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My name is Dan. I'm the husband of a beautiful wife of 10 years, father to seven incredible children, and there is never a dull moment in my life. Live life to the fullest, don't sweat the small stuff, forgive, and have fun. That's my motto, even if I've never actually said any of that. Ever.
Growing up, I never really had any level of awareness or understanding of disability and special needs. I guess my parents didn't see any reason to educate me about it, or maybe they just didn't have any level of understanding themselves. So when I saw a kid at the store with AFOs on his legs, I thought he must be starring in a production of Forrest Gump. I had no reason to believe that the braces he wore served any practical purpose, so I just stared at him in wonder, because he just didn't look...like me. I remember my first real encounter with a special needs child (I know it sounds like I'm describing an alien abduction, but bear with me). When I was just a wee lad, maybe eight or nine, my family took a trip to Wisconsin Dells' Black Wolf Lodge (now Great Wolf). I was playing in the pool with the various reptilian species shackled to the floor and perched myself triumphantly atop the floating crocodile. Then, without warning, a boy (he had Down Syndrome) leaped out of the water, grabbed my hand, kissed it, and shouted exuberantly “I love you!” just before belly flopping into the water and paddling ashore. I thought I was going to die. I thought, surely, he must be contagious and that I would soon begin my agonizing transformation into a flesh-eating zombie. I floundered dramatically to my parents, crying while my sister laughed in histeria after witnessing the entire incident. Okay, so maybe my story-telling is a bit over dramatic but, as a child, that was a scary moment for me. I had never experienced something so traumatizing in my entire life. What that boy did- it just wasn't....normal. Of course, today I can reflect more sensibly on that experience, recognizing that this little boy had Down Syndrome which, ironically, now holds a very special place in my heart. After adopting our first two special needs kids from Bulgaria (who pretty much get a new diagnosis every time we visit the doctor), it didn't take long for me to realize the absurdity in the idea of “normalcy.” Knowing from personal experience that most “typical” families aren't frequently exposed to the behaviors of our special needs children, I find it fascinating to speculate the bewilderment and confusion of those who encounter our family when we're out in the wild. Because what they define as “normal” behavior is actually unfounded in the greater truth that I've come to realize: there is no such thing as “normal.” Actually, I don't blame them for checking out our attractive band of chaos- they do have some pretty unique behaviors, even as far as the special needs community is concerned. Between the Down Syndrome/Autism combo and the Cerebral Palsy/Reactive Attachment Disorder/Epilepsy trifecta, you can pretty much guarantee something not-so-typical is going to occur. But that doesn't make them any less normal than another child. When the “typical” family goes out for dinner at Red Robin and mom looks away for a brief moment, her son probably picks his nose and eats his boogers. When I look away from my child for a brief moment, she sneaks food from other people's tables and stuffs her cheeks with a full basket of bottomless steak fries. Of course, we wouldn't allow that to actually happen, but that would be normal behavior for her. When the “typical” family goes grocery shopping, little Shirley-Mae (I have no idea why I chose that name) probably hitches a ride joyfully on the front of the cart. Mine sits within it and wraps her legs around her own neck while rhythmically tapping her face with a box of uncooked spaghetti noodles. That's normal for us. The truth is, it took me far too long to realize the beauty in these differences, even if those quirks make us look a little bit strange to the rest of the world. Yes, my examples of special needs behaviors are a bit exaggerated, but my kids came from some pretty horrible places and were forced to adapt to living in almost animal-like conditions. I know that their unconventional methods of stimming and underdeveloped verbal communication skills are works in progress, but still there are days when I ask myself, “why can't my kids have normal special needs behaviors?” (surely I can't be the only one to ever ask that). Then I remember that normal is only relative to what we're used to, and by changing our definition of the word, we begin the see that the varying behaviors of each individual child with special needs is normal. My wife and I, we chose special needs, while others are blessed with it a bit more...naturally. I guess it doesn't matter either way. Because today, I can put myself in the shoes of the parents of that little boy with Down Syndrome in the crocodile pool, smiling at their child; their pride and joy; the love of their life, because neither them or I could even think of looking at our kids as anything other than normal.