Unesco’s observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is around the corner. The day was established by the United Nations to promote and create awareness of “the benefits of an inclusive and accessible society for all.”
As a father of two children with autism, I am naturally motivated to create an inclusive and accessible society. However, my approach has always been less about big institutions, such as the UN, or government laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, I’ve tried to take my years of hard-won lessons as a parent and personally share them — in my book, through blog posts, and through direct mentorship of parents who have the loving challenge of raising kids with disabilities.
For example, I’ve worked hard to help people understand why our autistic kids and others with similar neurodivergent challenges react to their surroundings and experiences differently than most. I tried to explain, for example, why they respond so strongly to intense sensory experiences at medical appointments. Bright lights, buzzing machinery, a stranger’s masked face inches from your own, and sharp objects poking the body are some of kids’ worst experiences – and they often overwhelmed our boys. It’s surely one reason why the authors of a recent study called for dentists to receive specialized training to be able to care for neurodivergent patients.
Holiday travels pose another sensory challenge. Driving and flying require being prepared with headsets to drown out noise, music, and games to encourage calm, and “in the moment” solutions to overstimulation. Simple aids, such as squeezing a stress ball or chewing a stick of sugar-free gum always help. Relatives who want to rush hugs and kisses must be reminded – oftentimes firmly – that their genuine joy at welcoming us into their homes must be balanced with awareness that autistic children (and adults) require a gentler, more gradual touch.
Of course, there are times when all the prep in the world doesn’t mean a thing. There have been occasions when people at grocery stores, Mass, and company functions have thought my kids are undisciplined because they’re yelling or pulling away. We used to be ashamed; now we understand how those times can be opportunities to increase awareness in the onlookers – and to build up humility in ourselves as we ask for their understanding.
The word “disability” has thankfully gotten an upgrade in the last few years. People no longer hear that word and think of a nuisance or a burden; on the contrary, we’ve learned that the disabled have the same dignity as all human beings. Whether it’s in the grocery line or the doctor’s waiting room, we know that the noise can be a problem. When onlookers give us a minute’s grace to take our kids on a quick destressing walk or to pull out the stick of sugar-free gum to help them calm down by engaging the senses, that’s a small thing that makes a world of difference for us.
I wrote my book to show how I’ve gained more joy than I thought possible from raising my kids. It’s not just asking God to help turn suffering into something good, though that’s been part of it. It’s also watching my kids thrive – one of my sons is great at X, and the other has mastered Y – in ways that most others can’t. It’s experiencing the simple joys they see in life, which keeps me grounded after a long day of working with current clients and trying to find new ones.
Do we need a more accessible and aware society? For sure. But it’s not because disabilities are bad. It’s because the rest of us need to see the good that can come from transforming challenges into joys.
Chris Peden is the father of two autistic children, founder of Peden Accounting Services, and author of The Blessings of Autism: How raising a child with Autism helped develop my faith and made my life better.