Parenting adult children can go beyond your own. Your children’s spouses, their friends, your nieces and nephews and young adults you meet at work or in social situations are all sources of delight and inspiration.

Take my 33-year-old niece Melanie. I recently spent a weekend with her and came to realize how wonderful she really is. She has special needs—she has an intellectual disability—but that’s not what makes her special. Apart from the fact that she sits on the board of People First, a national organization for people with intellectual disabilities, she understands and accepts herself better than most people I know.

I love being with her. We enjoy the same things—on our recent visit we went to the National Art Gallery, we saw a film, we ate thin crust pizza and we wandered through the ByWard Market in Ottawa trying on silly hats that we knew we would never buy.

We had a discussion about what it means to have an intellectual disability. She told me how at one Easter dinner she felt totally excluded. A number of non-family members were there and the conversation was at a level that was beyond her comprehension.  She had nothing to say and no-one directed the discussion her way. She kept quiet and left the party discouraged.

She felt the same way at my parents, her grandparents, 60th wedding anniversary party. Almost everyone was a relative, but there were lots of people she didn’t know or didn’t know well. She spent a lot of time by herself in my parent’s suite in their senior citizens home where we held the event. She told me she didn’t like big parties.

I explained that I wasn’t a big party girl myself. We talked about how to introduce oneself at parties, how to ask an innocuous question such as how the guest was related to her grandparents, and then turn the conversation to a topic she knew something about. She loves film and can discuss almost any movie released in the last 10 years, including the stars, the director, and the reviews.  She has a natural topic of conversation.  She thought it was hilarious to have questions and topics in the back of your head and we both commiserated about how we had to manage our way through situations like these.

While I taught my niece a few things about parties, she taught me a few things about courage. While she may not always be able to speak up at parties, she does when it’s critical.

She told me about the first time she asked someone to speak more slowly because she has an intellectual disability. Her dentist was explaining a procedure and she didn’t understand a thing.

She stopped him and said:

“I have an intellectual disability and I don’t understand what you are saying.  Could you please speak more simply so that I can understand?”

There was a pause.

“I can do that,” the dentist said.  And he did.

She was about 18 at the time and she has since said this to other people.  I asked her what usually happens.  “There’s always a silence before they respond,” she said.  “I bet there is,” I replied, and we both laughed.

It takes courage for anyone, no matter what their I.Q., to admit they don’t understand something.  It’s especially gutsy coming from a woman with an intellectual disability. My niece’s attitude is inspiring—if she can do it, we all can do it.

Do you have experience parenting a child who lives with an intellectual disability? What lessons have you learned?  Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment in the Reply Box below. 

The names and a few minor details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals. My niece gave me permission to post this article. 

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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. I just love what you wrote…. you have a great niece!

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  2. I have learned so much from my sister who has an intellectual disability, or as I like to sometimes say, special gifts and abilities. She has taught me courage, believing in oneself, expression of all emotions, how to be inclusive, and how to see the beauty that each and every person possesses and contributes to the world. Not to mention helping me with all my technology questions. 😉

    And AWESOME blog, by the way!

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  3. I have found that the intellectually disabled person is often ignored in social situations, large or otherwise, where they get lost in the conversation as your niece experienced. They have opinions and ideas that they want to share if only allowed to join in. Everyone should try and make a guest comfortable in social situations whether disabled or not. Your niece was brave to ask the dentist to explain —it was his responsibility to make it easy for her to understand and she had every right to ask it of him. Good for her! It shows that she understands her limitations and wants people to accept her the way she is.

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  4. It is amazing how we can ignore people who are different from ourselves. It is our loss!

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  5. Great article. I’m always inspired by Melanie! Her disability has not kept her from grabbing life by the horns and doing amazing things.

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