September, when Pudding starts school, suddenly seems awfully close.
I suppose most parents probably face some anxiety around this time, but possibly even more so when your child has additional needs. Occasionally I have had little wobbles about our decision to send him to our local mainstream school; usually when somebody says, ‘You’re sending him to mainstream? Really?’ But that hasn’t happened very often. Mostly people have been very supportive, recognising the positives.
One thing did happen a couple of weeks though that made me think we’re doing the right thing. After playing in our local park for a while following school run, I ended up leaving in tears when some other boys called Pudding ‘annoying’ and ‘weird’. To be fair, he was being annoying as he had apparently just spoilt the game they were playing. But it cut me to the quick. I watched him smiling and chatting at them for a while and I could see my sunny child inviting them to engage with him in the only way he knows how. To them, though, he was too obviously different.
I knew at the time I should have used it as a teaching opportunity, explained to them why he was acting ‘weird’ and invited them to understand and accept him despite those differences. Rational behaviour isn’t always easy though. As I heard the words, and more importantly the tone in which they were said, I knew beyond a doubt that this would not be the last time I would be hurt like this. And it was me that was hurt, not him. He, thankfully, has no idea that the whole world doesn’t love him.
Now, separated from the incident by a bit of time, I can understand why they acted the way they did. When you’re a kid, you learn the rules through play and socialisation and parental/teacher modelling. You learn to take turns and share, you learn to lead or follow at different times. You learn to gauge others’ strengths and abilities in games or challenges. You expect others to know the same rules and conform to them. And when someone comes along who is a bit different, it challenges all those norms of behaviour and acceptability.
Like many people I grew up in a world where disability of any sort was very rarely seen. There would be the occasional TV programme that attempted to improve understanding, not always successfully – after Blue Peter featured the story of Joey Deacon, a man with severe cerebral palsy, children up and down the country used ‘Joey’ as the latest insult, copying his movements. I accepted this as normal, though as an adult now find it horrifying. (Not all adults seem to have learnt this awareness yet – Donald Trump notably using similar movements to mock a disabled journalist earlier this year).
At university I volunteered with a great student organisation called KEEN which ran sporting and social activities for children with additional needs. (Having just checked the internet I can see there are other KEEN groups around the UK and US.) I found it a great experience, but when paired with someone who had more severe communication difficulties I sometimes felt uncomfortable. With little awareness about what their particular condition entailed I would be desperately afraid of either talking down to them or of not making myself clear enough.
Now of course I have more knowledge and understanding. I would know to follow the lead of that child’s carer or have the confidence to simply ask.
Things certainly are changing and people with disabilities are a lot more visible in society these days though there is still a long way to go. A few years ago there was huge controversy when a new presenter started work on the children’s channel, CBeebies. You might think why – were they a drug-user? Turning up drunk? Swearing on air? No, Cerrie was enthusiastic, well-presented and great at what she did – the only ‘problem’ was that she had been born with a limb difference which led to some parents complaining that their children were being traumatised.
Yet young children are incredibly accepting. Pre-schoolers play happily with their peers who don’t share the same gender, abilities or ethnicity. I think it is only if they are not exposed to difference until later on that the suspicion of ‘otherness’ becomes apparent.
The point I’m making is that the only way people (myself included) learn to relate better to those with disabilities is by seeing them – on TV and in person – on a daily basis. The children who go to school with Pudding will learn that yes, he is different, but that isn’t anything to be scared of. Hopefully they will grow up into better adults than I did.
Believe me, I’m by no means sacrificing Pudding for an ideal of inclusivity. If mainstream appears not to be working for him, I will be more than willing to move him to the nearest special school (which we have already looked around). Until then, I simply believe that Pudding isn’t the only one who stands to benefit from his education. I have every confidence that he can teach others far more.