My family lives in a quiet cul-de-sac—a peaceful little tree-lined oasis—with ten young children in the nearby homes. It’s really the perfect place to raise a family. In the summer, there’s always someone zipping around the large concrete circle on a bike or wobbling around it on a new pair of roller skates. In the winter, it’s equally idyllic. Families build snowmen, children throw snowballs, and adults clear off each other’s driveways.
The children in the cul-de-sac all know and love my daughter, JJ. They’re used to seeing her hand-in-hand with her parents as we practice walking her stumbling feet to the nearby mailbox. They’ve grown accustomed to the little yellow school bus that drops her off every afternoon at our door. And they recognize the purple adaptive stroller we use to push her to the park on the days when she doesn’t feel up to walking.
But even though these children are familiar with JJ and her differences, this doesn’t mean they know how to interact with her. Whenever they knock on our door, it’s because they want to play with my typically developing seven-year-old, RoRo.
My youngest daughter travels around the world in what feels like a little bubble. No one really knows what to say or do around her, probably because they don’t know what’s going on in her mind. Can she understand what people are saying? Is she intellectually disabled? Does she have any sort of communication system? People have no way of knowing unless they ask, and most are too embarrassed to do so. They usually just end up smiling at her and moving on. Occasionally, I intervene by explaining my daughter’s cognitive abilities or helping others navigate a conversation with her. Otherwise, JJ’s bubble of social isolation remains firmly intact.
This might have gone on indefinitely—even in our caring little neighborhood circle—if not for an exciting new addition to our family’s home. The summer after she turned four, JJ received a custom electric car built for her by a local non-profit organization, Learn’s Geeks for Kids. In this organization, adult volunteers and high school robotics teams take small motorized toy Jeeps and customize them so that disabled children can drive them. Because the cars have two seats, a friend can even come along for the ride.
Of course, a toy like this is a magnet for children. After the grand unveiling of JJ’s car, the children of the neighborhood lined up in our driveway. They were desperate to ride next to her or to use the remote-control function and help drive the car from afar. Whenever the kids saw JJ zipping around the cul-de-sac, they would burst out of their front doors and beg for a turn. Then my husband and I would strap them in next to JJ, demonstrate all of the car’s functions, and do our best to manage the general chaos. We also did one more important thing. We made sure the children remembered that this was JJ’s car. She was the one deciding when she wanted to use it, who could ride next to her, and when she was ready to be done.
Thanks to the car, JJ’s bubble of isolation slowly began to crack. One day, a few weeks after the car’s arrival, she let me know that she wanted to invite the boy next door to ride with her. Never before had my daughter shown any interest in playing with another child, so I rushed to his house to ask him. Together, they had a wonderful time. A month later, the siblings from four doors down stood on our doorstep, asking to see RoRo. After I told them she wasn’t available, they remained on our porch for a second, hesitating. Then the little girl seemed to come to a decision. She looked at me and cocked her head. “Well, then can JJ come out instead?”
In that moment, I understood what the car had done for our neighborhood. It had transformed JJ from the girl you just smiled and waved at into a potential playmate.
At first, it seemed like the most important piece in all of this was the car itself. It was tempting to believe that all you needed in order to spark another child’s interest and ignite a friendship was to find the right toy or device. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was another piece of the puzzle that had to be in place. A parent or responsible adult needed to be there to guide the action.
Most of us are used to looking down on helicopter parents—those micromanaging, controlling busybodies who hover over their offspring, robbing their children of independence and autonomy. My husband and I have always been careful to avoid this kind of behavior with our oldest daughter. We almost never intervene in her neighborhood squabbles and refrain from commenting on the constantly shifting alliances. Our neighbors do the same. They’ll work it out themselves seems to be the cul-de-sac’s motto.
But with JJ—as with many special needs children—the situation calls for something different. Often, these children need an adult there when they play with their typically developing peers. That adult fills an essential role: facilitating communication, encouraging interaction, and sometimes—in the case of physical disabilities—helping with movement. More important, though, is their function as a role model. They show other children how we talk to and treat someone who isn’t like us.
Children’s minds are agile and their attitudes flexible. They have the potential to be more open-minded than many of the adults around them. And they’re smart. They know when someone is different. Skimming over these differences, insisting that our child is “just like any other child their age” is likely to cause further isolation. Why? Because it’s the best way to lose credibility. Instead, we need to be open and honest about any neurological, physical, or behavioral differences in our child. The conversations we have with our child’s peers are good things because they allow us to frame these differences in the way that we want.
Over the past few years, the neighborhood children have asked me many questions about JJ. “Why can’t she walk normal?” “Why is she moving like that?” “Why can’t she talk?”
These questions are never asked with ill intent. The children are simply curious. This is why I’ll always take the time to answer honestly. “JJ’s brain is different than ours,” I’ll say to them. “It has trouble telling her body what to do. It makes it hard for her to walk and talk and do all the things the rest of us do.” Then, with her differences addressed, I will move on to the things I want the children to appreciate about JJ. “She’s also sharp,” I’ll add. “She understands everything we say. She knows everything going on around her.”
The children never question this. They just nod or shrug, content with my answer. For them, it seems to be enough. JJ might be noticeably different, but she is also just another part of their daily reality.
I like to view our tiny, secluded corner of the neighborhood as a microcosm—a stand-in for the larger world. Since JJ’s disabilities have surfaced, it has also become my family’s small-scale social experiment. What we’re creating here—the attitudes, perceptions, and relationships—won’t remain contained forever. Someday, the children in our cul-de-sac will grow up and leave home. And when they do, each of them will take with them their own understanding about what it means to be different.
Perhaps an electric car, an expanse of concrete, and a little girl can’t change the world in any meaningful way. But if you add in adults who model inclusion and a receptive audience of small children, you never know.
It just might be enough.
How does your child make friends and/or interact with their typically developing peers? What role do you play in these relationships? Let me know in the comments below.