To the Parents of Kids with Special Needs: They are Beautiful, and So Are You

At the age of 19, I was a student at Kennesaw State University on my 2nd major. I was extremely unsure of what I wanted to do post-graduation until a fateful phone call from my former 6th-grade math teacher. I had registered as a substitute teacher to make some extra money, and the very first sub job I got would change my life.

“It’s kind of a different class,” she said after we reminisced about the awkwardness of 6th grade. “They are great boys, but they all have a diagnosis of autism. You’ll have an assistant with you. I really hope you’ll do it!”

I was a little hesitant, I’ll admit. But it was one day. So, I said yes, and I’m so thankful that I did.

I immediately went home that night and told my parents I was going to change my major (again), but that this time, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach special education. They were skeptical but supportive, even though it meant changing schools. Two years later, I walked out of the University of North Georgia with a degree in Special Education and walked into my first job at my elementary school alma mater, Little River.

I spent the next 8 years in a variety of special education classes. I taught kids in pull-out programs, inclusion classes, and self-contained classes. Teaching kids with diagnoses of learning disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, and behavior disorder. I taught kids who have since passed away or have gone on to graduate from high school. There were all kinds of kids and all kinds of parents in all kinds of schools. It was an exhausting and exhilarating job and I’m so thankful I got to be a small part of each of those families’ lives.

Why? Because I saw strength in those children that astounded and inspired me. I watched them struggle to do things that came so easily to their typical peers. And I celebrated mightily with them when they overcame obstacles that seemed insurmountable. I witnessed the rest of the world underestimating them and smiled when they blew expectations out of the water. I listened when they talked about being treated differently or called names. Bearing witness to their lives, I have seen the best and worst of the human spirit.

As a teacher, I have also worked with the parents of these kids. I have cried with parents at IEP meetings and watched moms and dads fight with everything they have to get what is best for their child. I have celebrated with them and been frustrated with them. And, I have been hugged by them, and yes, yelled at by them. All of it has been a blessing.

So, to the parents, I want to say this. I see you and how hard you work for your child. I see the exhaustion that goes beyond that of a normal parent and the frustration with how difficult the little things are and the joy in small accomplishments. How you really don’t like being told how strong you are because most days you feel overwhelmed and weak. I see how it hurts your heart when your child is snubbed or laughed at or misunderstood. And I see how it brings tears of joy to your eyes when they are included and befriended and treated like any other kid.

But most of all, I see your kids. Some of them are my family, some are my friends, some I only see from the pages of social media. All of them are beautiful. All of them have purpose and important things to teach the world around them. They are resilient, they are fierce, sometimes they make you crazy, and they are blessings. They fight hard battles that so many of us don’t know about and they overcome in so many little ways. I am so thankful for your kids and how they make me appreciate life and the beauty around me just a little bit more.

I never substituted again after that first job. But I will forever be grateful for that day in 1997 and those 4 boys.