Funny how I came to work with special needs kids. I mean really. The only experience I had with people who had mental disabilities was from my childhood, and it was extremely negative.
I had a distant cousin who had Down Syndrome. I saw her only occasionally at big family get-togethers, usually at Easter. She was quite a bit older than I was, and I was WARNED about her. Due to an incident involving another cousin of mine, I was specifically warned not to wear necklaces when she was around because she would try to grab it, and would choke me in the process. I was further led to believe that she was abnormally strong, and if she were to latch on to me, I would be lucky to survive.
I was so afraid of this sweet girl. It made me so nervous to be anywhere near her. I really didn't even want to go to any events that she might possibly attend.
I think that this girl probably did touch my cousin's necklace, and I imagine that my cousin over-reacted and her drama queen of a mother embellished the horror (or lack thereof) for her own enjoyment (my aunt was actually the mentally unstable one, as we would all find out much, much later). The story of the necklace grabbing and my cousin's narrow escape from death at the clutches of this girl soon became a family legend of sorts.
Because of this, the mentally handicapped always made me nervous and uneasy. Just by chance I ended up subbing in special ed when I signed on with the school district as an aide. As soon as I met the precious little ones afflicted with Down's, autism and other disorders, all my old fears and predjudices flew right out the window, and I fell in love, especially with the Down Syndrome kids, whom I've come to find out, are the sweetest and gentlest souls on the planet.
Just last week I came across this post which touched my heart. It's encouraging to see that people with special needs are more readily accepted and understood now, and I regret that I lived a good deal of my life with a bias against them.