I’m sitting at the pool while my son has his swimming lesson. It’s the Specialty Splash, a special swim class for kids with special needs. The kids in the group have a variety of special needs. For example, there’s a boy with autism, a girl with Down’s Syndrome, there’s my guy with his various needs and no special diagnosis. And so on. There’s an instructor and volunteers, so that each child in the group has someone with them at all times: one-on-one instruction.

Every week I sit there and watch him. Sometimes it’s an uplifting experience, and sometimes it’s frustrating as hell. My son loves the water and he can actually swim (at least when he doesn’t realize he’s doing it…), but he has a lot of anxiety about the water too.

When he’s in the deep pool he’s worried that he’s going to drown. When he tries to float on his back he often worries that he’s going to drown too. He worries a whole lot about sinking, drowning, and, well, drowning. This makes it hard for him to relax when he’s asked to do things slightly out of his comfort zone. The instructor often spends quite a bit of time convincing him to try things that he’s afraid of, like getting into the deep water, or relaxing his body enough to float. Since I know that he CAN swim (“I’ve seen you do it, buddy, with your goggles on, kicking your legs and swimming like nobody’s business!”), this is sometimes very frustrating to watch. Just get in the water already! Just swim! I know you can do it! They’re not going to let you drown!

But that’s my problem, really, more than it is his. I’m obviously a parent with special needs.

He is coming along. The first few lessons he didn’t do very much at all in the water. Then one day AFTER his lesson he swam across half the little, shallower pool using a really nifty doggy paddle. No instructor, no flotation device, no nothing. Two weeks ago he swam enthusiastically in the big pool with a foam board and big smile on his face, calling out to me “LOOK AT ME MOMMY!”. I looked. I had tears in my eyes, but I looked. Last week and this week, he relaxed enough that he did some really nice back-floats too.

Every week I sit there and I watch with the other parents. We watch our kids and we talk a little bit. The pool is noisy, so it’s not always the best place for a chat, but we still talk. This week we talk about school, about teachers, about special needs education, about parenting, and a lot more. It is a serious discussion, but we laugh a lot too, exactly the same way most parents end up laughing when they talk about their kids. That kind of “can you believe we’re doing this, that we’re handling this, that we’re actually pulling this parenting-thing off with these goofy goobers for kids?” kind of laugh.

We talk about how some people have a hard time teaching our kids, not because of our kids’ special needs, but because these people feel sorry for them and assume they can’t do things that they are actually capable of. “Oh poor you, you’re not like the other kids! Let’s lower our expectations right down to the floor for you!” That’s pity and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all our kids. We talk about the other people, the really good teachers and instructors, educational assistants and therapists, who don’t pity, who laugh and joke around with our kids and treat them like kids rather than special needs, the people who encourage them and help them achieve things they were always capable of, but were never given a chance to accomplish before.

We talk about how our kids are really not so different from “normal” kids. Who is normal anyway? one mom asks. It’s all a spectrum, and one way or another, all kids have some kind of special needs. Which is exactly what I’ve come to realize, bit by bit, while raising one child with diagnosed special needs, and one child who is “normal”. We talk about how each of our kids has a sense of humour, and how each of them is such a kid, first and foremost, rather than “a kid with special needs”.

We talk about the school system, mainstream and special needs resource rooms, and we touch on that fear of the unknown future: what will they do? where will they end up? We don’t need to spell it out for each other about that last fear, we just give a hint of it, and we all know what we’re talking about – we all feel it, but we won’t let it overpower us. At least not today.

And that’s in 30 minutes. Meanwhile my son does a beautiful back float and then refuses to get out of the pool when his lesson is over. I’ll be back next week for more, and so will he.

This post was originally posted at my personal blog: Kids. Food. Life.

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