Below is an excerpt from Dawn McMullan’s article, “The Happiness of Being Special.”
Rhoni Golden was chatting with her new housekeeper recently. The housekeeper, referring to Rhoni’s 8-year-old son Gray, asked if she cried a lot.
Gray is severely autistic. Until the family brought an autism service dog into their home last year, they really couldn’t go out much because Gray might grab someone’s food off the table at a restaurant or run into the street.
“In the beginning, I cried a lot when I was trying to wrap my mind around it,” Rhoni says. “But, no, I don’t cry a lot now. This is just my life.”
It may seem an odd question, but Rhoni is used to it.
Most discussions about families whose children have special needs focus on the challenges–and there are plenty, depending on the child’s particular needs. But parents of these children like to remind us that not every moment is a struggle.
In fact, they will say, these children make their lives better–and often happier.
“When your kid does something simple in therapy that is so amazing or the first time your kid says “hi” or is able to use a spoon and pick up their cereal from their bowl to their mouth and not drop any of it–those are the moments that you realize are sort of a blessing,” says Rhoni, who writes a parenting blog, HopeForGray.com.
“Other parents, they’re so wrapped up in what their kids are going to be when they grow up and where they’re going to go to school and achieve in life. Our focus can be a little more in the moment. It’s easier to celebrate small victories with a kid with special needs.”
That may not be what people see as they look in from the outside. It may be easier for outsiders to see the struggles and challenges. Yet these families celebrate smaller, more frequent victories.
They are constantly reminded of their priorities. They have very tight priorities. They have very tight communities of support. They live in the moment.
All of those factors are important for living a happy life and –by the nature of their situations–these families know they must practice happiness daily.
Growing Through Trauma
Dr. Chris feudtner, Ph.D., an ethicist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and associate professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania, led a team of researchers in studying post-traumatic growth (PTG) in parents of pediatric patients.
Research found five benefits to PTG:greater appreciation of life, improved interpersonal relationships, greater personal strength, recognition of new possibilities in one’s life, and spiritual or religious growth.
In many cases, researchers found the stress and challenges involved in having a child with special needs is paired with benefits, including “a sense of discovering what is really important in life, refocusing on their families and recognizing the support they have received from others,” explains Dr. Douglas Hill, a behavioral researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who works with Chris.
“Parents…talk about being grateful for the love they have experienced while caring for their child and a feeling that their child has touched the lives of many.”