"We understand. Our son never does."
These six little words were said to me as my daughters and I were leaving a birthday party this past Friday night.
We had just attended a birthday celebration for a student at my daughters' school. This student spends most of his school day in a "Learning Center" classroom, code for "Special Day Classroom" (SDC) in my daughters' school district, with other learning disabled students. One student in the class has down's syndrome. Another student does not speak and is performing grade levels below their current age.
My daughters, each with their own significant needs, get academic support in this classroom as we try to fill in very basic content gaps whose absence is preventing them from accessing the general education curriculum.
Being a student in a SDC classroom can be difficult. For most elementary students, they know that they are different but they haven't exactly figured out why everyone else is in a classroom with 20-30 other students and one adult... while their classroom often has more adults than kids.
When you get to middle school, it gets significantly harder for all involved parties. Kids in middle school SDC classes long to be "normal" and in the "regular" classes. The students in these "regular" classes can sometimes be a bit exclusive toward students in need of extra support. Being different is hard. For others, being friends with someone who's different is even more challenging. Middle school can be a rough time.
The birthday celebration itself was a lot of fun. The majority of the students invited were from the SDC classroom. All of the kids had at least one parent present, a distinct difference from the other birthday parties I've attended with my daughters where kids can just be dropped off for the duration of the activity. There were balloon animals, painting activities, silly YouTube videos to sing along to, lots of snacks and birthday cakes, and everything in between. Most of the students did not interact with one another; social skills are a work in process for most elementary students, especially those with special needs. The SDC teacher even showed up for most of the evening. The kids treated her like a celebrity; it was pretty neat to see.
We were walking out the door at the end of the evening. The birthday boy's parents graciously walked us to the front door and all the way to the sidewalk. I thanked them profusely for inviting our daughters and said, "It's hard sometimes... They don't get invited to a lot of birthday parties..." The mom made eye contact and said very clearly, "I understand. Our son never does."
I went home and shared this moment with my wife. She nodded and said, in an understanding way that only a parent of a special needs student can, "I know. It's hard."
It's something that many parents never have to address as their child will at least have acquaintances and classmate friends that they can text, have sleep overs, go to their birthday parties, and sit next to during snack. A parent of a special needs child worries about what will happen when they can't take care of their child any longer. What if something happens to us; who will take care of our daughters? The layers of unpredicted stress that arrive when your child enters the realm of special needs is a challenge for the involved adult and their marriage. Everything about it is difficult.
And one of the hardest things to endure is when your child isn't included in basic age-appropriate activities.... like the birthday parties.
Looking back at my own childhood, my mom made the rules very clear when it came to my birthday parties. I could invite everyone from my class or I could invite no-one. I wasn't aware of these policies at the time (I was 10), but I remember how I would hand out invitations to everyone in my class and then post a list with their names to record their RSVPs when they called over the next week. Yes, this took place in the pre-Evite days.
It's different today.
Out of the 20-25 students in our daughters' general education classroom, I'm anticipating invitations to no more than 5 parties for my girls.
This year is actually better than last year as there are a few more "uniquely normal" kids in this year's kindergarten class with a few more inclusive parents.
I profusely thank every parent for inviting my daughters' to their child's birthday party. Most of the parents say "no problem, glad to have them join us" but very few truly know what it's like to have a child (or two) who's excluded from these birthday parties because their kids are a bit different.
Until...... you find someone who understands.
Odds are they have a special education student too.