kids

'The moment I overheard a mum's deeply hurtful comment at a kid's birthday party.'

Today I put into action Dolly Everett’s call to “speak even if your voice shakes”.

While at a child’s birthday party in Melbourne, as all the kids were off playing and the parents stayed together watching from a small seated area, a parent – who I had seen at a few times before and had spoken to briefly when I first arrived – was loudly speaking about children with special needs. She was referring to the children who had learning aids at her daughter’s kindergarten as “special needs c**ts”. These words are searingly hurtful, but they also cut me on a deeply personal level.

I have a five-year-old son who has autism. He challenges me, inspires me, makes me smile wider then I ever knew I could and makes me work harder then I ever thought I would have to. He along with my other two boys are my whole world and to think that someone could speak about him that way just crushed me.

Now before I get into more detail, I want to make it clear that I believe that bullying is never okay. I would hate for my story to encourage any form of bullying towards anyone. Whilst I want to talk about what happened at this party and how this mother’s actions affected me, I also want to make sure that we remember, she is a person and no one deserves to feel bullied or victimised even if their thoughts and opinions are different to our own.

I always tell my boys to “speak even if their voice shakes”. The story of Amy “Dolly” Everett and the bullying which tragically resulted in her taking her own life really affected me. It touched my soul, the same way I am sure it has touched so many others. I have been telling my boys that if they see someone is being bullied or if they themselves are being bullied then they should say something, always be respectful, and always do the right thing.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not one for confrontation. I hate it, I shy away from it at every opportunity; but not today. Today I made the decision that if I am not part of the solution I am part of the problem and I cannot stand by and let these words go without consequence – even if the only consequence is that the mother knows that her words have had an effect on someone that heard them.

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At the end of the party, I approached the mother while she was chatting with her friends and I politely (even though being polite was the last thing I wanted to be) told her that I wanted to let her know I have a son with autism and that I’d heard how she was speaking about children with special needs. The ladies looked shocked and the mother instantly tried to justify what she had said by explaining the special needs children at her daughter’s kindergarten last year were given so much support that her daughter in now struggling in prep because she didn’t get enough attention.

Now let me break this down. This mother is concerned that her child was not given the focus that she needed to excel in kinder. I have no idea whether this is or isn’t the case, however I believe her issue is regarding the education of her child and the only people involved in this situation are her, her child, the kindergarten educators and now her prep teachers. I can’t understand how a person can think the few children with special needs, who have additional aids made available to them so the room is adequately supported, could be single-handedly responsible for robbing another child of their education.

I then said to her that despite feeling sad she thinks that way, I wouldn’t give a second thought to our conversation once this party was over. However there are parents who are struggling with their child’s diagnosis, who may not be coping or haven’t reached the same place in their journey as I have, and comments like those could be far more harmful then she knew. She apologised and continued to justify why she said the things she did. She felt there was nothing wrong with what she’d said. I told her what I tell my children and I made sure to say I’d approached her because I believe it is important to speak even if your voice shakes. I made sure that I used Dolly’s words and believe me my voice was shaking. My whole body was. How can we teach our children to be kind to other children when adults can’t be kind to children?

daughter’s birthday party
An Australia mum was hurt by another parent's comments at a birthday party. Image: Getty.
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It scares me that someone could feel that way about people who have special needs, about children who have no control over their diagnosis in the same way that a child has no control over being diagnosed with cancer or diabetes. (And no, I am not suggesting that having a special need is the same as having cancer or diabetes, merely that a diagnosis is out of their control.)

She adamantly denied using the words she did. But those words hit me like a bullet to the heart, they made me jolt in my seat and rang in my ears for the entire hour that I sat there promising myself that I would stand up and confront what had been said. Not only did I hear those harsh words but so did others, she broadcasted her views so loudly and proudly that when another parent responded by saying that she shouldn't speak that way she confidently insisted she could because it was all true and she didn't care.

I told her that if nothing else I hope she thinks twice about how she speaks about children with special needs.

The sad reality is I have been in this very same position before. I have had a family member talk to me about other children with autism in a way that has made my stomach turn, I have heard a mum at school refer to children with autism as if they are less than other children. And every time I have been in this situation I have chosen to keep quiet, to sit safely in silence and say nothing despite the heartbreak I felt at the time.

Only a few days earlier at our local football club, my eldest son heard a little boy say something unkind to another little boy, he stood up and said something. It was strong and quick. 'What did you say? That's not nice.' And with that statement the confrontation was over and I was so proud. Everything I had been telling him, he had not only heard but he had been strong enough to put into action, unlike me. I had been able to teach my child to be strong enough to stand up for what is right despite the fact that I was unable to do so myself.

To date we have not openly told people outside our close circle of friends and family about our son's autism. There really hasn't been a need for us to discuss it. If there was a reason to talk about it with anyone we would, it's not something we are trying to hide. It's also not something we plan on broadcasting the same way I don't go around introducing myself to people and immediately telling them that I suffer from reflux disease and I have arthritis in my fingers.

Whilst it isn't a secret I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't fearful that he may struggle with friends once people know - not because of his ability to make or have friends, he is in kindergarten and has a group of buddies he loves and they love him; nor is it because of the children around him, because children are born innocent with pure and loving eyes. Children don't judge based on religion, race, sex or disability. These judgements are taught, they are learned. My fear is of the attitudes of parents (a minority I am sure, nonetheless their views are enough to make an impact). What if they don't want their children to play with my incredible, fun-loving boy? What if ignorance and fear of the unknown mean that he is left out of the play dates and not invited to the birthday parties?

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For me, today changed all that, I will no longer worry about children or parents turning away my son's friendship, I will be grateful that his precious friendship hasn't been given to them.

I will always be saddened to hear these types of comments, although I realise  they say a lot more about the people who think that way then they could ever say about people with special needs.

I will no longer be scared to speak up, whether it is to avoid confrontation or to avoid damaging my son's chances of fitting in. If that is the crowd, I don't want us to fit in, I want us to be the ones standing on the outside.

It's taken me a long time to get here but finally I choose to be the one to speak even if my voice shakes, always.

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