hearing impaired. Frequently, I would call his name and he would not respond. I
assumed he was just too caught up in his Thomas engines or his oh, so annoying
Leapfrog Writing Desk, so I'd disregard his potential hearing loss by going back
to sharing my bottle of wine with my good, old reliable friend Denial. Of course
when the wine was all gone and Denial went home, my crazy self would run up the
steps to the computer and Google signs/symptoms of autism and one of the "red
flags" I always regrettably stumbled upon went something like this, "Some
autistic children may appear deaf, failing to respond to being called by their
name or to follow simple commands." Sh**!! Of course what I wanted to find in my obsessive searching would have gone something like this, "Even though your child routinely ignores you, but interacts beautifully with characters on television, there is no need to panic. Your child is 100% normal". Since this was nowhere to be found on Google or any other search engine, like any good mother I would take my panicky self back downstairs, pick up the phone, call Denial back and open a second bottle of wine.
For a brief period of time, when Denial and I were on our third bottle of wine, I did question Ryan's hearing. Every time I saw The Miracle Ear Commercial and heard the old man yell, "What'd he say?" I would quickly run to my wallet, grab my credit card and start dialing the phone to place an order. Of course, I would always hang up before placing the order because deep down I knew it wasn't hearing loss. I agonized over how my beautiful boy could not "hear" me, but he could mimic to a tee the sound of the microwave in an obnoxiously loud and busy Wendy's restaurant. How could the hair dryer running three rooms away cause him to instantly stop what he was doing to slam the door closed, but my calls of "Ryan, what are you doing?" went completely unanswered? Why wouldn't Ryan respond to my questions about his day at daycare, but he would happily shout out the answer to every question Steve asked on Blue's Clues (I was so jealous of Steve...I kind of despised him....what did he have that I didn't?)? Why, why, why?
When I was in college at Penn State, I worked at an athletic clothing store. It was Special Olympics Weekend at PSU and the owner of the store was asked to help sponsor and participate in the opening ceremonies and as the Assistant Manager, I had to participate too. Gulp...Special Olympics meant kids with special needs, kids and adults with Down Syndrome, people with Cerebral Palsy, and most assuredly people with autism (although at the time I had no idea what the word autism even meant). In a nutshell, I was suppose to provide an aerobic workout to a bunch of people who were "different". This is going to sound harsh, ignorant and just plain stupid, but remember I was a young, naive college student...I AWEnestly was afraid, yes afraid, to go. I had no idea how these kids and adults woud act. Would they speak to me? Would they yell, scream or have some kind of break down? Would they touch or grab me? What would I do if they did? What would I say to them? How should I treat them? I had no idea, but what I did know was that if I wanted to keep my job, I had to get over myself and go. I knew I should have done a quick vodka shot before I left my apartment, but instead I grabbed a Diet Coke and off to Beaver Stadium I went.
When I arrived, I was told to "warm up" my group. My group consisted of three children with Down Syndrome, several teenage boys who "looked normal", but clearly were very low functioning cognitively, and one 30 something man with Down Syndrome named Billy. I anxiously said hello to my group and was quickly greeted with happy cheers, hugs, compliments on how "pretty" I was (of course I loved all of them immediately) and complaints of how hot it was outside. Within minutes I was invited to the softball games and the swimming and shot put events. I was very quickly adored and accepted and I felt the same way about my new friends. All my anxieties about these wonderful Special Olympians were quickly put to rest, but it was during a warm up of leg kicks when "it" hit me. And I mean, literally hit me. Billy, clearly the oldest of my group, reached over and lovingly punched my arm and said, "Hey Kate, do you know where we can go get a cold beer after this? It's hot and an ice cold beer sounds good!" I couldn't stop smiling and I couldn't have agreed more. Standing there with Billy talking beers and bars was like hanging out with my roommates. Maybe Billy couldn't have kept up with us in a college calculus class, but just like us, he wanted to have a good time, have people respect him and go grab a case of Rolling Rock 7 ounce "ponies" at The Skellar.
I'm happy to report that my fear of "different" was left on that field and stomped on by a group of amazing Special Olympians at Opening Day Ceremonies. Although I was only volunteering for the Opening Ceremony, I spent the rest of the weekend at the softball field cheering on my new friends. I was even fortunate enough to be "snuck in" to a pizza party for the athletes and their family members after the games ended. It took me less than 45 seconds to fall in love with these guys and not because they called me "Pretty Kate", although that was an added bonus, but because on a hot summer day in State College, these "guys" taught me a lifelong lesson. Different is not scary, different is not weird, different is not bad, different is just....different. Maybe Billy and I crossed paths 20 plus years ago (crap, how did I get so old) for a reason. Maybe it was to open my eyes and my heart in order to love a child that is "different" or maybe Billy and I met to share our common love of a cold beer on a hot summer day. I don't know why I met him, I'm just so very glad I did.
Ryan may not have a ton of friends, and chances are, he never will, but my friends are teaching him that he can be loved and accepted just like he is, which opens the door for him to trust and possibly make a friend. I may appreciate and love these efforts, but more importantly my beautiful boy feels the difference between people who try to "get him" and those who are unsure of his differences and quickly give up. It's easier to walk past Ryan or stop trying to know him after he appeared hearing impaired on so many other occasions, but believe me, Ryan hears you and more importantly, he "feels" you, so don't give up on him or any other person viewed as "different".
Let my Ryan be your Billy. Just like Billy, Ryan is worth the time, he is worth the fear of "different", he is worth the shouting you need to do to get his attention, and he is worth understanding. It's not a hearing aid these kids need, it's a kind heart, an open mind and a few years down the road, it's a friend who will share with them an ice cold beer at The Skellar on a hot summer day. And although you may feel completely alone in that bar because there is little to no conversation, your presence is felt and your presence matters so please don't walk away. Just like the The Miracle Ear Warranty, if you take some time to accept "different" and make an effort to know "different", I promise you a 100% satisfaction guarantee and you can completely disregard the fine print at the bottom of the warranty, because no refund will ever be needed.