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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pearce

Celebrating a 21st Birthday - With Special Needs it's a Mixed Bag

The date is fast approaching. 21. This is big. I thought 10 was a big birthday. Then I thought 18 was huge. But 21. This is a whole other level. TWENTY. ONE.

Like many parents, when our children, our babies, hit certain birthday milestones, we feel a combination of elation and sadness. There exists a beautiful sense of joy and pride, like an elegant balloon floating in your heart and keeping it full.

Within the balloon, in tiny bubbles of air, there also exists a bittersweet sadness. You cannot separate the emotions into distinct entities. They naturally and beautifully intermingle in our hearts and minds.

As I encountered and recognized this feeling within me, I understood that seeing my son turning 21 is remarkable. We almost didn't make it at his birth, so 21 years of being gratefully alive is worth acknowledging!

I also understood that turning 21, for most, means a new level of independence and determination. Many graduate from schools of higher learning. Many begin their first jobs. Some travel to distant lands, while others return home after ambitious explorations.

By 21, the wings we parents aim to secure to the backs of our precious children are being put to use. And there's certainly trepidation for all: parents wonder if what they taught their child through the years will be enough to sustain them; children (now full-grown adults) wonder if they have what it takes to soar.

In the world of special needs, it's, well, different. There are different levels of independence, different types of learning. Different possibilities, and in some cases, limited possibilities. There may be a job, or a day program, or a combination of both. The release, if you will, into the "real world" can feel a bit unceremonious. It takes looking at different differently.

Special needs parents are generally the ones to help their adult children navigate this transition. It's pretty clear and common knowledge that there's just not an abundance of exciting and soul-stirring opportunities out there for individuals with special needs. What's considered just right for the person is often hard to find and is largely dependent on geographical location.

Now with my son turning 21, he is able to remain in school (for now). He doesn't drive, and potentially, he never will. Whatever life awaits him past his formal education will be steered and supervised by us, his parents. This is part of why 21 gives me twinges of sadness.

Yet, as I look through photos to post on Facebook as part of the birthday celebration, I realize something. He's accumulated thousands of miles on road trips to all kinds of incredible destinations. He's hung out with cousins, classmates, neighbors, and relatives and is 100% completely accepted for who he is.

He's listened to hundreds of books being to read to him and is learning how to type. He has had lessons in gymnastics, swimming, and horseback riding, and he's done well in each sport. He rides an adult trike with skill and precision, and most importantly, enjoyment. He even zip lined in Lake Tahoe.

He's traveled to Washington, D.C. and New York City. He's been to countless museums and even tolerated walking through Times Square! He does jobs with us around the house, especially in the kitchen, and he's the best cleaner-upper you'll ever meet.

Does it pain my heart that he hasn't had the level of independence that all parents expect and hope for when their baby comes into this world? Yes. It does. But, are his adventures and memories any less because they were created and experienced primarily with his parents, who treasure him more than he could possibly know?

It's different, not less. As he reaches 21, that "key to the door" milestone, he will continue to live the life he knows surrounded by the people who love and protect him. It doesn't mean that because of disability he is caged or limited; his flight path is just different.

I think reaching 21 would be far sadder if my son didn't have fantastic experiences in his life and a bunch of people who love him. When he's 25 or 30...50...70, there will be thousands of photos that reveal a life well-lived and enjoyed to the fullest potential.

As 21 approaches for us, and for any parent of a special needs individual, it's worthwhile to remain focused on joy and gratitude and accomplishment - whatever that looks like for a family.

If you concentrate on those little bursts of sadness, they crowd out the coexisting happiness, and it weighs down the balloon.

I think we'll try to glide into Zach's 21st birthday with smiles on our faces, contentment in our hearts, and hands on our wine glasses. Now, when he tries to steal a sip, he can legally have one, so we better look out!


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