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This is a salute to the people who choose to work with our kids with special needs — especially the young people. This is about how I’m impressed by them, how I’m in awe of them, how I salute them.

And yes, it’s about the teachers, of course — big props go to the special education teachers. My son had a lot of great teachers over the years. He’s got a great one now. But this story isn’t really about them. It’s about all the young people who work with kids and adults with special needs, sometimes for little more than minimum wage, at music therapy, swimming at the Y, in group home settings, etc.

Every Sunday when I take my son to special-needs swim, the idea pops back in my head. He’s had a new swim instructor since September. He’s probably 19, 20 years old. And is he the greatest swim instructor for teaching stroke technique? No, probably not. But the whole 30 minutes he has my son in the pool, he’s talking to him, he’s smiling at him, he’s looking at him under the water with his goggles on and he’s laughing a lot. He’s just a sweet kid.

My wife went up to the guy who runs the program to pay this instructor a compliment. And this guy is so used to hearing complaints that he immediately thought that’s what was coming. But she said, “He’s a sweetheart, and I wanted you to know.”

And that made me realize that you often only hear about people who work with kids with special needs in the news when something really bad happens or when the instructor somehow has some amazing breakthrough with the kids. And in the middle are the thousands of people who work with these kids on a daily basis and don’t bring on miracles but just do their job really well with a smile on their faces.

Every Sunday while my son is in his one-on-one swim lesson, about 30 kids with special needs ranging in age from 7 to 20 get in the pool for half an hour as part of their three-hour “Sunday Fun Day” program. And every Sunday, I see these kids, and I see the people who are working with them. And I see them in what others might consider some pretty uncomfortable situations, like in the locker room.

Now what made these people decide to work in this environment? These jobs can’t be paying any better than McDonald’s or a fast food restaurant. But here these young adults are helping teenagers with special needs go to the bathroom. Here they are in the locker room helping 17-year-old boys get dressed. People on Facebook are always complaining about this young generation, about how self-centered they are, but I just don’t see it. The young people we see in our circles couldn’t be nicer. And they seem a lot more tolerant than the older generation.

I will readily admit that I wouldn’t have wanted to have a job like that when I was in my late teens or early 20s. I would’ve chosen the fast food restaurant over working at a special needs camp in a heartbeat. I still probably would.  So who are these people? And what makes them decide to do this work?

They could be like my niece and nephew. They could have a kid with special needs in their lives, like a brother, sister, cousin, etc.

And I know some of you are thinking, “What about the volunteers? There are some young adults who volunteer to work with our kids.”

Yes, many of them deserve a salute, too, but I gotta admit, I’m more impressed by the people who get paid poorly than I am with the volunteers who get paid nothing. That’s because some volunteers are in it for college credit, or to hit some high school donation hours quota or because it will look good on a college application. In September, you see a lot of fresh-faced volunteers, but I believe the people still there in December are in it for the right reasons.

They’re not miracle workers. They’re not having any huge breakthroughs with their clients. But they show up for work every day, have tolerance and have a smile on their faces for the most part. The youth of this generation get a bad wrap, don’t they? But they seem to me to be a lot more tolerant and open to people with special needs than previous generations.

When you think someone is doing a good job, tell them, and tell their boss! Bosses are so used to hearing complaints about their employees from the public that getting a compliment can make their day.

Follow this journey on Autism Daddy.

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