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."