While I was taking an introductory college course on the history of education, segregation and discrimination came up. We spent several classes discussing those topics and what role they played in the school setting. As the discussions intensified, the phrase “color blind vs. color conscious” entered the conversation. Color conscious focused on a person’s skin color while color blind did not. Toward the end of the semester, after many lengthy discussions and debates, including ones about how to treat and teach students in special education programs, one of our assignments was to answer the question, “What type of educator will you be, one who is color blind or color conscious?”
I took the position that being “color blind” had more benefits than being “color conscious”. Color blind allowed me to see my students as people first, then see their ability, disability or physical features second. Being color conscious may be needed in some situations in the classroom, but overall, using that outlook exclusively could draw unnecessary or negative attention to an attribute that has no bearing on a person as a whole.
I don’t remember what grade I received on that assignment, but for years, I’ve acted as “color blind” as possible. I see that my children have as well…
As Ronan’s abilities turned into disabilities, we were drawn to other families in similar situations. The more time we spent together with these families, we went from seeking their advice to making play dates with them. We eventually faded out the meet ups we’d been scheduling with typical families as we discovered more common ground with our new friends. My typical kids never complained about not being able to play with the typical friends we used to see. They were happy playing with everyone they met. This included their new friends, many of whom had special needs.
In the beginning, my kids would tread lightly at an initial get together with other special needs families. It wasn’t because they were nervous about the child they’d encounter because we never mentioned that they had differences; they were nervous because the setting was unfamiliar. Once they knew the rules of the house, and were told what they could and could not do, my kids jumped right in and played.
The host family’s child, who usually had similar issues as Ronan, was invited to join their play. While it was sometimes quite obvious that child had many delays, my children only saw the child. On some occasions, my kids were successful in getting everyone to play together. Other times they were not. They never let on that they were disappointed when it didn’t work out. They would try next time for everyone to be included.
My kids didn’t think to differentiate between who was able and who was not in those attempts to involve everyone. Many times they never realized that their friend had a diagnosis which could limit their involvement. Friends were friends no matter their color, ability, disability or level of development. Over time, my typical children have gained knowledge of why some children do things differently. With that knowledge they’ve learned a valuable life lesson: to treat people with compassion no matter who they are and no matter what they can and cannot do.
My kids are not the kind to point, label or get hung up on why others are different. As far as they know, all of their friends are typical in development. That thought allows my kids to be “color blind” toward everyone they meet. This includes my oldest who, even after years of playdates with a particular friend and her children, both of whom have several diagnoses, does not see those diagnoses that each of the children carries. That attitude is why the following conversation made my heart swell with pride.
My oldest walked in while I was reading an article in my office about a young boy with Down syndrome. Peeking over my shoulder she said, “Down syndrome? What is that?”
I looked at her bewildered, and said, “Down Syndrome? You don’t know what that is?”
She stared at me blankly. I stared back.
Still waiting for me to answer her, she said, “Mom, tell me. What is it?”
Still in awe that our friends’ children’s diagnosis have gone unbeknownst to her, I stammered, “It’s a...it’s um...”
I know what Down syndrome is, but I was so taken aback that I had no idea what to say or how to describe it. I hugged her instead and said, “I love you, honey.”
Now it was my daughter’s turn to look somewhat confused.
She sat down next to me. I shared with her what Down syndrome was. We looked up the information and talked about genetics. We looked at some websites and talked about all aspects of Down syndrome. I then added that we had friends whose children had Down syndrome, but I never said the children’s names.
After a few more minutes of talking and reading, out spilled the questions, “Can kids with Down syndrome talk? Can they go to school? Can they play?”
I told her yes, yes and yes. We talked some more. That conversation lead to another. And another. We circled back to Down syndrome after talking about other diagnoses. We talked about the struggles some kids have, including the kids we knew because they not only had Down syndrome, some of them had a secondary diagnosis of autism. Nodding her head, she knew all too well that struggle that accompanies the autism diagnosis her younger brother has.
At this point, my other children had gathered around and were now quietly listening in. Wrapping up the conversation, I asked, “Thinking about what I’ve described, do you remember who those children are that we know who have a Down syndrome diagnosis?”
My oldest thought and thought and thought. She looked at me and looked away. Going back in her memory, I could see that she was picturing all of the families we knew. She was scanning their faces. She was scanning their children’s faces. She was remembering play dates, park dates and parties and get togethers we’d hosted.
Taking a deep breath, she said, “Nope.”
Good girl, I thought.
She looked at me and asked, “Will you tell me who they are?”
I smiled and replied, “Nope.”
Why draw attention to a label that does has nothing to do with the friendship and bond we’ve created?
I am grateful that my daughter is sensitive and respectful of others. I’m thankful that she never sees the physical differences of the medically fragile and severely disabled children we personally know. She doesn’t see the disability but sees and plays with someone who invites peace. She never picks up on the behaviors of one of the children that easily interrupts his activity but enjoys moments of happiness with him instead. She never realizes that so-and-so is not just a little bit different than she is but is a great deal different and in so many areas. Instead of diagnosis or a label, she sees a person, a child, and most importantly, a friend.
Every positive encounter my children create with their friends fosters communication, friendship and social skill development, not just for themselves, but for all of the kids involved. The bonus is that it’s all done subconsciously and with love. I know this isn’t the case for every family, but my hope is that my children, and those other super siblings who keep the same color blind outlook, teach others how easy it is to be respectful and kind toward another. Imagine if more people, including, and especially, adults, could see our child first as a child and never as a label. What a beautiful thing that would be.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.