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Special Needs, Special Love

  • Hal Runkel, LMFT ScreamFree Parenting
  • 2008 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Special Needs, Special Love

During college, it was commonplace for me to enter into philosophical conversations about the nature of things. What is truth? What is beauty? What is love?

That last question was always a hot topic. Is love the stuff of romantic fantasies? Or does it only belong to the realm of religious devotion? Most importantly at the time--what does it mean to “like” a girl, and what does it mean to “love” her?

One of my philosophy professors stumbled upon us during one of these speculative conversations, and simply told a story.

He had known a man in his church, a man whose only wife died while giving birth to their only child. Their boy did not escape the tragic birth unscathed, either, unfortunately; it left him practically in a vegetative state. In one afternoon, this man’s life-calling was cast: he would raise an incapacitated son as a widower. The man and son went on to live the rest of their long lives together, my professor explained. And then he showed us that he had been listening to our conversation the whole time.

“You wanna know what love is?” he asked. “Here’s a man who, for the last forty years, has shaved two faces every morning.”

I must confess, I really have no idea what it must be like to be the parent of a child with special needs. Sure, I’ve been around hundreds of kids with physical and mental disabilities, counseled families of such, but that doesn’t mean I know the exhaustion of living with the daily dependencies (and nightly worries) of patiently raising a daughter with severe developmental delays, or stubbornly trying to connect to a son with autism.  

Sure, I watched firsthand as my parents battled my brother’s dyslexia and tragic head injuries, but that doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to watch my own child continuously struggle with reading, or stay up nights reading about head trauma and worrying about its effect on long-term life success.

And sure, I, unfortunately, even know the pain of watching my wife battle cancer. I know all too well the dilemma of struggling to handle the unknown future while dealing with the known, at times miserable, present. But I don’t think for one minute that my experience this past year can tell me of the dilemmas parents must face while deciding upon treatment regimens and school schedules, or the horrible pain they must feel while holding little hands pricked with chemo IVs.

But many of you know these struggles. Many of you live these lives. And I thank you.

I thank you, special needs parents, for all the ways you band together with other parents facing similar struggles. The networks of parents banding together, whether it be because of their autistic children or their cancer-surviving kids, are an inspiration to us all. So many ScreamFree Parenting Groups are forming all over the country because people are recognizing the value of struggling together. Parents of kids with special needs have this awareness thrust upon them, but the rest of us sometimes try to cruise through life (and stumble through relationships) thinking that we’re not supposed to struggle. For letting me watch and become continually aware of how I can benefit from others’ support, I thank you.

I thank you, special needs parents, for your tireless attempts to wrestle with your own conflicting desires. On the one hand, you want the best possible support for your child in their battle, finding the best schools, the top techniques, and the latest research to justify special treatment. On the other hand, you strive to normalize your child and his surroundings, never allowing your child’s special needs to rob them from the joys of “normal” life, nor excuse them from the painful lessons that life has for all of us. Those of us without special needs kids face this same internal battle, wanting to both protect our kids from life’s dangers and yet expose our kids to life’s lessons. For showing me how to fight this battle on both ends, equally holding up both protection and exposure as valuable, I thank you.

I thank you, special needs parents, for your enduring efforts to emotionally connect with your children, even when they cannot connect with you. So many of you, especially those whose children have autism or developmental delays, continue to put yourself in vulnerable positions, looking (and desperately hoping) for the slightest signs that your child can reciprocate your affection. While learning to never need your own emotions reciprocated to keep you going, you can appreciate those fleeting moments with a heartfelt gratitude that few of the rest of us can ever sense. We, instead, place ourselves in an endless chase, needing our children to appreciate us, respect us, or just acknowledge our efforts so that we can feel like good parents. For showing us all that it’s what we do, regardless of what our kids do in return, that validates our parenting, I thank you.

In many ways, all of our kids have special needs, because all of our kids are unique individuals, with unique lessons to learn as they carve their unique paths through life. But so many families out there know what it means to have kids with real special needs, families whose daily experiences, and choices in response to those experiences, give the rest of us hope that life can still go on, hope can still ring true.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is thank you, special needs parents, for teaching me what love is.


Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit http://www.screamfree.com/ for more information.