’ve ever been “hit on” at bars while I was in college by guys that I had absolutely no interest in getting to know. And, what did I do in those situations? I politely blew them off, just like I did with Cole. I had no interest in hanging out with Cole that day. I was there to watch my brother kick ass and take names. And, I have a boyfriend. I’m not looking for any more male companions. And, did Cole suffer? Of course not! Being the friendly guy that he is, when I wasn’t around him he ended up talking to so many more people who were willing to engage in a bit of a conversation with him.
Personally, I think there’s this argument out there that we have to treat individuals with special needs as a “special case,” or be nicer to them than we would someone who doesn’t have special needs because they “unfortunately can’t be normal functioning adults in today’s society.” And most days, I think that’s a bunch of crap. With all of the special needs individuals that I’ve gotten to know through my years of volunteering and meeting my brother’s friends, people with special needs don’t want to be treated as “special cases,” they want to be seen and treated as though they don’t have a disability. They want to be treated how we want to be treated…like a human being. So, if you’re not interested in forming a connection with them, don’t! They rather have a genuine connection than put up with something that is forced….and wow, what does that sound like? Hmmmm, how about something that everyone wants, no matter age, race, gender, etc. So, at the end of the day I’m not advocating for everyone to go out there and treat individuals with special needs like shit. Of course not! Treat them as they are, human beings, and form a genuine connection that the both of you will benefit from.
Granny Smith – over and out