Landing on Naboo: Geek Parenthood With a Special Needs Child

There’s a sort of essay/poem out there that’s often given to the parents of a child with special needs. It’s called “Welcome to Holland.”

I hate it.

To be fair, I probably wasn’t in the right sort of mindset when I first read it, not so long after my husband and I found out our firstborn son would have Down syndrome. I was 30. I didn’t see this coming. I wanted to go to my original destination, frak it, and I was in no mood to be assured that our new destination would be just fine.

When you find out your child has special needs, you suddenly start to question everything you envisioned for your future, and for their future. Will he be able to live on his own someday? Will she be able to drive? Will he learn to read? Will she be able to speak and communicate?

For us as geek parents–for any parents with strong interests, really–there’s more. Will we be able to take him to conventions? Will he appreciate them? Will she be able to follow an episode of Star Trek? What about Star Wars? We’re both writers; will he develop our appreciation for the written word? Will we be able to take her to the Kennedy Space Center? Can I read him The Hobbit? Will he understand it at all?

After the initial period of adjustment, we regrouped. We welcomed our son. And if things were a bit different from our initial expectations (a period of time in the NICU, therapy appointments, etc.), we began as we meant to go on.

Jim watched his first episode of Star Trek (“Mirror Mirror”) at only a few weeks old. He regularly sported a onesie with a picture of Darth Vader and the words “Who’s Your Daddy?” He grew into toddlerhood thinking “The Imperial March” was a lullaby. (And he developed a love for the music of John Williams that persists to this day.)

He visited Walt Disney World with us when he was just past a year old. (And took it in like a champ.) He developed a fascination for Spider-Man and Batman, in particular, through a few beloved toys. He waited in line with us when the final Harry Potter book was released in 2007, eyes wide at all the colors and music and costumes.

And when he was 3, we welcomed his little brother.

Photo: Jill Keppeler Jim, age 3, right, watched Star Wars: A New Hope with his baby brother.
Photo: Jill Keppeler
Jim, age 3, right, watched ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ with his baby brother.

One infant, really, is much like another, and in the beginning, life with Sam was no different. (Except for the joys and trials of having two small boys in the house, of course.) But as he started to grow, and learn, and express opinions, the differences became more and more apparent.

Sam developed a passion for the Star Wars movies, all six of them. (Jim will watch for a bit, but his main interest is the music.) We played our way through every Lego-related game available for our console–including the titles related to Batman and Marvel characters, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park. (Those games are the geek equivalent of a gateway drug, I swear.)

We read our way through The Hobbit together, and we watched the LOTR movies. We tackled the first three Harry Potter books. There were in-depth conversations about the comparative motivations of Voldemort and Darth Vader and Sauron. He asked to go to his first convention, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for a sixth birthday present. We obliged. Jim stayed with his grandparents.

There was guilt. It’s tricky. Jim hates crowds; he doesn’t deal with them well at all. Conventions seemed like a complete no-go.

However, Sam requested Niagara Falls Comic Con again for this year’s birthday, and in an effort to take some time off the line-waiting Saturday morning, we all ventured over the border to pick up our passes on Friday evening, with a great deal of trepidation on Jim’s behalf.

He loved it.

He loved the costumes. He loved the people. He loved the array of merchandise and characters he recognized. He was beside himself at the opportunity to meet “Spider-Man!” (Thank you, unknown cosplayer who took the time to stop for an excited little boy.) The crowds weren’t as crazy on a weekday evening, and it never got hectic enough to get under his skin.

It was a success completely unlooked for.

You learn to cherish those.

Recently, Sam and I started reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That, along with a few local Potter-themed events, restarted his fascination with the subject, and I fielded questions every day about wands and houses and Muggles. (And the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando, which is a goal of ours.) Jim watched with interested confusion on the outskirts.

Would he get it, this elaborate world that Rowling constructed? Would he understand any of the wordplay, the names rooted in mythology? Would he catch the clues, the hints, of events yet to come?

Did it matter?

So, one evening, I grabbed my battered copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and pulled it out as I tucked Jim in. I didn’t know how far I’d get before he lost interest, but I knew I wanted to try.

He beamed. He beamed steadily throughout the half-chapter we read that night, and every night since. I don’t know how much he’s following or retaining, but he’s asking for “Harry Potter, Mom!” every night before bed, and that’s good enough for me.

I still don’t care for the “Holland” essay. But I understand it.

As geek parents, perhaps, it’s like planning to land on Coruscant… and getting diverted to Naboo. Nothing wrong with Naboo… and eventually, you find your way to Coruscant anyway. You just have to take a different route than you originally thought. And once you’re there, you find your priorities have changed.

Maybe for the better.

Next year, we have the same plan for Niagara Falls Comic Con. We’ll continue on with the Harry Potter books. Jim won’t go to the opening of The Force Awakens on opening weekend with the rest of us, but when the crowds start to slow, you bet we’ll try to take it in. (And we’ll be sure to get him the soundtrack the day it’s released.)

And next, we’re going to read The Hobbit.