Mumsnet are running a campaign called #thisismychild which aims to bust damaging misconceptions of children with additional needs and to promote support and understanding for families.
All too often children and young people with disabilities are stared at, ridiculed and talked about in ways that are deeply hurtful to them and their parents and carers. Sometimes this behaviour becomes even more extreme with families being harassed and bullied because their child is different. It happened to me, last year, when my neighbours complained about my son’s behaviour to the police presumably because they thought he was behaving unsociably. You can read more about that awful night here but the point is that ignorance about a disability and a tendency to rush to conclusions about someone’s behaviour can lead to an awful lot of nastiness between people.
It can also cause isolation for families like mine who can end up socially excluded. This other post of mine illustrates what it was like to be rejected by a friend who had difficulty in accommodating me and my children. In a way I can understand why our relationship fell apart. She didn’t understand my children’s autisms and I’m not sure she wanted to. Like a lot of people, I think she found it difficult to know what to do or what to say and so took the easy option and walked away. But, as hard as it is to admit it, I am also partly to blame because I never explained autism to her. I didn’t know how to and, for a while, I didn’t want to. I was too busy learning about autism and coming to terms with it than to think about explaining it to people around me. And so, sadly, that friendship slipped away.
Looking back I realise that I was wrong in not attempting to explain autism. How could I expect people to know whether my son was having a meltdown or not if they didn’t know autism? How could I expect people to understand why we couldn’t go out on a whim if I didn’t explain why? With so much emphasis on ‘perfect parenting’ these days it is easy to see how someone uneducated about autism could easily make a wrong assumption about what they see. I’m not justifying rude behaviour in any way and I’m certainly not condoning my neighbour for calling the police. That really is shitty behaviour that could have been avoided if our neighbour had taken time to talk to us about what he heard. But as parents we also have to do our bit and help educate those around us.
We must accept questions about disability (because if you’re not touched by it of course you’re going to wonder why someone looks or behaves in a particular way – is that not human instinct?). Didn’t you, before you became a parent of children with additional needs? I did. Before I became a mother I was in my own selfish bubble, completely unaware of disability and arrogantly believing that these things could never happen to me. I feel shallow admitting this but the point is that with experience I became comfortable enough about disability to talk about it, to talk to people with it and to talk to their parents and carers. In a way I am fortunate to have had these experiences, but what if you have never been touched by disability or illness? What if you have never seen or spoken to a disabled person? Whilst disability is much more visible these days we have to remember that even as late as the 1980s disabled children were rarely seen in school and so earlier generations of our society may not be as comfortable with disability as we are. It is understandable that someone who is unfamiliar with disability may shy away from befriending a family with it.
This is why I think the Mumsnet campaign is a welcome opportunity to encourage
conversation about disability and for people to learn a little bit more about raising children with additional needs. If we can break down the barriers between families with disabled children and those without then we are in a powerful position to teach people that every child and young person, irrespective of ability, is of equal worth in society.