What Differently Abled Children Have Taught Me, their Guardian

Ace - A Gender Variant Christian drag king describes nes experiences with different abled youth

Originally posted on Ace Shades blog

Over the past thirteen years I have dedicated my life to working with children (specializing with children that are differently abled). The past year has been the most challenging, and the most awarding, as I have been spending most of my time working as a bus paraprofessional for my local school district. This school year I have been blessed with being on the same special needs bus (last year I was a floater and moved around). Though these children can be challenging they have taught me so much and bring me so much joy that I would never trade my time with them.

It is very common for people to respond with ‘oh how lucky those kids are to have someone like you working with them’ or ‘you must teach them so much’. The thing is, they are the ones teaching me. Every day we share they bless me with their wisdom and I would like to share some of the things they have taught me over the years.

  1. I am imperfect and that is okay

One thing that we all know about children. They make mistakes. They have good and bad days. They have moments when they are so unbelievably cute and loving they just make you want to hug them until they pop! Other moments they are driving you insane to the point you want to rip your hair out. There is no such thing as a perfect person. WE have our good and bad days and these kids have taught me that that’s okay. It’s okay to be happy. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be mad, upset, hurt, worried, etc. All of these emotions are a part of being human and being alive. What isn’t okay is when we let our ‘bad’ moods effect other people or use them as an excuse. How did I learn this from the kids I work with? They are so honest about how they feel and they don’t bottle stuff in usually; they express it in any way they can and then move on. With some of my differently abled kids this includes screaming at the top of their lungs and/or banging themselves against whatever surface they can reach. While the physical harm is not a good thing it can really teach us a thing or two when they are absolutely fine after their little ‘fit’. After their fit then they can better express their feelings with me or another adult on why they feel that way. They’ve also taught me that it is okay to not always know why you feel a certain way. Sometimes our bodies are just stressed and that makes us feel off. All of that is okay and we need to let our bodies express it in calm healthy ways. Bottling things up only make things worse

2. Getting dirty is good for you

Children are filthy. They want to make messes and experience everything that they can in a whirl wind of noise, color, and mess. While we do want to keep our kids healthy we do have the tendency to over protect our children when it comes to them getting dirty. We need to learn to relax and let them play in the dirt, jump in puddles, roll in the grass, etc. This is how they experience their world and learn how to express themselves through creation. We also need to join in from time to time. There is nothing more therapeutic then rolling in the grass with a little kid or making a huge mess while painting. That’s why they make non toxic and easy to clean markers and paints. Children should not be shamed for their desire to have fun and get messy; it’s in their nature and we need to respect that while also setting boundaries for their safety and the safety of our furniture.

3. Be flexible in time and mind

One of the first things that children teach us is that things rarely ever go as planned. Honestly that is true with life as a whole, just children bring it to another level. While we want to teach our children how to follow structured schedules and rules; we need to remember and respect that sometimes things are just not going to happen as you plan. This is especially true with special needs children. When working with a differently abled child you can’t always control when they’re going to have a melt down or when a medical issue is going to show up. Also, with children, we not only have to be flexible with time but also with our minds. Each child learns differently which means that there is going to be learning techniques that don’t work on each child. With that we need to be flexible in how we teach and try to work with the child and find ways to help them learn instead of just expecting them to be able to learn the way we want them to.

4. You can’t control everything

Connected to number three there are things that you just can’t control. You can try your best to keep your child(ren) safe and stress free but things happen. Children break bones, scrape themselves up, get their feeling hurt, etc and at times there is nothing we can do to prevent it. These pieces are a part of childhood and living. Children need to experience that things are not always going to go the way that they want or are told they’re going to go. They need to learn how to be safe and sometimes us telling them ‘don’t do this because it’s dangerous’ isn’t enough for them to understand. Sometimes they need to do said action to learn that it isn’t a good idea. Sometimes children get scared and upset over something we can not change and all we can do is comfort them and try to help them process their fear. Sometimes children just don’t respond positively to something that you really hoped they’d like. You can slowly try to introduce them to it to see if they will warm up to it, but sometimes the kid is just not going to like it and we as the adults need to respect that.

5. Death doesn’t always come for the old

The most emotionally harsh lesson these kids have taught me is that it’s not always the old that die. Accidents happen, suicide rates are skyrocketing with our youth, and medical issues take children home far sooner than we desire. A common reaction when I tell people what I do is ‘oh don’t get attached’. That is complete and utter bull. I can’t do my job if I don’t love my kids. I do love them. Every single one of them no matter how long they are in my life. I’m not saying it’s easy because it’s not. Looking at these amazing kids and knowing that; due to their medical diagnosis, this could be the last time you see them, is the hardest part of my job. I also have children that have already attempted suicide and have ended up in the hospital. Sometimes accidents just happen and a child’s life is lost. However, the big lesson here to me is more about loving these kids each and every day I see them and make sure that their time with me is as pleasant as it can be. I want these kids to have as much love and support in their lives as I can effect.

6. Enjoy the small things

Children are notorious for wanting to check out every single ant that’s crawling on the sidewalk or announce every horse that you pass while driving. While at times this can be irritating, especially when you are in a rush to whatever your destination is, we shouldn’t discourage children from doing this. Sometimes we need to get out of our heads and notice the little things around us. Our world is full of little moments and sites that bring out the beauty of the world. Children are excellent at bringing this up because, they are in awe of almost everything they see and touch. So much of it is new to them. We forget to admire what’s around us because we’ve seen it so many times. However, we do need to wake up and remind ourselves of the little things in our world. This lesson also covers the little moments of growth in ‘my kids’ developments. We don’t see a lot of paralyzed children getting up and walking but we do see little steps of improvement everyday in these kids. Be it them saying a word for the first time, or making eye contact with you for the first time. Saying your name. Smiling at you. Giving you a high-five after months of having no desire to have any contact with you. These seem like little things but they are huge to me because it shows that these children are growing and learning to connect with their world. It means that, just in our short amount of time, we have made progress.

7. Watch your tone

It is common for people to talk to little kids in high excited voices that we call ‘baby talk’. While this is usually a positive things with babies and little ones, older kids can not stand it most of the time and find it disrespectful. Just because a child is differently abled does not mean that you have to talk down to them. They know you are and it is highly insulting. Now you may edit how you talk to a child who has a processing issue. That is fine but watch how your voice sounds. They are not babies. They are not stupid. They are children that deserve to be respected just like any other child. One of the best ways to check your tone is to think ‘would I talk to this child this way if they were ‘non differently abled’. If your answer is no then stop it. Again there’s a difference between editing how you communicate with a child then talking down to them. For an example I have a high school student who is fairly high on the Autism spectrum and has issues processing instructions. Instead of going through a long list of instructions I make sure to make it clear and short. I say ‘Please sit down and be safe’ and I give him a minute to process and follow the rules then I go ‘Thank you for listening’ in a very ‘I’m proud of you’ voice that I would use with a non differently abled child the same age.

8. Never judge a child by their appearance and/or their diagnosis

This is one of the most important lessons these children have taught me. It is way too common for people to see a child who’s in a wheelchair and talk to them like they are mentally disabled as well. Remember people one of the most intelligent men alive is almost completely paralyzed and uses a wheel chair. Physical disability does not automatically mean mental disability. Building off that, mental disability does not mean the child is stupid. Just like ‘normal’ children every ‘differently abeled’ child is a unique person with their own talents and challenges. Yes knowing how the disability works and what some of the challenges are, is very helpful in working with these children. However, thinking or saying ‘oh they can’t do this because they’re __’ without even giving them a chance is damaging to the child’s ego. (obviously there are exceptions). Give the child a chance to prove themselves and show what they can and can not do then work with them on their own level. Some of these kids are the most empathetic, intelligent, talented, human beings I have ever met, but sadly far too many people judge them by their appearance/diagnosis and never give them a chance to show themselves. Even if you have a child who is so severe that they are most likely going to be completely dependent the rest of their lives, remember that they are STILL humans. They have feelings and they can tell how you are treating them. They deserve just as much love and respect as any other child.

9. Respecting gets you far

This is true with adults just as much as it is with children. I’ve learned how important it is more so with children because so many people don’t respect children, but expect the child to automatically respect them. A child can sense when you don’t respect them and most view that if you don’t respect them why should they reciprocate? (just like adults). Children are not less than adults and differently abled children are not less then other children/adults. We are all human and we all deserve to be respected and that knowledge will get you far with children. Showing them that they don’t have to ‘work’ for your respect, but that you will give it right away shows them that you actually care about them and they are more willing to work with you and listen. Respect is also taking responsibility for your mistakes and doing so with children shows them first how to take responsibility and then shows them that they can trust you and that you can make mistakes, too.

10. Calm and clear instructions are the best

When working with younger children and some differently abled children going on and on about what you want them to do or why they should do it just makes them shut down and ignore you. On the other hand telling them ‘just do it’ doesn’t teach them why there is a need to follow rules and to make decisions for themselves later on. When talking with kids and explaining why I am asking what I am I’ve found explaining simply ‘it is for your safety’ and then a brief explanation like ‘if you don’t sit down on the bus you will fall and hurt yourself’ is a lot easier for them to understand. I’ve also learned that getting frustrated or upset with a child just makes the situation escalate to the point neither the child or adult are listening to each other. Children push and question as part of their development and it is our job as the adults to explain their boundaries clearly and calmly. Of course you can explain to a child that you are upset with them or that you are frustrated with their behavior but do it in a calm way and again explain the important details of your perspective.

11. Teach and learn with body language

Not all children (especially younger and some differently abled children) feel comfortable, or even can explain, what they are feeling. Body language is a great way of learning how the child is feeling. Obviously each person has their own ways of body communication but there are similarities that humans share that we can observe and use to learn things about that child. What situations upset the child? What situations makes the child feel frightened? What situations make the child feel comfortable? What situations are fun for the child? This is very important with children that are non verbal. They can’t use words to explain their emotions so they vocalize or use their bodies to communicate with us. Using our bodies is also important with children. Being aware of how your body is moving and presenting is important in dealing with any person, but especially with children. If you are showing signs that your body is tense or mad it doesn’t matter what you are saying, the child is going to see your body and respond to that. If you are towering over the child they are going to act out of fear by either lashing out or shutting down. I’ve learned that smaller children respond very well when you move to their level and talk to them like that. Body language is also a great way to teach children about ‘safe hands’ and ‘personal space’. When a child is grabbing or being overly touchy using your words and your body to express ‘that is inappropriate’ helps them understand but mixing the two communications can be very confusing. For example, telling a child that ‘ask before giving a hug’ but you let them hug you before asking confuses them because you just contradicted what you told them. I don’t agree with pushing children away but taking their hands gently or turning to the side to gently block the hug and then say ‘ask before giving a hug’ helps the child understand what you are saying. Once they do as you ask then you go through with the hug  (if it is appropriate at that time).

12. Children deal with a lot more than we think

At least once a week I hear people talk about how easy kids have it and that they’re unappreciative, lazy, etc. Sometimes yes that is the case, but I think that in most cases adults have forgotten the hell childhood can be. When you’re a child everything is new and you have to learn everything for yourself. Yes sometimes examples help but still children need to learn for themselves. They need to hurt, loose, win, etc and every time its new and raw for them. They have to deal with bullying and fitting in and puberty and relationships and how to make relationships work for them, which usually involves a lot of pain and a lot of mistakes. Now talking about children who are differently abled it’s even worse because they have to deal with the idiots in this world. I’ve seen people treat my kids with so much harshness and disrespect that it makes me want to hug the child and shield them from the world, or at least punch the idiot adult’s lights out. They already have to deal with school systems that don’t know how to teach them or are so understaffed that they can’t teach them or parents who can’t afford all the proper care they need because our society’s health care is bullshit. They have to deal with being pointed at, laughed at, stared at, yelled at, told that it’s all in their head, told they’re going to hell, etc. How is that easy? And then with some of these kids they have to live with the knowledge they will never be independent. They will always need someone to take care of them and that’s got to hurt sometimes. Childhood is not easy and we need to stop telling kids that it is.

13.Don’t take things personally

Kids say the darndest things and they rarely have filters. They also don’t always know exactly the power of the words that they’re saying. I have lost count of how many times children have screamed ‘I hate you!’ at me when they haven’t gotten their way and then,a few minutes later, are all lovey dovey again. They are frustrated and don’t know how to calmly express that so they say what they think means what they feel, or what they know will get a reaction, when they want attention. Also sometimes they are having a bad day for whatever reason so they snap and say something hurtful to release that frustration. I am not saying to let them get away with it, but to correct them in a calm way and not taking it personally and reacting with a lot of emotion. They don’t always know what they are saying and usually who or what they’re mad at is not you or something you’ve done in itself.

14. There is always a reason for a child’s behavior

Building off of number thirteen children always have a reason for whatever behavior they are showing; both negative and positive. The reason might not be clear or even make sense, but it is very obvious and real to them. It could be as simple as they didn’t get enough sleep the night before or, due to whatever ‘disability’ they have, they’re getting overstimulated and are starting to shut down. Even if you can’t see it or make sense of it there is always a reason and once you find it that will help you work with the child better. There will be times that you won’t be able to figure out the reason, but trying shows that you care about the child’s well-being and is more likely to get the child to listen and respect you then not trying. Empathizing with the child is also very helpful when you know what’s going on. Saying ‘I understand you are frustrated because _ happened’ shows them that you are listening to them and want to help them. Just like adults, children just want to be loved and understood.

15. Bigotry is taught not genetic

I guess this one is a lot of common sense but working with children has really sent this one home. I have seen children play with each other not giving a rats ass if they are a different race, gender, class system, ability level, etc. Children don’t see those things until they are taught to. Yes some things they do notice like if a child is missing an arm or face is disfigured due to a disorder, but if an adult explains that the other child is still a child and is just different the child is quick to forget the difference and make a new friend. However if an adult tells the child to fear this other child or that they are ‘wrong’ that is when hatred and bullying start in children. Humans are not born with hatred in their hearts they have to be taught it. Children reenact what they see and if they see love they will continue to show love. If they see hate they will learn to show hate. We are their teachers and we must be aware of what we are teaching our children.

16. Testing limits and pushing boundaries is a healthy thing

Anyone that has spent time with children have dealt with children pushing boundaries. Be it sitting safely in their seat on the bus or doing their homework before playing video games, all children need boundaries and they also need to know that those boundaries are going to stay. As a child grows up they develop a desire for independence. Often this new found independence causes them to want to see what they can and what they can not get away with. They also want to learn what is appropriate with each person they interact with and what isn’t appropriate with each person they interact with. All of this is shown through pushing boundaries. We all get frustrated with children when they do this or when they argue with us, but we need to remember that this is all part of them developing and interacting with the world around them. That does not mean they should get away with it but be treated with patient firmness. They need to see what boundaries do change and why (as they get older they get to stay up later because they are older and need less sleep) and what boundaries do not change (you always need to be safe because safety is a constant thing).

17. There’s a difference between a child ‘being a brat’ and a child having a melt down

We have all heard stories about the crazy temper tantrums we used to throw as children, or have watched videos of parents taping their children in the middle of tantrums. The thing is, a tantrum is not always a child being a brat. Yes that is the case sometimes. Sometimes the child is doing it only to get their way and can completely control when it starts and when it stops. This will continue if the child is taught that throwing a fit will get them what they want. However, sometimes this ‘tantrum’ is actually a child going through a meltdown. A meltdown is when the child is overstimulated by what ever stimuli and start to shut down because it is too much for them to process. Unlike the ‘brat’ tantrum a melt down can not be controlled. Once a child is in the middle of a melt down there is no ‘stop it’ you have to give them time to get through it and calm down. When a child is throwing a tantrum to be a brat and get their way they need to be shown calmly that isn’t how they are going to get their way so they will learn to cease that habit. A child having a meltdown needs patience and communication on ways they can learn how to cope with over stimulation without going into a melt down.

18. Affection doesn’t always have to be physical to show a child that you care for them

Some children do not enjoy physical signs of affection and at times physical affection is not appropriate. However affection is an important thing that all children need to receive to be healthy. Thing is affection doesn’t have to be given in hugs, kisses, high fives, etc. It can be given in words of praise, excited tones, telling the child how happy you are to see them, etc. It can also be shown in your actions by giving your time to the child to do activities that they enjoy and show that you are interested in what makes them unique. Every child wants to feel loved and cared about, but sometimes you have to be creative in how you give them that love and care.

19. I’m not the only one teaching; my children teach me as well

I learn just as much from my kids as they learn from me (as I stated above). I am bringing this up again because it is extremely important. So many people ignore what children have to say because, they are ‘so young and don’t know any better’ when honestly we should be listening to them! Children see things in such simple non complex ways that some of their solutions for human problems make so much sense you wonder why no adult had thought of them! Children are full of wisdom and they are just dying to share it, but we as adults have to be willing to listen to them. We need to listen to our children just as much as we talk to them.

20. I am a Guardian and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life

My thirteen years of working with children have made one thing perfectly clear. I am a Guardian and part of my job as a Guardian is to work with and protect these children. I do not wish to sound vain but I am good at my job. With being born with ADD, I was gifted with multiple talents that make me succeed at my job. These kids have given me a sense of purpose that nothing in this world has ever done for me. No I’m not here to save them or to fix  them but to show them the light of their own hearts and help them shine in this dark world so that they can one day be their most authentic selves.

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