Parenting the Extraordinary: Preparing Special Needs Kids to Meet Life’s Challenges
by Lisa Thompson
A few years back I lost my son Porter on vacation.
Not like, lost him in a rack of clothing— no, we really lost him for a terrifying, heart-wrenching 20 minutes.
He was nine at the time, and we were staying in a beach condo on the Flora-Bama coast. Our in-laws had a condo a few floors below. We’d stayed at this condominium before, and the boys were becoming comfortable navigating the elevators and pool area. It’s a gated community with security and lifeguards. The adults in our group easily outnumbered the children.
We thought Porter was with his grandparents. His grandparents thought Porter was with us.
In the meantime, Porter was lost.
He was turned around, confused, and disoriented. Thank God he turned himself in to the front desk.
Brad and I are extremely cautious parents. As a career firefighter, Brad has seen preventable tragedies firsthand, so we are probably more vigilant about safety than most people.
We close our kids’ doors every night before bed, without fail. Even when we’re tired, or it’s easier not to. Even when they get up in the middle of the night to potty. We do this so their rooms will be the last to fill with smoke if our house catches fire.
We change our smoke and carbon monoxide detectors’ batteries religiously. We don’t use extension cords and rarely burn candles. We turn all the cleaning bottle nozzles to “off ” when they’re stored, and we lock the vehicles when the kids are playing outside so they can’t get trapped.
We make sure an adult has their eyes on every kid who isn’t in the vehicle that’s backing out of the driveway, even when they’re old enough to know. We won’t let them swim without supervision, even though they’re strong swimmers, even when it’s one million degrees outside.
When traffic backs up on the interstate, we leave a couple car lengths in front of us while we’re stopped. So others can easily merge? No. Because Brad knows what a pile-up tragedy looks like up-close.
Our boys have never slept in our bed because Brad has vivid, persistent flashbacks from SIDS calls.
We have backup plans, and backups to the backups. We leave as little as possible to chance. We are safe, cautious, and calculated. We live intentionally, and our entire lives are dedicated first to serving God, then to protecting our boys. We take no chances.
And we still lost our child on vacation.
Thankfully, he wasn’t lost for long. But in the minutes my family spent frantically looking for him, I was terrified. As a parent, I often worry about the dangers my children may face. As a special needs parent, the dangers seem even scarier.
I worry about him encountering physical or emotional danger, sexual abuse, harassment, bullying and trauma. What if an adult preys on him because they know his weaknesses? Could he tell us if someone touched or assaulted him? Will he ever know what change he’s owed at the grocery store? What if he has an emergency but can’t remember our phone number to call us? The list goes on and on.
There’s not going to be an answer or a perfect solution for every scenario we can dream up. That’s hard to swallow, but at the same time, it’s an excellent exercise in faith. Parenting any child is tough, but having a kid with a specific challenge adds another complex layer to our cautious way of life.
As a result, we are more devoted than ever to being prepared. We work with Porter to understand his challenges and teach him work-arounds to address them. We build in safeguards along the way and enlist other people to be on our team.
We don’t always know what he’ll encounter out there in the world, but we can do everything in our power to teach him how to navigate difficult situations.
And as for the rest, we pray about it.
Lisa Thompson is a mother of three boys and is married to Brad, a firefighter with the Texarkana Texas Fire Department. She is the Economic Developer for the City of Texarkana, TX and teaches as an adjunct at University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana.