I have one experience with people with special needs. It had a profound effect on me.
My senior year of high school I took physics, and one day our teacher told us that in a couple weeks some children with special needs would be coming in to conduct a simple experiment. We would set up a ramp with a toy car and time how long it took the car to travel down the ramp. We would do three runs, then average the car’s speed.
Nice and simple and pretty fun.
None of us knew how we would respond. After all, we had never been in this position before, never had this exposure.
I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to be disrespectful.
So the day came, and the children filed in. Each of us was paired with a student, and we took our places at our respective lab stations with the materials laid out ahead of time.
I can still see the face of my partner. I think he was more nervous than I was. After all, he had never been in this position, never had this exposure, either.
I introduced myself and asked him a few questions about himself. I could tell he was excited, not just to be handling a toy car, but to be treated respectfully, friendly, as a peer.
While I propped up the ramp I explained what we were doing. His gaze was fixed squarely on the toy car. That’s what he wanted to do: send it rolling down.
So that’s what he did. I timed it; he released it. We were only supposed to do three runs, but we ended up doing about 12. He was having so much fun that I couldn’t stop him.
Eventually, we worked out the math, and the session was over. I told him how much fun I had and asked him if he enjoyed it as well. He smiled and nodded, and his teacher rounded her students up and led them back to their classroom.
As I was sitting at my desk afterward, I had a lot on my mind: how much I take for granted, how small my problems were, how lucky I am.
It was the first time I was put in a social situation I didn’t know how to handle. I had never interacted with a person with special needs before, and I didn’t want to offend him. But we had fun. I know he had a good time with the simple, mundane task of launching the car. I learned a lot about enjoying the small things from that day.
I eventually used that story in an entrance essay for the University of Washington.
I bring this up because of the story I wrote about Jillian Smalley, a local young woman who has autism and is an accomplished bowler for the local Special Olympics team.
We were supposed to meet to go bowling Thursday, and I was excited to see her in action and, undoubtedly, get beaten. The weather had other ideas, however, and I was disappointed.
We did have a chance to meet, though, and she was friendly. She smiled widely when she shook my hand. She wasn’t at all fazed by the cold weather.
Her mother, Kristi, told me that Jilly enjoys bowling for the sake of bowling — because rolling a ball down a lane and knocking over pins is fun, not because she’s good at it.
“I think all other athletes could really learn from them because they do it for the joy of the sport,” she said. “They love participating.”
I think it goes further than that. I think everyone can learn a lot from people with neurological disabilities: their positivity, their joy in things other people consider small or mundane, their friendliness.
I know her life is not always fairies and unicorns, but there is something about Jillian that I admire, and something about Kristi, too. It’s their perseverance. Kristi and her husband have stuck by their daughter’s side through everything. Kristi often says “we” when recounting Jillian’s experiences. That’s because she is so involved in everything Jillian does: from practicing dance routines to walking Jillian around the bases in a baseball game, Kristi is by her daughter’s side. That kind of perseverance is absolutely admirable.
Jillian’s perseverance is even more admirable.
To go from being completely averse to bowling — and sports in general — when she started to now being an accomplished bowler, a basketball player, a soccer player, is amazing. Kristi said Jillian doesn’t do it because her parents want her to, she does it because she likes it, because her friends do it, because it’s fun.
When I met Jillian Thursday, I thought back to that day in physics class. It was the small things that made my partner happy. It’s the small things that make Jillian happy.
I think we can all learn from that.
— Sam Barbee is the sports reporter for the Hermiston Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org