Defining “Special”

Yesterday I volunteered at the Somerset County Special Olympics for the second year in the row. I was placed as a Two-on-One volunteer for a 25-year-old man with some sort of Cerebral Palsy. My job was to ensure that his day was full of fun while keeping him safe. For this man, safe entailed keeping him in the shade whenever possible (he had heat-induced seizures, a serious threat in 90-degree weather) and bringing him for thickened Gatorade or pureed Cranberry Chicken sandwich whenever my partner or I thought he might be thirsty. He could not verbalize with his voice, so he communicated with Sign Language. He wore a bandana to catch the cascade of dribble that fell perpetually from his mouth.

As I brought him around to various events throughout the day I passed by many types of athletes. There was a young girl with Down Syndrome wearing bright pink converse, a severely autistic toddler throwing a tantrum, a man in a heavily-padded wheelchair who pointed to words printed on a tray attached to the chair to communicate, and even elderly men and women from group homes who just seemed to be a little “off.” I also saw a group of teenage athletes sitting in the grass talking to each other. Some of the girls were wearing make-up and some boys were texting or tossing a basketball. Their speech was not slurred or impaired, and they walked fine. I saw these athletes at various points throughout the day, always dominating the races. These were teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome. They were clearly at my level of functioning. So why were they running against kids who couldn’t feed themselves while I was assisting them?

I have always kidded about how I am not special enough for the Special Olympics and not handicapped enough for the Paralympics. I would feel degraded if I were to be placed at the same level as some of the athletes that were present at the games. Most of the athletes (with exception to the autistics) had some degree of mental retardation and/or an accompanying physical handicap. Contrarily, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have normal to above-average IQs and no physical handicaps (my gimpy leg doesn’t count). A lot of the time people can’t even tell that I have Asperger’s. Some of the smartest people in history (Albert Einstein), and even some professional athletes (surfer Clay Marzo) have Asperger’s Syndrome. I feel like we negate the purpose of the Special Olympics, which, according to their website, was created in order to give people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to feel good about themselves and be celebrated.

One of the hallmarks of Asperger’s Syndrome is actually that it is not an intellectual disability. That is what sets it apart from autism. The fact that kids with Asperger’s are competing against kids with IQ’s that are probably half theirs is not only unfair to the other athletes but unfair to the Aspies. Once we start using Asperger’s Syndrome as an excuse we start separating ourselves from society. The single-most important thing anybody can do for a child with Asperger’s Syndrome is to put them into the neurotypical world. It is for this same reason that I am strongly opposed to placing Aspies into schools for children with autism. We need real social experiences. Communicating with neurotypical children and adults will lead to success.

Asperger’s is never an excuse to be any less than one can be. Participating in the Special Olympics is taking a step backwards for Aspies. Sure, we’re special, but in our own way.

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