I posted this blurry photo – taken through our kitchen window – all over Instagram and Facebook yesterday. The quality of the photo isn’t impressive, nor is the messy cropping of our vehicle parked in our driveway.
The significant part of this picture is the kid in the middle. That’s my kid. Playing street hockey. On the street with the neighbour kids. Aaron is 12 years old and this is the first time in his life that the neighbourhood kids have invited him outside to play.
I realized after I plastered my joy about this all over the Internet that those with typically-developing kids might think I’m daft, or those with kids with differences might think I’m bragging. Maybe both are true.
I’ll explain the importance of this photo to us.
I’ve written before about my son with Down syndrome’s struggle socially with birthday party and play dates.
Last month, we moved to Vancouver. We happen to find a house rental in a cul-de-sac. After we moved in, I spotted a kid about Aaron’s age doing a science experiment on the driveway two doors down. I summoned up my courage and went over and introduced myself.
Turns out this was an interesting kid – he was very social and knowledgeable about all our neighbours. He was excited about having another kid on the street. He ran inside to get his mom to introduce us. I didn’t have Aaron with me, but I did tell his mom he had Down syndrome. I don’t know if I should have. I felt like I should just cough it up. I told the kid – he just learns differently and moves a bit slower. The kid shrugged, ok he said, unconcerned.
A few days later, we drove up to our street, and this kid and his sister were out playing street hockey. Hi Aaron they yelled as we pulled up. Aaron excitedly dug around for his hockey stick in the boxes in our garage and disappeared outside. Be careful of cars! I shouted. I tried to spy on him, but the abundance of trees didn’t help with my surveillance activities. I could hear the slap of the sticks and kids shouting. I left him alone. Later, I peeked outside and saw the kids helping Aaron on with the goalie pads.
My son came back 20 minutes later, flushed and smiling. How was it? I said. Good, he said, a man of few words, but I could tell he was secretly pleased.
Then our neighbour’s dad put up a basketball hoop in their driveway. The next day Aaron disappeared for half an hour with his basketball. The action continued, every few days, when it wasn’t raining – street hockey, then basketball. Last night there were even a bunch of extra kids with Aaron rummaging around our garage looking for more hockey sticks.
My heart is about to burst. I feel silly that I’m so excited about something that happens naturally for most kids. I feel great empathy for other families whose kids do not get these invitations (believe me, that was me about six weeks ago). I feel that pain – it is fresh and it is real and it is deep. I realize that ALL kids should be invited to go outside and play with the neighbourhood kids, but this is not necessarily our reality.
There are a few stars that have aligned in Vancouver:
- We live in a cul-de-sac. Not much traffic. Lends itself to impromptu sports on the street. This would be impossible in a busier thoroughfare.
- Social kid two doors down who is happy to have an extra kid on the street to play with.
- Vancouver area has not killed the community school model. Meaning that all the kids from one neighbourhood go to the same school. Their parents are not driving them to far-flung schools to go to a special arts, academic or sports program. This means the kids in the neighbourhood actually know each other.
- No special ed schools. Meaning ALL the kids, of ALL abilities go to their local schools. Our neighbour kid is used to all sorts of kids in his classroom. That’s why his reaction when I mentioned the Down syndrome is shrug. There is a kid who is blind in the school. Another kid with Down syndrome. A few kids with autism. They all belong in their local school just by the fact that they live in the neighbourhood. The school has to figure out how to support and educate all kids with all sorts of diverse learning styles – as there is no ‘opt-out’ option of a segregated site.
I’m both thrilled that Aaron is included and sad that it has taken 12 years for this to happen. I had pretty much given up. There are of course other ways to find friendships for our kids – we signed Aaron up for adapted recreation activities and Special Olympics, and fostered friendships for him with kids we know in our disability world. There are other options to make friends if kids aren’t banging on your door, asking your kid to come out and play. But I hope one day soon in the future, all our kids will be naturally included in this kind of play. I strongly believe that the world will be a better place when everybody finally belongs.