(This is a copy of the letter which I sent to the headteacher/principal of a local High School this evening, only my children’s names have been changed).
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, but I wanted to let you know how thankful I am to a small group of your pupils who I met yesterday afternoon (Wednesday 29th April).
After school, I took my children (Melon and Boy) to the park, to play in the playground. There, we encountered a group of around 15 of your pupils, standing and sitting around a truck-shaped piece of climbing equipment, which is set on springs so it rocks. It’s my childrens’ favourite piece of play equipment in the park. The pupils were shouting and laughing, clearly in good spirits, and many young children may have found such a large noisy group intimidating. My children certainly didn’t, and they headed straight for the truck, where Melon climbed in amongst your pupils. The scenes that followed were especially moving to me, and I have some things I want to say to those pupils (and to you)….
To the pupils that we met in the park on Wednesday afternoon:
You were the group of Young people (I assume you are teenagers, to my eyes you looked about 13-14 years old, but I could be wrong) sitting on the play truck in playground in Victoria park. I was the woman with two young children – a toddler in an orange top, and Melon – The little blond girl in a blue gingham School dress. She’s the one who climbed in the truck with you all, and cuddled up to some of you.
Let me give you some background on Melon. She’s six years old, and she is autistic, she was diagnosed about 2 1/2 years ago. I’m not sure if you know much about autism, so I’ll explain a little to you.
Autism isn’t an illness, it can’t be cured or treated. It occurs when a person is born with the nerve pathways in their brain wired slightly differently to those of non-autistic people (we call that a neurological condition). Autistic people aren’t slow, or stupid. As with any other group of people, some of them are very intelligent, some are average intelligence, some have learning difficulties. Some autistic people have jobs, partners children, others will have rely on carers and support throughout their life. Autism is a spectrum – which means that autistic people are all different, with different strengths and challenges.
Autism can affect how a person understands the world. A person may struggle to understand social rules (such as turn taking in conversation, or following the rules of a game, or understanding social cues and facial expressions); they may have difficulty with social consequences, ie struggle to predict the effect of their actions, to guess what happens next and to assess risk. Autism can affect how a person communicates, for example, Melon has a huge vocabulary, but she doesn’t understand why it is important to speak in sentences, or answer people’s questions. She prefers to use single words and phrases, to repeat phrases she has heard and to make noises. This difficulty in understanding the world and communicating means that autistic people are more likely to get anxious, and to become more easily upset.
Autism can also affect a person’s senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, balance… For example Melon finds bright lights painful, but staring at red lights relaxes her. She hates being tickled gently, but she loves big hugs and strong pressure, it helps her to feel calm.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well that’s becasue when Melon climbed aboard that truck with you today, you did something rather special, although you probably aren’t aware of it. At first, you tried to speak with her, and when she didn’t answer your questions, and when I explained that she was autistic, you let her interact with you in a way that was comfortable to her. She cuddled up next to you, she put her head on your shoulders, she hummed and said random words… I know that one of you (the blond boy whose knee Melon patted) was a bit uncomfortable about the touching, but you didn’t push her away or reject her. Those humming sounds are her happy sounds, and I could tell Melon was really happy, it was clear in the big smiles that were all over her face.
It might sound like a small thing, but I want you to understand how important it was, that’s why I’m writing this. We live in a world where people who are different, who behave differently, who communicate differently, are all too often judged and shunned, or forced into a way of behaving that doesn’t come naturally to them. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Parents of special needs children are constantly on our guard for people misjudging, misinterpreting and criticising our children and their behaviour. And it’s not just adults, Other children can be cruel too.
Sometimes, teenagers and young people have reputation for being badly behaved, or trouble makers, or judgemental. On Wednesday afternoon, you proved that wrong. You let my little girl clamber into the middle of your conversations, you tried to include her, and when she used her own style of touch and sound to interact, you accepted it. You accepted her, as she was. That was special, because it showed you to be people who don’t judge, who don’t automatically shy away from what is different. It was also special because Melon will keep that memory of being accepted with her. And every time someone shows her kindess and acceptance, she gains a little more confidence in herself, a little more belief that reaching out to other people is a good thing. She kept repeating “the people in the park” all the way home, and she talked about you again this evening. You certainly made an impact!!
It’s appropriate that I’m writing this on the last day of April. April is international Autism awareness month. In the community of autistic people and their families, we always say that awareness and understanding are only part of the issue, and that what our children truly need is to be accepted for who they are. Just like you did with Melon in the park yesterday. So thank you. You might not feel as though you did anything at all, but you truly did.
Liz, a grateful mother of a special little girl.