A Kerfuffle About Doughnuts (or, The Rules Apply to Special Needs Kids, Too!)

Doughnut covered with coconut flakes
Image via Wikipedia

By the time I got there, Alex was crying.

It began, as far too many of these encounters do, with Julianna. She took advantage of the fact that her parents were caught in conversations after church and helped herself to someone else’s juice cup. We saw her, but the people talking to us were not to be sidetracked. “Alex,” Christian said, “go get the cup away from Julianna.”

I shot Christian a glare; it’s totally inappropriate to saddle Alex with this task—for one thing, because it encourages his bossy side, but at a more basic level, Julianna doesn’t recognize his authority and it always gets ugly—but I couldn’t get out of the conversation. (I mean I couldn’t get out of it. You know the type.)

By the time I got disentangled, Alex was huddled on the floor crying with a grownup leaning over him and Julianna continuing to drink someone else’s juice in blissful…or should I say willful…unawareness of the drama playing out behind her back.

The Julianna damage was done, so I focused on Alex. I drew him into a hug, comforting him, whispering in his ear that he was in the right, no matter what the adults said.

The man looked abashed. “He tried to take the juice from her,” he said, “and I told him it would be nice of him to let her have it.”

How can I respond? He doesn’t know the history of the Julianna-versus-the-doughnut-war. For several weeks this summer, the choir had to warm up in the room where coffee and doughnuts are served after Masses. No matter what we did, she always managed to figure out when I was focused on conducting, and slip in to steal a sweet treat. Once, we managed to keep her out of them until we were packing up to head over to church. By then, the last Mass had let out and the line of people waiting for doughnuts had begun to file past the boxes. While we were stacking books and answering questions, Julianna walked straight to the front of the front of the line and grabbed a doughnut right in front of an adult…WHO LET HER DO IT.

The next week, we resolved to win the battle. We dragged her away from the table three times. She knew the rules, and was responding with a petulance that proved it. And yet the fourth time we looked her way, there she sat, eating a doughnut with one of the women staffing the table, who (it transpired) had given her one despite Alex protesting that she wasn’t allowed. (A child with special needs is never as clueless as they want you to think they are.)

Are you getting the idea, people? THE GROWNUPS ARE THE PROBLEM.

You think she’s cute, and she is. You feel sorry for her, and you decide the rules don’t apply because she has Down syndrome/cerebral palsy/autism/fill in the blank. You don’t want to be a jerk to a child with special needs, or you think they don’t understand, so you treat them as if the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them, because of their disability.

It sounds ugly, but be honest. If a “normal” child came up and tried to butt in line ahead of you and steal a doughnut, would you let him? If a “normal” child took a cup of juice from your table, would you chuckle and say “oh, how cute”? No way! You’d be firm, tell them “no,” and possibly mutter about their parents.

Think for a minute. What if my child had celiac disease? What if she was diabetic? Forget all that, let’s just talk about life. If you decide that standards of behavior don’t apply to kids with special needs, how are they supposed to turn into anything but self-centered jerks who use manipulation and a victim complex to make life living hell for everyone around them?

Kids know better. I’ve yet to see a kid that let Julianna get away with anything. Kids come to the parents and say, “Miss Kate, Julianna pushed me!” exactly as they would if the name was “Alex” or “Nicholas.” No, it’s the grownups who are the problem.

I’m fully aware that as Julianna’s parents, it’s our job to teach her acceptable and unacceptable behavior—not yours. Believe me, we’re working on it. But you make our task far more difficult when you apply double standards in the way you treat children. You add bricks to the wall that separates her from integrating into society. Because though you may think you’re acting with compassion, other children see only injustice.

And they’re right.