When Dysfunctional is Your Normal

A couple of generations ago I doubt many were familiar with the word “dysfunctional” as used to describe a family unit. I never heard the word applied to anyone I knew when I was a kid, yet I knew there were plenty of families that were “different,” including mine. Without going into detail, as a kid I used to wonder what it would be like to live in a “normal” family, and in the simplest of terms, normal meant living differently than I did.

My son who is vision and hearing impaired, along with motor disabilities, has commented to me a number of times through his communication devices, “Dad, I just wish I was normal.”

My response is, “Me too, son, I’ve always wanted to be normal.” Then we laugh over it.

It makes a point. There are probably no two families who function exactly alike, even if they are closely related. So it makes me wonder, does something that is normal to one family come across as dysfunctional to another?

In my experiences as a dad to 2 disabled sons, and observing many other families with special needs members, I have to say that the overwhelming common denominator between us is how we so often seem to have the uncanny knack for making the dysfunction work. We adapt, we learn what works and what doesn’t. We get used to middle-of-the-night toileting assistance, or medications, or seizures. We get used to altering the way we cook or eat, or regular meal times, because the special needs member of the family must eat differently. We know there are some restaurants we can go to and be comfortable, and those we cannot go to. We fall into routines of making special preparations for travel, for boarding planes, and pit stops to take care of personal needs that are out of the ordinary. A lot of us keep special travel bags packed, with medications, diapers, changes of clothes, a quick meal, among other things, for our special needs child and it always accompanies us whether we are going to the grocery store or flying across the country. You learn that you just have to be prepared to care for your child under almost any contingency.

And it works. I’ve been to a number of conferences for special needs families, who have children with disabilities and diseases ranging from the very mildly affected to the profoundly affected. I’ve noticed that through all the hoops and hurdles they manage to get there, and their children are well taken care of, and sometimes the whole family seems to have a choreographed routine that somehow makes everything work and come together, every time.

It’s awesome. Think what the United Nations could learn from us? Or the travel industry? Or governments in general? Think of how well we function with taking care of those who demand the least but require the most. And we love them with all our hearts. I hear a lot of comments about special needs families being dysfunctional, and there are those always looking for the breakdowns. But in reality, most special needs families I have come across function with incredible dynamics often against huge odds. And perhaps that just about makes us normal.

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