February 15, 2011

Everyone has special needs.

Every single human being is “on the spectrum.” There’s no such thing as normal.

Though we as a society prefer to label and categorize people, every individual is so unique and complex that diagnoses oversimplify and lead to generalizations. (“Oh, he has Asperger’s, so he must be like this other kid I knew who had Asperger’s.”)

Learning is challenging; each of us experiences different degrees of difficulty with learning and retaining information, depending on a myriad of factors like our interest in the topic, the complexity of the material, our IQ, our ability to focus, our reading comprehension, our mood, and so forth. We all have learning differences in the ways we absorb, retain and utilize both theoretical knowledge and practical experiences, as well as in the ways we develop wisdom.

Everyone has special needs.

The school system is overwhelmed with students who do not fit into a neat box that corresponds to grade level expectations and are unable to attain the state-mandated knowledge and skills or to pass their all-important standardized tests. Because all students have special needs. There are the special ed. kids. There are the gifted kids. There are the so-called “regular” kids who each have their own special needs, diverse characteristics and evolving strengths and weaknesses. The planet is overwhelmed with beings of all ages and species who are all unique and beautiful snowflakes.

I spent my third year of teaching (2008-09) as a bilingual elementary special education teacher. I wrote this on my blog in October 2008:

Today, Raúl told me, “Miss Fajkus, I know what Special Ed stands for… Special adventures!” What a cutie! I like that my job title includes the word special. I strive to be patient. Most of my students cannot focus for more than a minute without me reminding them to do so.

I know the English and Spanish alphabets backward and forward, and could now recite them in my sleep. (“Chile, chile, ch-ch-ch; gato, gato, g-g-g; itch, itch, i-i-i, octopus, octopus, o-o-o”) I am teaching  letter sounds and blends in Spanish and English.

It is a slow process that begs for patience and compassion. The lessons may not be so thrilling to teach, but there are great lessons to be learned, every day.

We humans are all special, quirky, complicated and fascinating in our own ways. We are all on multiple spectrums, and we are all doing our best to find balance and live in happiness, peace and freedom.

One of my own personal special needs is the need to travel, to see exotic places and enjoy innovative experiences. Hence, I somewhat whimsically decided to pursue a teaching job abroad a year and a half ago. Because of my bilingual and special ed. teaching certifications, I was offered a job at a private, bilingual K-12 school in Guatemala. I moved to Central America six weeks later.

I also have terrible myopia and can’t see a darn thing without my glasses or contacts. I have emotional special needs; though they are thankfully dormant now, I’ve dealt with some serious bouts of “clinical” anxiety, mania and depression over the past ten years. I have dietary special needs (vegetarian with ever-varying degrees of strictness).

In the field of special education, we write Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that details the curriculum modifications and classroom accommodations each student needs. In my grown up life, I am learning, often the hard way, how to modify my real world “curriculum.” I cannot follow all the news. I can’t keep track of all the wars and crimes and economies. Likewise, I can’t hide in my room and unplug from the media and current events. So, I seek balance between information overload and blissful ignorance. In the realm of relationships, I have to constantly assess and evaluate: what are my intentions, needs, desires? What negative patterns am I perpetuating? How can I cultivate honesty and openness between myself and others?

To attain any semblance of earthly or spiritual success, I require one specific daily accommodation: a devoted yoga schmoga practice. Hatha yoga coupled with mindfulness meditation helps my body and mind stay fit, flexible, strong and content. I’m no longer concerned about how many minutes or hours I practice or sit. My body knows what it needs. Sometimes I start moving into poses without a conscious decision. Knowing myself and understanding my inner workings through mindfulness enable me to connect deeply with intuition. To know when to socialize, when to be quiet and alone, when to break a sweat, when to rest in a yin pose. My greatest wish is for every individual to become intimately aware of their own special needs, and to employ mindful modifications on the path to enlightenment.

What are your special needs? What accommodations and modifications do you employ to live with presence, patience and peace?

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs. But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”
-Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

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