PARENTS
02/25/2013 01:32 pm ET

What I Can't Help Thinking About 'Special'

Written by Jennifer Curran For Brain, Child

I lean forward, straining against my seatbelt to catch a glimpse of my little boy’s face in the back of the school bus. His thick lashes rim his wide brown eyes, his mouth is set in a straight line. As the bus rambles along in front of my mud-streaked station wagon, my Mother Vision sees through the rows of bus seats, through the backpacks and bodies of the bustling children, to his uncertainty. I can’t help but be scared for him. I imagine sprinting heroically out of my car and slamming through the bus’s folding doors like a modern day Calamity Jane.

I shake off my protective instincts. Somewhere in the way back of my mind I can’t help but wonder if my child will ever be just a regular little boy whose toughest day includes homework left undone, or choking back green beans to get to the pudding. Some days I would be very happy with average.

Tailing the school bus, I can almost see the noise reverberating off the windows, the hollers and screeches of the other children readying for their first days of first and second grade. They do not make my boy smile. Today, he doesn’t want to smile, play, share, or jump. Not today, maybe tomorrow -- maybe not. My boy wants his space, his peace, his toys. He wants his red race car with the yellow flames down the side. It must have “Hot Wheels” engraved in its silver underside because “Matchbox” isn’t his favorite. He can’t read these words, but he knows them by sight. He wants to zoom his cars along the old gold shag carpet of our humble living room with his tinier than average fingers gently resting on their roofs, just him and his metal best friends in his raceway-world.

My boy sits far away from the other kids on the bus, his perfectly shaped nose pressing against the glass as he peers out at the farms rolling by. I wonder if he is looking for the magnificent white horses in the falling-down brown barn we like to wave to, or listening for the dulcet sound of the hoof beats we both cherish. Does he love them only because I do? Does he long to sit on the back of the black-spotted horse with the grey tail and run as fast as the animal pleases, as he leans forward into the wind and observes the world framed by triangle ears?

As I drive behind the bus, I remind myself to call the place -- the organization -- the non-profit -- the one that has riding lessons for boys like him. Special boys.

If the word "special" doesn’t help on the school bus, it feels irrelevant in the grocery store when I’m carrying my screaming 5-year-old over a shoulder out the sliding doors, abandoning our shopping cart that’s almost full with coloring-free, gluten- free, casein- free food -- the foods it took me months to discover, whose labels I’ve read, studied, and memorized.

Special is hard. Special gets me scorns and head shakes, and worst of all, patronizing smiles from strangers who should know better. Educated strangers who drop their loose change into the Awareness Canisters and then seem the quickest to judge and remind themselves that they would handle things differently. The enlightened elitists who carry their reusable bags under their arms and are brought to tears when hearing about the autism epidemic on NPR, but can’t bare to acknowledge its truth when it is screaming down the aisles in Target.

I put my pretend blindfold in place so I no longer see the disapproval surrounding us. I crouch down in front of my son and focus my attention on the miniscule chance that he will be able to transition through the suddenness of this change in routine. Fridays are not for shopping. Fridays are for resting and playing. He shields his eyes from the fluorescent glare bouncing back at him from the hard tile of the white floor and the sheen of primary colored plastic wrappings. He focuses on nothing, his eyes wandering the store aisles filled with things he cannot have and all the toys I wish he knew how to use.

Special means appointments, prescriptions that don’t work, wait lists, and therapists. Diets that cost more than rent. Charts, scale ratings, questionnaires, graphs, and independent educational plans. It means late nights scouring the Internet for answers and weighing the risks and challenging the chances.

Sometimes I have to put it all aside. Sometimes special boys just need to be boys who revel in a blanket-reinforced fort, boys who dig roads in dirt, and rub their spaghetti sauce-covered hands down their shirts while their mothers feign annoyance.

The bus makes a right turn to my station wagon’s left, leaving me behind a spotlessly clean silver Volvo with the small puzzle piece logo on its sunlit bumper. I stare at it and wonder if the driver has a special boy too. Or if she snatched up the sticker from a convenience store counter because it was free and makes her look compassionate without any actual effort involved.

I approach a stop sign behind the Volvo. I close my eyes and breathe through the urge to slam down onto the gas pedal and smash into the sticker on that bumper. I want to make sure the driver knows my boy is more than a logo, more than a fad or a cause. As I make my solo right turn toward my waiting desk and tiny office, I peer into the rear view mirror and secretly hate the Volvo and its perfectly coiffed driver, a temporary target for my aimless anger. I try to push away my politically incorrect, completely unheroic, fleeting but inescapable, belief: Sometimes, special sucks.

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