When she was a teenager, Natalie Merchant worked at a day camp for special needs children, many of whom had been institutionalized since infancy and abandoned by their parents. This song was inspired by that experience.
She explained on a VH1 Storytellers appearance: "When I was 13 years old, we're talking 1976, I spent my summer working as a volunteer for a bunch of hippies, basically, that got a seed grant from the Carter administration, which had a lot of really wonderful programs for the arts. These people started a day camp for handicapped children, and I worked for them the whole summer. A lot of these children were institutionalized - their parents had left the scene a long time ago. They didn't function so well in a conventional sense, but it seems that a lot of the children had developed like a private language or new senses so they could navigate through the world, especially the blind and the deaf children that we worked with.
From an early age, I had that contact with children who had special needs. I had lost my fear of intimacy with them - especially with Down syndrome kids, they could be really unpredictable and up to that point I had been a little frightened of them. I maintained some of the friendships with those kids and I was always open to meeting children with special needs. So when I wrote the song 'Wonder,' I wrote the song about a woman who was born with handicaps that seemed insurmountable, but she did overcome them, greatly because she had a loving family, especially her adoptive mother - she had been given up to an institution at birth."
This is a very meaningful song to many people who grew up with special needs and their caretakers. The song views these people as "wonders," with doctors having no explanation for their condition, but seeing the work of God in the creation.
"I've met a lot of people through this song, and they've told me that they've taken it on as their song, that it describes them," Merchant said. "It describes their strengths in spite of what others would see as deficiencies."
Natalie Merchant performed this song, along with "Carnival," on an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by David Schwimmer in 1995.