I was asked to describe my son’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Here he is at a glance.
Before the doorbell rings, he is already sitting in the foyer, waiting to greet the guests, who will feel welcome before they enter our humble abode—Daniel has made a sign and taped it onto the door. It reads, “Welcome to our home. You are welcome to come in.” This is happening after he spent hours cleaning his room, strewn mostly with his little sister’s toys and books, taking out the garbage, sweeping room after room—all of which are tasks he has chosen and performed with meticulous care. Between his self-assigned chores, he had come into the kitchen to offer help, as my husband and I cooked and baked for another evening with friends. After hosting many dinner parties, we have a tacit agreement on the roles each of us will play to ensure a pleasant evening for our guests. One of Daniel’s many self-assigned roles is greeting people at the door and inviting them inside.
As guests begin to arrive, Daniel engages in small talk, escorts them to empty seats, and offers them drinks. He serves glasses of water with lime wedges for men; women get water in glasses with a strawberry on the rim. He hasn’t done this before, and is pleased that the gesture is received with gratitude and humor. He answers questions, laughs at jokes, and talks about animals, mostly dogs, with everyone who shares his passion. This evening, our guests are almost exclusively teachers, colleagues from the three public schools where I have taught over the last decade. They listen, ask questions, and awaken his curiosity the way teachers do, even at dinner parties. Some of my friends have known Daniel since I met him in Jamaica six years ago. They remember when Daniel could only speak in words and phrases, with a stutter, and a relentless struggle to make meaning. Each time they see him, they are in awe of his growth and charm.
Daniel is witty and funny. He asks questions about everything, and wants to learn. He makes stories come alive with humor, gestures, and facial expressions. He is compassionate and kind. When one of us is not feeling well, Daniel makes tea and offers a pillow and blanket. He adores his little sister. He taught her to read when she was three years old, and praises her constantly with, “Wow, Imani! You are so bright!” He reads and writes, mostly about dogs. He dances and makes music, alone and with his sister. He draws, makes collages, and plays Bingo with his grandmother. He cooks, armed with what he learns at the Young Chefs Academy and in our own kitchen. He plays soccer in our neighborhood league coached by his dad, and takes karate and ballroom dancing classes. Daniel loves to travel, and has thoroughly enjoyed every family trip and school field trip to Philadelphia, Jamaica, New Orleans, the Catskills, and many other places. He enjoys chores more than most children; in fact, when asked to find something to do, he chooses to organize and clean.
Daniel has interesting, engaging interactions with adults and younger children. Although he tries many ways to successfully socialize with his peers, he struggles with children his age because he might misread cues or misunderstand rules in a game. Most challenging, as he gets older, is that his cognitive and intellectual development make it difficult for peers to relate to him. Daniel’s struggles are often met with impatience, taunting, and humiliation. The bullying at school has grown worse through the past year, and is beginning to affect the way Daniel perceives and feels about himself. He speaks up for himself, but does not retaliate in anger. Later at home, he cries and wants to know why everyone is calling him dumb. We tell him it’s not everyone. We tell him he is bright. But Daniel is hurting – he knows he is different, and he longs to be accepted for who he is.