By Dani Eisman
Happy Birthday dear Auri! Happy Birthday to you! Hebrew! Yom hu’ledet sameach (x5) Are you 4 are you 5 are you 6? Yay!!! Everyone else erupts with applause, shouting “yea!” but I feel like “ugh.” I envy kids competing for the first bites of the delicious looking cake while my mom hands me my “special” non-dairy dark chocolate.
I am allergic to dairy, egg, nuts, seafood, coconut, wheat, and soy. At 18, I no longer attend classic birthday cake parties. Now I am embarrassed at dinner parties when I must refuse certain foods. However, I am thankful for my allergies for influencing a dominant interest and drive in my life–advocating for children with disabilities. While my love for children runs deeper than my allergies, my food struggles are a major source of my empathy for special needs children.
At 13, I discovered this passion with Jill, a family friend born with several physical disabilities in Los Angeles, California. She lacked muscle tone and was resuscitated two times in her first few days of life. She endured three months in the NICU with her parents hoping for her survival.
In my first few days of life, I was also in the NICU due to jaundice and weight loss. A doctor decided to take me off dairy and my symptoms disappeared. Jill, on the other hand, did not have the luck of disappearing symptoms and must work hard for her muscular ability to be on par with children her age.
My experience getting to know Jill sparked my interest to work in the special education field. Whenever she visited us in New York, we were inseparable and I looked forward to family trips to California to see her. I started my first job working for an occupational therapist. A year later, I worked as a summer intern at Parkside, a special education school. By the time I was 15, I created a babysitting service focused on children with special needs.
I have learned the first step in helping children with disabilities is forming a bond. I always find something – a tv show, a favorite sport or color. For example, I formed a relationship based on a dress with a student at Parkside, Carol. She has trouble trusting people and deflects intimacy and instruction by becoming silly, laughing uncontrollably, and running away. I told her how much I loved her blueberry blue dress when it fans out as she twirls and sings “Let it Go.” Thing is – she wears this dress, everyday. I eventually eased Carol into challenging her dress obstacle by pushing her to wear a new dress for a few hours and giving her a sticker reward if she wore a new one.
Carol’s need to wear the same dress daily to feel comfortable reminds me of my need to stay comfortable around food. There was a time when I would tell people I’m not hungry when they offered me food instead of telling them the truth. My allergies and desire to be comfortable eating helped me to understand that children with learning disabilities also simply want to be comfortable, “normal” children.
In order to cope with my food allergies, I learned to bake. Baking has been my answer to the problem of finding food outside the house. I have numerous allergy friendly cookbooks that allow me to eat great desserts without sending me to the ER. I prove to myself that my small disability is manageable. Likewise, many special needs children discover ways to manage their disabilities. It’s rewarding to help them exercise their resourcefulness, form everlasting bonds and gain humility and empathy along the way. I want to go beyond this joy and gain more knowledge about children with learning disabilities. While my experience allows me to understand children on a deep level, I am eager to find ways to improve the special education field and make the world better for special needs children.
Dani Eisman, a freshman at New York University, is a graduate of the Robert Louis Stevenson School.