Can We Play?

“...Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matt. 18:3, ESV)

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This past Labor Day Weekend, while my wife was busily preparing for the start of her teaching year, I had my son all to myself for a Saturday afternoon. The weather was nice and we had all the time we wanted, so I decided to take him to a playground designed for Special Needs Children in a suburb about an hour drive from us. I had seen postings from other parents on social media about this park, and after looking at a bunch of the pictures shown, I thought it was perfect. What made the park unique was that all of the playground equipment had been designed to be adaptable for any type of physical disability. There were ramps on the climbing equipment, adaptive swings on zip-lines, adaptive seesaws with actual seats, and the entire surface was soft rubber.

Although I was excited to bring my son here, I admittedly had some anxiety as I usually do when bringing him to any playground, especially a new one. My son, of course, has autism, is non verbal, and has a sensory disorder to the point where he constantly seeks input, frequently banging on slides or other equipment. This of course means that he usually gets looks from the kids around him, even the littlest ones, and many times kids will just keep their distance from him. While he doesn’t seem to mind, and now being eleven we have become used to many of these experiences, my heart still breaks a little any time we have an “encounter” at the park. I certainly hoped that this park, being designed with Special Needs in mind, would be a welcoming environment.

I just wanted to bring my son to an outdoor space where he could just be himself and I could not only be more comfortable with him physically safe, but also with being emotionally safe.

When we arrived, I noticed there were only a few cars in the lot, and therefore it was not busy, which is a welcome sign since that means less kids to have a bad interaction with. Upon walking into the playground I was more than pleasantly surprised with the layout and the equipment, and was glad to see other special needs kids both younger ones and adolescents enjoying the park.

It didn’t take long for my son to come into the space of a teenage girl on one of the equipment ramps, and while he kept his distance, the mom of the girl started chatting with me. She wasn’t judgmental or puzzled, she had a smile on her face as she engaged me with friendly conversation about my son and his condition. I shared about his autism and communication issues, she shared that her daughter had Angelman’s syndrome, and was also non verbal, though like my son had some limited speech. We both commented on how grateful we were for the park and how great it was that something like this existed, and there was just a sense of acceptance that I really don’t get to experience much. 

After my son got visibly tired out and too hot to keep playing, we made our way out of the playground and back to the car, taking our leisurely drive back home, having had a wonderful time playing. That was the whole miracle of this afternoon, the fact that my son was welcomed, without condition, by total strangers, who didn’t just tolerate him, they accepted him, and wanted him to feel like he belonged. This was our little slice of heaven for the day, a place where my child could be a child, play and be himself, and while I watched I noticed my heart heal itself just a little bit that day.

Written by John Felageller

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John lives in Northbrook, IL with his wife Elizabeth and his son Christopher (ASD), and is currently an Elementary Teacher at a Charter School in Chicago, IL.  He is a regular contributor to Key Ministry’s Special Needs Family blog, and is both a live presenter and on Key Ministry’s Facebook page. He coordinates a Special Needs Dads meet-up in his community and works with several other local Special Needs organizations that serve both parents and children.


Connect with John on his Facebook page here.