11/06/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Appreciating the Kindness of Strangers

When you're the parent of a special needs child, learning to handle the looks and stares of strangers becomes an important part of the job.

For years, I was very self-conscious and would go out of my way to smile and educate people whenever I noticed someone staring at my daughter.

Then I went through a period where I was impatient, even nasty, if I detected the slightest insensitivity toward my daughter.

There was a time when Lizzy was about five, and my husband and I took all three kids out with us to buy my dad a birthday present. For some reason, Lizzy started to get upset and began to have a meltdown.

Joe told her to take a deep breath. A fellow shopper overheard him say this and decided it was a good idea to make fun of that advice. She loudly said, for all to hear, "Oh, a deep breath, that is a great way to parent. That's not the way I raised my children."

I responded in my most syrupy voice. "Oh, do your children have special needs, too? Any ideas you could pass on to us would be great."

She looked at me and stared for a moment. Then she smiled while she stammered a bit letting us know what a beautiful child we had and wishing us well.

Fortunately, there have been so many more people who have helped make our day a bit brighter. So often, they're complete strangers, but I'll always be thankful for their thoughtfulness.

When Lizzy was nine, a little girl of about six was waiting at the hair salon with her father while Lizzy and I were also waiting. Lizzy was singing and being a little silly and acting more like a toddler of two or three.

The girl was smiling at Lizzy. I smiled back and explained that Lizzy's special needs make talking a challenge and a struggle for her.

She replied, "Oh that's OK. She is just like my friend on my bus." And with that she started to color with Lizzy. Her father and I started to talk, and he told me about his autistic nephew. The four of us had a great time while we waited our turns, and they both made a big fuss over Lizzy when she was finished with her hair.

At another time when Lizzy was five, I was waiting with her to pick up my son from chess club. All of a sudden she started screaming at an ungodly pitch and whatever I did, I could not calm her down. I was on the verge of losing it when another woman we were waiting with smiled at me, and then told Lizzy how much she loved her dress. Lizzy stopped crying and smiled. Shortly after that, my son was done with chess club, and it was time to go home.

Just this week, we had Lizzy in Manhattan for a doctor's appointment. As we headed back to our car, we ran into a very nice woman who was walking her two small, white dogs. Lizzy smiled at the dogs and when she asked if she could pet the puppies, the woman showed her how to do it and told her a little bit about the dogs. The smile on my daughter's face made a difficult day a lot brighter.

I don't know if any of these people, or the countless others who smile, say a kind word, or offer a helping hand, remember these events. But for a brief moment, they brightened my day and made my daughter happy. In that instant, they made all the difference in the world to a little girl, and I can't thank them enough.

kathy radigan

This post was previously published on My dishwasher's possessed!