We can all benefit from the message behind this letter.
You can't choose your neighbors, but you can choose how you interact and build relationships with them. For parents of kids with special needs—like myself— the topic of neighbors is a touchy one. Yes, kids like my non-speaking autistic son can be loud or they can wander or they might need extra support, but that doesn't mean they aren't kids and it doesn't mean we wouldn't love to participate in the neighborhood community.
One of my friends, professor Lyn Jones, who is mom to Will, a high support teen with autism and cerebral palsy, recently wrote a beautiful open letter on her blog that offers some great advice for how to be more inclusive as a neighbor. The post shares some of her hopes—like her wish that the neighbor's kids would interact with her own son while they all wait for the bus—and speaks to the loneliness and isolation that many parents of kids with special needs feel on a daily basis. Drawing from Lyn's advice, I've been thinking about what I'd say to my own nieghbors—past, present, and future:
- "Knock on the door. Introduce yourself," Lyn implores. A friendly smile is nice, but I'd also love to get to know you and your family. Don't be afraid to ask me about my son, and I'll happily listen to you talk about your kids!
- In a similar vein, if my child's noises or his need to stim are disturbing you, please let me know. I know it was very hard for my downstairs neighbor when my son jumped on his bed at 3 a.m. But rather than giving me dirty looks for a year, an open conversation would have produced much better results. Talk to us about your needs as neighbors, and we can brainstorm some solutions together! "Our needs are more alike than you think," Lyn writes.
- We are not ashamed of my son's disability, so please don't treat it like something we should ignore. Acceptance comes from openness; and promoting acceptance at a local, neighborhood level is incredibly important to us.
- Don't be afraid to help. If you see me struggling with groceries or getting everyone in the house, please do offer some help. And I'll reciprocate. Or you can start by verbally offering your support. "Say, 'If there is anything we can ever do, let us know.' And mean it," Lyn writes."And I'll do the same."
- Try to include my son when you can. Yes, he likes to watch his iPad and can get easily overwhelmed, but he also loves to play in the sprinkler, jump on the trampoline, and be around other kids. He can even handle kid-friendly gatherings in small amounts. Invite him and us to join your backyard party. "Our kids are more alike than you think," Lyn reminds her neighbor.
- If you think of a kind neighborly gesture, don't be afraid to act on it. Once, one of my neighbors, an elderly woman in a crowded apartment complex, gifted me with a lovely bouquet of flowers,just because. From this small gesture of kindness—a welcome one since none of our other neighbors ever spoke to us—a lovely, congenial relationship developed and it made our living space so much more livable.
Really, all of these tips could be summed up in a few words: Be nice. Be accepting and patient. Reach out and then follow-up. And don't be afraid of us, our children's disabilities, or of asking for or giving help.
I hope these suggestions help you build community in your neighborhood. As Lyn notes: "It's easier than you think to be neighbors with a family like ours. Like our son, we too just want to be included."
Jamie Pacton writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook, and Twitter @jamiepacton.