I lost him.

We were only halfway to our Vienna destination, sitting through a long layover at the Munich airport, and I had just gone around the corner, to buy him a coke. Less then four minutes. And Toni was gone.

As a father, I had been there before. You feel a stopwatch start inside you, the sweep second hand tickling your diaphragm. The scenarios you try to hold out of your mind, as you try to focus. Act fast, or you will lose the child. Game over.

But Toni wasn’t a child. He was a 24 year-old man with Down syndrome. And he was my responsibility. I had been accepted to give a talk at the Healthcare Clown International Meeting organized by Red Noses clown doctors in Vienna, on my experience as a clown coach and director with special needs clowns. In order to bring their voice as fully as possible, I chose to present with my friend and protege Toni, a brilliant Down clown. I would show them something about artistic autonomy. Kind of ironic that I’d lost my autonomous companion at a major European airport, before even arriving at the conference. I was about to faint with panic. Two minutes had passed.

He had a phone, of course, which he used to make interminable videos. But there was no phone card in it, as he would have emptied it as soon as he had the opportunity to call all his friends.Toni has a lot of friends, he’s very social.

And he’s probably just made a new one now. No panic…

Panicked, I started asking people, way too loud, if they’d seen a young man with Down syndrome. Someone had. That way. “That way” was the toilets. In the men’s room, I found Toni, charging his phone in the plug for electric razors. And, as long as he was there, pulling out paper towels and giving them to the men with wet hands. Nobody had tipped him yet, but they were a little baffled about his chat, as none of them spoke Italian, and Toni doesn’t speak anything else.

I had decided to start my talk with: “Special Needs and Special Skills.” Toni, like many of the differently-abled actors who work with us at “La Luna nel Pozzo,” has a special skill for deconstructing reality, and rebuilding it in a more playful manner.

“Differently-abled” is the most useful nomination I’ve found for the very special clowns I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last 20 years. “Special Needs,” although lighter on the tongue, takes us down the wrong track. I think there is nothing special about the needs of the “special needs.” They need to be seen. They need to be understood. And they need to feel included in their community, to feel meaning in their lives. Just like you and me, the normopaths of this world.

I believe that inasmuch as our clowning addresses these fundamental human needs, to be seen, understood, and included, it gains an existential depth.

But the differently-abled actors of my acquaintance bring some very special skills to their clowning, and this is why I am constantly including them in my work. They have much to teach the normopaths I work with when I lead residential clown workshops at “La Luna nel Pozzo,” much to teach about being fully in the moment, about keeping it simple.

They have much to teach the adolescents we work with, about not judging themselves, and not judging the other, about enjoying the healthy egoism of the child, who says, unselfconsciously, “Look at me! Look what I’m doing!” without worrying if what he is doing is “right,” or “good.”

And they have much to teach us about the eyes of love, about exercising what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

That’s why I’ve brought Toni to Vienna. I only have a 20-minute slot to tell my experience. But if Toni’s with me, I can use less words. Something moves directly from the heart, and reminds us of when we were simpler, and life was more fun.

Toni spent the entire 2-hour flight from Bari to Munich blowing kisses to the woman across the aisle. She was not annoyed, but delighted, because she could sense that he was sincere. Toni can’t lie, really, because he always breaks out laughing, when he does, because lying is fun.

I brought Toni with me, because I want to share with other normopaths the joy which he brings, which can only help our clowning. I brought him because I want to share my life with my differently-abled friends. Because they bring me a special wisdom: that the way is just as good as the goal — the airports and buses and metros are full of people happy to meet us, happy to smile and blow back a kiss.

Leaving Vienna, Toni knelt down and kissed the hand of the policewoman at the airport security checkpoint. She smiled, a little dazed, and waved us through. That’s how he got onto the plane with a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola.

Robert McNeer