I remember Jasmine well.  She was either in her playpen or in her wheelchair.  She was maybe 70 pounds and maybe 15 years old.  Since birth, she had lived with a condition that shut down against her becoming normally nourished and strong, or being able to talk or listen.

She was in a class of what had been described as one for the “severely handicapped” in her public high school, yet her challenge was far greater than any other student in the class.  She spent the hours of her class in three places; in her playpen decorated with colorful and moveable toys, in front of a computer screen at a student desk to watch animated scenes with lively music, and being pushed around the school outdoor property in her wheelchair by a para-educator during the class’s physical education break.

It may be common to find people who try to make themselves more marketable to social access, so they learn to play a guitar toward being invited to more guitar-needed parties, or they learn Spanish so that they can acquire more Mexican-American friends and join them in a Spanish fete.  But there could be no ulterior motive in becoming friends to Jasmine.  She could not understand what you said.  She could not talk to you, or play music to you.  There was no money that would ever be around her to transact a business deal with you.

So, friendship with Jasmine could only exist with one purpose; an altruistic purpose.

As I made my rounds in my teaching role every couple into Jasmine’s class, my goal with Jasmine was more for myself than a goal for her.  I needed to develop the patience to be satisfied with some non-verbal hours with the goal of successfully smiling with her.  Smiling was something Jasmine could do, brilliantly, and she would do that to reward what she appreciated.

For example, after so many hours in her playpen, she would greatly appreciate being wheeled to a computer where she could view and listen to the animated music.  When this was in full swing, she smiled brilliantly, much better than any smile I had tried myself, but then again smiling was not what I was known for.  In contrast, smiling was what Jasmine was famous for. 

In other areas of the class, students of the “extreme handicapped” category were learning the rudiments of reading and writing.  Many of these students dealt with their ongoing autism and Down Syndrome.  But the rudiments of reading and writing were far beyond what Jasmine was equipped to do.  Only one other student – a boy named Joseph – was also in a wheelchair with a kind of physical siege suffered along with cognitive devastation.

Truly the special education classes of cognitively challenged students have increased enormously in the past 50 years with the aggressive increase in the number of child autism cases in the U.S. in that time.

Because 50 years ago, it was unusual to find even one person with autism in any community of 1,000 people.  Today, one out of every 68 children born in America develops autism in within their first three or four years.  We are so busy trying to deal with it that in our homes and schools that we have yet to come close to defining the cause of it.  But what we can settle on is that there is a cause for all this autism developing.  Everything in the universe has a cause.  As Einstein wrote to the quantum mechanics community, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

This universe also does not play dice with its challenges.  One of those challenges addressed by the special education community that Jasmine has been a part is to create better lives for all these students now with autism and Down Syndrome.  Even while just getting to know autism, educational inroads have been especially with special computer training to help autistic children read and write.  And the special education community has now grown to know Down Syndrome so well that it is setting the foundation for better how to create adult lives with the syndrome.  The success rate in this endeavor is expressed in a life expectancy for Down Syndrome in the United States to now be 60 years old.  In 1983, the life expectancy for Down Syndrome was 25 years old.

In years of working with students with these conditions, and studying the subject, I feel like I have never met people with more pleasant personalities than those who have Down Syndrome.  They can get angry, but it is not so much anger out of hostility and envy like ours.  They in contrast can get angry out of frustration, because they want to do more beyond their limitations.

But still, Jasmine would have been greatly empowered if she had only had Down Syndrome.  But her health was attacking her on all fronts. When I last entered her classroom, her playpen was not there.  I asked her regular teacher about her whereabouts. “Jasmine has passed,” she said solemnly.  My hands suddenly and involuntarily rose above my head.  “Do you remember Joseph?” the regular teacher asked me.  “Joseph has passed as well.”

Joseph went with Jasmine, was my first thought.

Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.