Last night, my seven year old Jack was screaming in his bunk bed. Being non-verbal, he couldn’t tell us what was wrong, so his younger brother Sam decided to calm him down with a song:
“God loves you, Jack. You’re His special boy…”
Why is Jack a special boy? Why are any of our kids with autism “special?” We know they are. We know that even in the worst of times, behind the tantrums, the absent stares, the flapping hands, there is immeasurable value.
But what, exactly, makes them special?
I’ve seen so many precious Facebook memes with adoring one liners enforcing the value of our kids. “Nothing wrong.” “Different, not less.” There are pictures of Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein remind us of the possibilities: our kids are uniquely gifted, if only we take the time to unearth their brilliance.
And we dig our fingers into that potential. Especially if our child’s condition is severe. Our kids will have their coming out party, and at last everyone will know their worth.
I wonder if it’s gone too far, this preoccupation with giftedness. I worry that we talk about it too much. The outside world tells us that a person’s value is linked to his or her ability to contribute to society. It’s a lie. A bullying lie. But instead of dismissing the lie, we play along.
“My kid will contribute too. In big ways. You’ll see.”
And I wonder about other special needs parents, especially those dealing with severe mental retardation. They can’t easily fall back on the exotic potential of their child’s condition. What if there is no hopeful prognosis, and their child is never walk or get out of diapers? What if he is never able to think profoundly, or make art, or contribute to the general good? Does that make him any less special than other “special kids?”
Sam added one line to his brother’s song: “God loves you, Jack. You’re His special boy… and I’m a special boy, too.”
The little guy has it right. There is inherent, equal value in all of us. That value knows nothing of aptitude. It has no correlation with contribution. Worth has never been, and never will be, tied to performance. Our children are special because they are living, breathing, human beings. Every cell in their body has inherent worth.
Does that mean we shouldn’t cheer them on to great accomplishments? Of course not! Every child deserves to be celebrated. Every victory needs a party. It is right and good to look for brilliance, and even hope for it. That’s one of our first jobs as parents: to be their cheerleaders. (Shout out to the Boy Genius!)
The danger comes when we cheer for the victories instead of the children.
As a father, my chief aim, then, is to love my son not for what he can give but for who he is. Today. Yes, he has gifts, and I get excited every time we unearth a new one. But Jack’s accomplishments have never defined him, and they never will. He is my son, and he is fashioned in the image of God himself. He may learn, unlearn, grow, shrink back, excel, and even fail, but no one will ever take that reality from him.
“I love Jack. He is my special boy.”