I’ve been doing this “special needs parenting” thing for almost two decades. Nineteen years ago last week, my daughter was born prematurely, spent almost two months in the NICU, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. My son, now eleven, was born with Down syndrome. I have never known what it’s like to parent a typical child.
Not once in my life have I ever wished either of them were different, despite the challenges. My daughter has said on many occasions that she wouldn’t take away her cerebral palsy, even if she could, because without it she would not be the person she is today. The same is true for my son - Nathan would not be Nathan without Down syndrome, and Nathan is a wonderful gift to our family and to the world.
But let’s be honest. It’s hard to watch your children struggle, whether due to their own choices or simply because they live in a world that is not made for them. Our daily lives have always felt rather ordinary, but when we venture outside the differences are much more stark, in large part because of the way the world reacts to (or ignores) my children. I often wonder why it’s so difficult for people to see that what makes my children different makes them special - not just “special needs.”
My daughter walks slowly and falls a lot. She sometimes uses a wheelchair or arm crutches and has an unusual gait. She also has a quick wit, a determined spirit, a sharp mind, and a strong faith in God. Why do so many choose not to take the time to learn about her, the person?
My son is intellectually delayed. His speech is sometimes difficult to understand, and he is reluctant to talk when he doesn’t think he’ll be understood. He also has brilliant comedic timing, boundless enthusiasm for life, a loving spirit, and a gift for empathy. Why do so many dismiss him as unworthy of their time?
It helps to imagine the experience of Mary following the birth of Jesus. She knew her son was special - the angel Gabriel told her so himself! - but he came into the world in a very un-special way. She was told that “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High...and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33) but surely it must have crossed her mind to wonder when people would see what she saw in her Son.
Many never did see Him for who He was. But some did.
Shepherds stopped what they were doing to go and worship Him. Though Matthew’s account of the magi is lacking in detail, we do know they traveled a long way to worship Him and to offer Him precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They knew He was special from the beginning, even though the rest of the world paid Him little attention.
In my years as a special needs mom, many “shepherds” and “magi” have crossed our paths. The coach who encouraged my daughter to join the swim team, even though she couldn’t walk all that well, became a mentor and an advocate for her as she got older. Our neighbors across the street routinely invite my son to come over and play with their girls, ride bikes with the family, or go to dinner - his struggles to communicate don’t seem to bother them at all. These are just two examples in a long list of, well, special people who have seen my children for who they are, recognized their worth, and embraced them fully during their young lives.
Sometimes it’s tough to face a world that doesn’t see what you see in your children. But never forget that your experience was shared by Mary, the mother of Jesus. The world at large may not have known Him, but a few did, and they are the ones whose story continues to be told.
Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at https://andisligh.com/