From “the look” to an introduction: How Special Needs Families meet

Owen and I have been crashing a swim class.  Well, okay, we were invited to crash it, but it still feels a little  shifty because I haven’t paid any money to torture my son while signing songs in the water.

Let me back up and explain a little about how it came to be.  We finally got Kellen signed up for his first swim lessons.  On the first day the head of the program stopped over to introduce herself and noticed Owen sitting on my lap.  She mentioned there was still one spot open in the Aquatots class going on at the other end of the pool at the same time as Kellen’s Frog class.  If I wanted to bring suits for Owen and I, we could join in the next class.

I’ve been wanting to get Owen into the water.  At the same time, I was leery.  He had some pretty big fears the last time we tried to get him in water and I didn’t want to be the parent with the kid everyone was staring at while their kid was having a fit.  All those babies and young toddlers at the end of the pool seemed to love the water.  I knew Owen wouldn’t have the same initial reaction.

As if to prove my point, a father and his two children soon walked in and headed towards the Frogs side of the pool.  Right away I noticed the sweet looking little girl with her miraflex glasses and slightly turned gate.  I also noticed the look of apprehension as the father said to the two teenaged instructors, “my wife already talked to you about our situation, right?”

The girl’s anxiety was palpable.  For someone who hasn’t seen a child have a sensory reaction, or at least understood it for that, it probably looks like a child being really unruly or just unreasonable. She clung to her dad and screamed as she sat on the ledge and her toes first touched the water.  I tried not to stare…my stare wasn’t because I couldn’t understand what was happening.  My stare was because I knew exactly what was happening.  I stared because I wanted to encourage her and because I wanted to encourage the father who was remaining calm but was obviously aware of the scene his daughter’s anxiety was causing.

The girl never did get in the water that day.  I never got close enough to really say anything.  I’m still pretty new to this special need parenting thing, but I felt like it’d be okay to say something like, “I don’t know your daughter’s diagnosis, but I recognize some of the manifestations…I understand.  She did really great today.”

Two days later, it was my turn.  It was Owen’s first time going in the water.  I was encouraged to see that the little girl was much calmer and joined Kellen in the water.  Her parents clearly worked with her to see such a drastic change.  I knew I just had to do the same with Owen.

I’m happy to report, he didn’t scream the whole time.  He mostly whimpered with a few loud screams and cries and a couple hesitant smiles when I’d lift him in the air and splash him back into the water.  Over the next several classes, I noticed the parents (who take turns bringing their kids) of the little girl, and had the little brother in the same class as Owen were giving us the look.  They always had an encouraging smile for Owen…the one that says, “I understand”.

Last night, the Aquatots class was not well attended and it was only me, the dad of the girl, and one other father in the class.  He asked me how old Owen was and smiled and said his son was also two.  A few minutes later, he heard Owen say a word or two and he asked, in a kind way, if he’s starting to talk.  I know I’ve posted in the past that I don’t feel like I shouldn’t HAVE to explain Owen’s delays…but in this case, I WANTED to explain.  I knew he’d understand.  I let him know Owen was born very early and that he has some developmental delays.  He did understand.  He confirmed my suspicion that his daughter has Cerebral Palsy.  He asked if Owen had mobility issues too?  I responded, “He doesn’t have a CP diagnosis, but he has some similarities to those with CP and he uses a walker and AFOs”  The dad laughed as he said, “I understood every one of those acronyms you just used.”

Aquatots is a 30 minute class and Frogs is a 40 minute class.  As we got out of the pool with the little ones to wait for the bigger kids, the dad said to me, “I’m glad we got the chance to talk.  It’s not too often I get to meet other families with children with special needs.  It’s always nice to meet people who understand.”  We spent the next 10 minutes talking about our kids, the stupid things people say to us and the lack of understanding of feeding disorders.  His daughter does eat, but due to muscle control issues she can gag or retch easily.

Over the last several weeks, our families have been giving each other the “I understand” looks, but we hadn’t talked.  We only have one more week of swim classes.  I feel like I missed out by not being bolder sooner.  The path from exchanging glances to meeting and starting up a conversation with other special needs families isn’t well-defined for me, but I’ve found it’s always worth while when it does happen.  I’m grateful for the families ahead of us who are helping me learn about the importance of our community

© Copyright Tatum, All rights Reserved. Written For: Ain't No Roller Coaster

5 thoughts on “From “the look” to an introduction: How Special Needs Families meet

  1. I have gotten completely bold when it comes to other special needs parents. I introduce myself, chat with their kids, etc. I leave my phone number or e-mail if I feel like it is appropriate. Even if their child’s needs are different from my son’s, I know how nice it is to know that someone understands and isn’t judging my parenting. We swap stories and situations and sometimes gripe. I’ve found it very refreshing.

  2. I had a similar experience at swim lessons!! 🙂 I noticed a girl using her cane like a pro come in with her dad. After seeing Drew use his cane, he came up to me and asked if my son had a visual impairment. I said yes and he told me about this group of parents of kids who are blind or visually impaired that meet casually for play dates. We exchanged contact info, and I was really glad he introduced himself!

  3. OMG do I know that look. I have given it and had it and the fact is, that I am so very grateful for it when it’s the real look. Because, as you know, we also get the Other Look – the one that implies we’re doing something wrong, and “oh poor you” and you know, the one that makes us (me anyway because you are nicer than I am) tell that person to ____off (I won’t sully your beautiful blog with the F word that I’d use on my own).

    Tucker has failed three “Mommy and Me” swim classes so far. The first, I didn’t know what was “wrong.” The second, I suspected, and the third, I knew enough to warn the staff and other parents…
    Sadly, we got the ugly look of “why are you taking your kid out of the pool because he’s upset – he will get used to it and learn that blowing bubbles is fun” when I knew that we needed to get out of the pool rightnow rightnow, take deep breaths, have fun, have a squeeze and re-enter at my son’s okayness. Which was often at the end of class.

    I’m glad you found commonality and support. You are so right – we all receive stares and most of the time they suck. But every now and then? They’re perfectly perfect because they mean that we’re finding people who do get it. They do, because they live a similar life.

    Same with blogging, sweets. So dang glad I found you.

  4. I am guilty of giving “the look” and then feeling awkward about it and never actually talking to the other parent. I’ve gotta work on that! Cause I think it’s always a little injection of “good vibes” when you connect with someone who gets it. Even if it’s just after one swim class.