An Open Letter

We were saddened  to find this letter pinned to the wall of Livvi’s Place Five Dock:

THIS PARK IS FOR EVERYBODY

It is wonderful that so many different people come to this park to enjoy the marvellous facilities. And it’s fenced! (I can’t even entertain the idea of taking my child to a park which is not fenced). Whole families, parties, single parents with children connecting with others a real sense of community and belonging.

You may not know that many children who come here are living with disabilities. This park was designed with special needs of all kinds in mind. Some disabilities are not visible at first impression; intellectual, sensory or other neurological disorders do not require a wheelchair or walking aids. A child may not have grommets to assist with hearing or glasses to assist with seeing. It may not be obvious that a child has a disability until we see how they behave or respond (or don’t) towards other children or even to their own name.

It is beneficial and even important for socially impaired children to witness how typically developing children play, even if they don’t participate, it brings a sense of belonging and eventually after many occasions of witnessing purposeful play children with neurological and or intellectual disabilities can learn to also play purposefully. Typically developing children can also benefit from playing near or with children with disabilities as it teaches them empathy and to appreciate their own skills, whatever they may be, not to take for granted, for example the fact that they can actually use a scooter or have a conversation with a friend, or even play make believe pirates with Mum and Dad.

My son is four and has autism. He has also severe developmental delays, mostly mental and emotional. He cannot talk and rarely plays with the equipment here, at least not the way a typically developing child would. He does, however, love to come here. It is the highlight of his week because he attends special programs during the week which try to control his erratic behaviours, teach him to communicate via alternative means, teach him to sit in a group or sit at a desk, tasks he finds extremely challenging, frustrating and restrictive, often making him anxious to the point of vomiting. When he comes to this park he is allowed to be free to play, however play looks to him. Sometimes this means standing under a tree tossing leaves in the air and watching how they fall. This brings him immeasurable joy. He is told all week that he cannot throw objects. Repeatedly, over and over, his teachers, therapists and myself are on his case. When he does this he finds it so exciting he wants to share it with others but I encourage him to “play” far away from other people as possible. Another way he plays is to run around the park in circles admiring his hand or an object or a leaf. it is wonderful to see him happy for a change. His emotional and intellectual age is that of a 10-12 month old and has not learned to be defensive or naughty. He does, however have feelings and many many thoughts which overwhelm him easily. Often these feeling or thoughts come to him 20 minutes or even hours later as he has long processing delays. So he may never respond at the time, but takes it all in. Most nights he doesn’t sleep, dealing with the days anxieties for hours at a time during frequent night wakings; lasting one to three hours. I feel as alienated as he does at times as other parents avoid me as well as my son. Being sleep deprived as I am from consoling him and making sure he doesn’t trash the house during the night, my emotions run deep.

I am disgusted when my son who is minding his own business playing by himself, is approached by another child, younger or older, and is chastised or even kicked and hit repeatedly for the way he is playing. The parents often just watch without reprimand. It breaks his heart as well as mine. We live in such a diverse society and we teach our children to accept other people of different cultures, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds … what about various disabilities? Please prepare your children when coming to a park that accommodates special needs and tell them that not all kids are the same. They don’t have to play with or talk to the kids with disabilities, but if they don’t like how kids with disabilities play they should not be going out of their way to harass and assault them… if they do, then why on earth would you not teach your child that this behaviour is unacceptable, just as I teach my intellectually handicapped son not to engage in play near where he might affect other people? I don’t come here with my son to relax. I come here to teach him how to be around other people. It’s hard work. I would rather be at home, but it is my son’s right to access the community and learn to live within it, especially as that is what will be expected of him as he grows. It’s a long and tiresome and thankless journey… but I am brought to new levels of grief when a child half my sons age comes halfway across the park just to give my son an earful and a beating.

To the sweet children (and the parents who raise them) who actually attempted to talk to, play with or share your food or party bag with my son, I am overwhelmed with sincere thanks, so few of you as there are: it gives me great hope for a future world my son will live in. I am only sorry he was not capable of finding a way of responding or engaging with you himself. I can tell he appreciate it in his own unique way.

Thank you. Enjoy your day.