Having a child with a disability is tough, but the snap judgements from complete strangers make it even harder.
They assume you're a bad parent or your child is a 'bad' child.
And while it's easy to see why these assumptions are made, that doesn’t make jumping to conclusions right.
That’s the message that one mum wants to get out.
Jenna Cooksley was waiting to collect her daughter from a Girl Guides event, and had her five-year-old son with her.
Her son has autism, and that day he was “completely hyperactive”, but then did a complete 180 – he went very quiet and stood calmly next to his mum.
Then a stranger smiled at him and said hello. When her son didn’t answer, the woman began with the snap judgements.
It devastated Jenna, who wrote an open letter to the woman explaining how upset she was by the encounter.
“My son doesn’t know you. So he did what he does when he’s uncomfortable – he hid behind me and refused to look at you or respond,” she wrote.
“’Wow, that’s rude’ you said to me. ‘Won’t even say hi to me.’”
Jenna simply smiled at the woman, feeling that there was nothing much she can do when someone insults her son in ignorance.
But a while later at the playground, Jenna’s son asked if he could go and play, and the same stranger overheard him.
“Ah, so he can speak when he wants to go play,” you joked,” wrote Jenna.
“After a few years of speech therapy he’ll talk, but he won’t talk to people he doesn’t know,” I replied.
“You responded with: ‘well, it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t talk to strangers.’”
Jenna was deeply hurt by the remark, but said nothing, in shock.
At home later however, she wished that she had.
“I wish I’d told you how he barely spoke more than a few words until he was 3,” she wrote.
“About how he would then only speak in one-word answers, never saying more than he absolutely had to. He’d rather point than speak.”
She continued: “I wish I’d told you how far he’s come since he was diagnosed aged two. That he’s had years of speech therapy to get him to learn how to respond when people talk to him and how this ‘phase’ of not talking to people he doesn’t know is stressful for him – and for me.”
Aiming to generate a bit of understanding amongst people, Jenna said that some people seem to think that it’s down to “either bad parenting or a rude child”, but stated that “neither is true in the case of my son.”
Jenna wishes that she’d said all of this to the stranger, but instead she bawled her eyes out.
“I went for a walk away from the group and cried because you made me feel like I should have made my son speak to you,” wrote Jenna, pictured below.
And Jenna’s worries don’t end there – she also fears what would happen to her son if he’s ever in a situation where he needs to speak up, but can’t.
She says that she wishes she told the woman about: “how I worry that he won’t be able to ask for help if he gets lost because he may not be able to speak to anyone. How I worry that if he’s bullied or hurt at school, he’ll shut down and won’t talk.”
Jenna is very matter-of-fact about her child’s condition, and makes no excuses for him. She just wants people to judge him with his condition in mind.
“Autism doesn’t mean they can’t be rude,” she wrote. “But I’m not going to make my child speak if he’s not comfortable doing so. His body and his words are his. I won’t ever make my children hug people that they don’t want to.”
She finished by reminding the stranger that her son is doing exceptionally well, despite his difficulties.
“He goes to a mainstream school and doesn’t need an aide,” she wrote. “He is clever and knows the alphabet, while most of the other kids are still learning it."
"He’s bright, vivacious and loves to chat with people – once he knows them and is comfortable with them. I wish I could have told you this."
"But I just smiled and pretended that your ignorance and hurtful offhand comments didn’t hurt me to the core. I wish you’d understood.”
Proudly, she signed it “Sincerely, the mother of two amazing children.”
You can read Jenna's full post at https://adventuresofthenow.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/to-the-person-who-made-me-cry/
SHARE to spread the word that children with disabilities deserve understanding and respect – not judgement.