Living a Purposeful Life: Our Friends with Special Needs As Our Greatest Teachers

I see a lot of stressed unhappy people out there. And I wonder, how can we change that? I mean, we all have different battles to fight. And we all have different things that make us happy and sad. The online self-help bookshelves at Amazon have multiple aisles. There are therapists and any drug you can name that advertise relief.

With so many tools available, why do so many seem as stressed as ever? It’s like a competition to see who is busier. I overhead a conversation waiting in the check-out line at a grocery store. Two ladies ran into each other, and soon they were competing over who had less sleep. Is that really a competition you want to win? 

There is a difference between being purposeful and being busy. It seems that being busy is supposed to win us a gold star. But how purposeful are we really in our busyness? Are we missing the point as we run in circles?


I don’t have the answers, but it sure hurts to see so many people hurting. We seem busier but unhappier. I don’t believe there are any secrets but I do believe there are methods to being happier in life. And it does involve making some changes….in who you talk to.

I will tell you, every time I go to a special needs event I am filled up. Not just by the participants, but also those doing the volunteering. Now, I’m being very general here because everyone is an individual; but when you are talking and working with someone with special needs, for the most part, their learning style doesn’t so easily fit the norm. Most of us typical folks adapt even if it isn’t our preferred way of learning. But you can’t tell a child with Down syndrome to hurry up when they don’t want to. It ain’t gonna happen. You can’t talk to a child with autism in generalities, you won’t get through or you will have someone very upset on your hands. You have to slow down and think through what you are going to say. You can’t just force things. You have to look at things from their perspective. Now, that may sound stressful to some of you, and at times it can be. But here’s the secret…it gets you out of your own stressful world that continuously spins around in your head. It forces you to think above all that noise on a different plane. To broaden your perspective and throw in a dose of compassion. And even though you may have some very big things on your plate, these experiences have the power make them shift to a better place in your mind. 

At a recent Special Olympics function, I was sitting on the side of a hill with a few of the athletes. I struck up a conversation with two of the gentleman. One of them works at a nursing home. He stutters a bit, but that did not slow down his enthusiasm in explaining how he cleans the floors, makes the beds, takes care of general room clean-up. I barely needed to ask a question before he was answering it. I was thoroughly enjoying our conversation. I actually found myself almost to tears. I’m sure it was part happiness seeing this young man thrive as Wil will be a young adult in 6 years. But, mostly I think it was the pure joy I felt as a child. Sitting on a grassy hill in the summer sun and having an enthusiastic conversation. It was so refreshing. He wasn’t telling me how stressed he was to clean the floors, or how some coworker was an absolute jerk, or how he hadn’t slept in 3 days. He was a man grateful for his daily life and couldn’t wait to tell me all about it. I want to be more like him. Sorry, ladies competing in the grocery store aisle, my new friend is the real winner. 

So many of us are given more cognitive abilities than this man, and yet we use most of our time stressed to the hilt. I’m not saying that we do not have very important things to attend to. But what I am saying is that it’s ok to take a step back. To take a good look to be sure what we are doing has purpose to it. To find a purpose for growth and a broader perspective, and in some cases, great enthusiasm.

The next time I get stressed, or overwhelm myself, I’m going to bring myself back to the conversation on the grassy hill. Our friends with special needs may need our help to achieve certain goals, but we need their help just as much, if not more, to remember what a purposeful life is meant to be. 

Emphasis on Happiness

“Ok, Wil, here is your sandwich.”
“Thanks, Mom.”
“Uh, oh, there is a bite missing! How did that happen?”
“Awww, Mom, it was you.”
“Me? Huh, no way!”
“It was definitely you!”

“Definitely” adverb. Without doubt (used for emphasis).

Definitely is not a word essential to getting a message across. When kids start speaking, they give you the one or two essential words. “No!” “Hungry!” Soon, they start adding 2-3 essentials together. “Pick me up!” “You go!” “Wake up now!” And then they start peppering in the extras. No big news here, but it’s still darn exciting when those first words come, and then the second words, and soon there are short burst of sentences. By the time our kids are adding in the extras, we are on to bigger things.

Unless your child takes longer than others to put those essentials together. Eliciting one essential word may take multiple techniques to draw out. But here’s the bonus: With every single step toward a new word your perspective starts to change. You are so honed in on what is happening, the essential words become the extras. Words like definitely aren’t even on the radar. If you can just get one word, your whole world will turn upside down. And then 2 words, did your heart just burst in a million pieces for 2 words? Well, yes it did! You begin to notice every little change in sound, a rise or dip in tone, the process in formation of each blossoming word. And with all of that said, some words just bust out of your child’s mouth as if he’s been saying that word effortlessly for years. They will stare at you in awe as you jump up and down with joy for what they have no idea!

Wil has been speaking in sentences for quite some time now. We’ve moved on to working on initiating conversations: “Do you want to play Uno?” (be weary of accepting this invitation, the kid throws down Wild +4 cards with no remorse). Even so, I still feel a deep inner joy each time he spouts off a multi-word sentence. He’s started peppering his sentences with adverbs and adjectives now. They are quite impromptu. While most of his sentences contain the essentials, he’ll throw a little impromptu surprise party on an otherwise typical day saying that it was “definitely” me who took a bite from his sandwich. Then he walks off with his sandwich while I’m doing cartwheels across the kitchen floor.

“Down syndrome.” noun. Essential for happiness (emphasis on perspective change).