I once had a summer job working at a day camp with children who had special needs. I learned a lot about the Autism Spectrum and Downs Syndrome. I would come home and jot down thoughts in a journal. What it means to be human, what it means to be happy. I typed out all the handwritten notes from several years ago.
I will no longer take for granted the ability to form thoughts and communicate them. You would think this is simple, it is easy, it is what we all can do. Really it’s a miracle. And we can’t all do this. Who is “we”? That which is alive and breathing, standing upright if so gifted, neurons firing, cells, DNA, the systems of our heart, lungs, bones, muscles, skin. The science of it is a wonder. Here we are.
You might have a pet in your family, you love it, speak to it and know it understands, do everything possible to meet its needs. You pet it, it nuzzles you back, you know there is love, but no words. There was a study done that showed to cuddle an animal reduces stress hormone and makes you happier and live longer. It is equivalent to human contact. But then there are those, such as in China, that harvest Fido and Spot and Fluffy and Smokey and think of them only as meat, as lesser life forms. They are animals, they can’t talk.
We are humans. We rule the world, with greed and ignorance, living in fear of protecting our things, making bombs and keep-out signs. Half of marriages end in divorce. Depression, cancer, and strange new diseases seem to be on the rise. Where is the love? We turn our backs, look the other way, pretend it does not exist. We are made uncomfortable, it is rude to stare.
You are so glad there is no one with a severe handicap in your family, but you are mistaken. There was another study done where people were given twenty dollars. One group kept the money, the other were told to give it away. Do you know which group reported that they were happier and more satisfied? I can see the love in their hearts reaching out. I also see a black shell formed on others, standing in the elevator muttering contempt for the planet to strangers, drivers cutting you off, changing lanes to get ahead, get ahead, go faster, stressed to pain at the injustice of the speed limit.
I would give away the twenty dollars, feel the rewards of generosity and providing for those in need. There was a man I would see at the local pub. He would play the game machine where you can win a stuffed animal by grasping at one in a tangled mess of them, with a metal pincer on a crane. Reaching for an arm or an ear hanging out, anything you can grab. If you want to win, you have to go for the ones that are near the top, overlooked. If you go for the ones everyone wants, they are always deeper and less realistic to get. You’ll try to grab it and it will slip away every time. This is why I never gamble. So the man goes for quantity over quality, winning all the stuffed animals he can, eventually uncovering that dog at the bottom with the deceptive ears that you think the crane can tug free. After all those toonies and loonies he uses for the game, he turns around and gives all the prizes to the girls he thinks are pretty, the boys that remind him of himself when he was that age. One night the crane game was out of order, he handed out money. People were shocked and delightfully thrilled, he had just made their night. People feel obliged to be friendly towards him, his soul is made of love, he has found a way to keep the crust from building over his heart. Some think he is deficient, a crazy old man wasting his money, but he seems happy to me. Someone always takes the stuffed animals home, left lying on the tables or floor at the end of the night.
The children I work with were born different. They are here to teach us kindness, acceptance, patience, nurturing. This job makes my heart feel good. I watch two teenage boys play, laughing and happy, spontaneously creating their own games. One removes his hat, and tries to take off the other boy’s hat. The second puts the first boy’s hat back on his head, they laugh. Hats on, hats off. They clasp hands, rocking back and forth with each other. In unison as a pendulum staring into each other’s eyes. Filled with joy and belonging, each continuously winning their game, no words are used. Babies laugh and smile before they can speak, happiness is an instinct.
I know when my student is happy. He smiles and laughs and attempts speech. He is non-verbal in a very verbal way. He loves speaking into the walkie-talkie, his language that he is fluent in that I am foreign to. I can pick up on his tone and inflection and pauses. When I think he is asking me something, I always answer in the affirmative and try to repeat words I think he said. But then when I ask him something, he too always answers yes. He has learned how to make a “ya” sound, has had it repeated back, reinforced, rewarded. By his actions I know he doesn’t always mean yes. We are a bit like a foreigners in another country with a language barrier. Smile and nod.
Does he know the words he’s trying to say, but is physically unable to form them with his mouth and tongue? Is he just playing with sound? Birds can be trained to mimic human speech. They can also count, among other instances of proof of animal intelligence. I watched a boy sort blocks according to like characteristics. All the square cubes, including small toys that had gotten in with the blocks, were in one pile. Another pile was rectangles and cylinders. He separated out all the blocks shaped like train cars that can be connected together with magnets. Another boy sitting nearby grabbed one of the train cars and chewed on one end. It was immediately removed and put in the sink to be sanitized.
There are children staring at the bowling alley. Aren’t you lucky, that you were born normal. Is it politically incorrect to say normal? It’s difficult pushing someone down a sidewalk in a wheelchair, getting down a gravelly curb to cross a road, pedestrian lights flashing, but they don’t all stop. Look the other way, ignore. It’s difficult. Those with the use of their legs and feet take for granted the ease of walking up a hill, over the obstacles they hardly notice. I can’t imagine the agony of not being able to get up, to walk, to run, be free.
It could be me. How could I ever feel down when I have so many gifts? I can form thoughts and communicate them, make social interactions, feed myself, use the toilet by myself. It’s all such a miracle so easy to overlook. How can anything else be so important that you would dwell in able-bodied negativity.
They are as alive as me. What goes on in their minds? This is what they’ve always known, and they may not be aware of the things crucial to my life. I see my selfishness. Why would something important to me be important to them? They give without taking, twenty dollars in a study, cheap stuffed toys, they give perspective. Who is happy? These children will always be with people who care about them. I stare at their face, I watch their eyes. We are taught it is rude to stare, but it’s human nature.