John M. O’Connor is a multi-year career coach, outplacement leader and leader based in North Carolina.
It’s been said that life changes when you have kids. Me? My life changed on July 30, 1998, when my twin boys Jack and Colin were born. Perfect from the start but not the same — Colin was always just a bit behind, hitting every milestone on the last possible day to be considered “normal.” As parents, we were told not to compare, “everyone develops at their own pace” — but there was no ignoring the differences.
By the world’s definition, Colin is on the spectrum. He possesses several diagnoses, including those that would be involved in isodicentric chromosome 15 syndrome, which in short is a developmental disorder with a broad spectrum of features. They present in Colin as intellectual delays, autism, cerebral palsy, seizures and more.
As a family with a child with special needs, we see him as a person and not a group of symptoms or setbacks. I tell him time and time again he’s “one of the greatest kids in the history of the world.” That great gift comes in many forms: the professionals who help him with daily tasks and the friends who engage and enjoy our beautiful but different-than-normal child.
Colin also made me a better person and helped me create unintentional but positive connections to others. He works so hard to relate in the ways he knows how, which is through verbal communication, compliments and conversation, even if it seems to go sometimes to unexplainable places. His ability to empathize is natural but unexpected. He once told a cashier at Walgreens that everything was going to be all right, which brought her to tears. She explained that his kind words were just what she needed on this hectic day. His so-called disconnection has brought our family, friends, acquaintances and strangers closer.
Most of us are too busy to in our harried experience to connect with others in meaningful ways. This hurts us in business and life. Colin is a natural teacher, and anyone willing to pay attention can learn from his genuine approach to life.
Avoid passing harsh judgments on others.
I really say this in the most affectionate way. Colin has great emotional intelligence. He is incapable of passing harsh or negative condemnation on others. The only people Colin doesn’t seem to like are people who aggressively dislike others. He literally knows no color, creed, religion, financial status, gender, sexual orientation or anything else you can imagine matters to him. He will say hi and talk to anybody anywhere, at any time. If you pass by or have your window down at a stoplight he may ask you, “How’s it going, man?” If you are in a store and walking by us, he may chat to you about his day or say, “I like your eyebrows.” Bottom line he wants to engage with you and the world. It doesn’t matter what you are going through; he wants to encourage you.
The takeaway? Everybody matters.
Treat everyone like a key part of your life.
Every moment of every day Colin is present in his life and in yours. That doesn’t mean he does not have time to reflect. By the way, he usually reflects by playing, singing and interacting with others on his Video Booth on an old Mac of ours. But the rest of the time he lives in and brings you into his world at the moment. In grocery store aisles, and anywhere, he could be listening to a song in his head and ask you to dance. He might up and tell you he loves you within one second of meeting him. In his world, you live in the moment.
The takeaway? Stop focusing on what’s next on the to-do list. Focus on where you are and who you are with.
Be curious, pause and listen.
Occasionally, as we get gas, stop or shop over the years, Colin will pull away from me and his other caregivers to test out a door or pull an item off the shelf. On other occasions, and because he can be at times ultra tuned to others like it’s a superpower, he looks at someone’s face and body language and reads them uncannily. Just the way he says hi and makes eye contact deserves study. People look; he means it. When they see him he asks them sincerely and from the heart: “Are you okay?” Then he listens and waits.
The reactions I have seen from this are instant tears, people pausing then hugging him, Colin asking to hug them (especially the ladies), shaking hands. Bottom line? It’s arresting, disarming. Most people take time, pause, listen and respond with love. These are moments Colin invites them into. These are moments they don’t forget.
The takeaway? Listen from the heart.
I don’t think I understand the total lesson of Colin yet. He’s too complicated to figure out. Like I am sure every loving parent would be, it is very hard to see him silenced, and at times I take great pause when this happens. As a family we have faced his seizures, falls, hospitalizations and other issues, but we remain humble and very thankful for Colin’s messages and focus on people.
I have heard it said that our children model our behavior, but if we are successful we will want to model their example. In that case, he’s the part of me that I want to be more like.