We need to talk about special needs

So far in life, Lottie has been lucky. We live in a village with a tight knit community, where we’ve been fortunate enough to make some really lovely friends. We moved here just before Lottie was born, so most of those friends are parents. And those parents, and their little ones, have our backs. For want of a less cliched term, they’re our ‘tribe’.

I’ve always been open and honest about Lottie’s Global Developmental Delay. And as such, our friends and, to a degree, our wider community, have a level of understanding of where she is at and the additional needs she has. And I believe that has helped them to help us.

Lottie also goes to the most lovely preschool in our village, where the staff, children, and parents, have always been totally accepting of her. She’s been lucky enough never to have been on the receiving end of a stare, never to have heard people being unkind about her special needs, and to have usually come into contact with people who have been happy to help, accept and love her.

She’s made friends, despite her lack of speech. Because although she may not be able to chat to the other children, she plays, laughs, and interacts just as other children do.

I was thinking about this recently. We’d come in from the school run, where she had run, jumped, laughed and played with her two friends and her sister, while I’d been asking the mums for advice about her ever shortening list of accepted foods. I walked into my kitchen to make her cheese sandwich just how she likes it, and I felt so very fortunate.

To have friends of my own who support me, and for Lottie to have friends of her own who accept and support her, is priceless.

I’m not naïve enough to think that this little bubble will last forever.

She will move to bigger schools where the children and their families don’t know us and may not be so accepting. Who may not understand that people with special needs deserve the acceptance, love and friendship that any other person does. Who don’t realise how their own lives can be enriched by letting that person into it. Who don’t understand how important it is for the development of a child with special needs, to be treated just like everyone else and feel confident enough to just be themselves.

Lottie will grow older and if her speech is still not comparable to her peers, at an age where a lack of words is no longer seen as shyness, she may be seen as rude. Or strange. People may not so easily accept that she doesn’t say hello or good bye or thank you.

I know those times may come. I worry about them on a daily basis. It breaks my heart to think anyone would ever be unkind to my beautiful, kind, gentle little girl. But whenever those concerns start to niggle, I try to quash them with the realisation that right now, she’s not facing that, she faces only love and acceptance, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

I’ll hold my hands up to the fact that before Lottie was diagnosed, I knew very little about special needs. I’m from a generation where children with disabilities tended to be sent to specialist schools, so we didn’t meet anyone in the education system with additional needs. We didn’t learn about disability at school. I had no way of really understanding it.

That aside, I hope beyond hope I never stared. That if I had turned to look, I would have smiled. That had I met anyone with additional needs, I would have treated them just like any other person, and with the respect they deserved. Because you know what? They’re people, with feelings, just like you and me.

Then I was thrown into the world of special needs and it occurred to me very early on, that it was a bit of a secret club. It’s not something that people are comfortable to ask about, to talk to SEN parents about. It’s also a whole world of new jargon, forms, learning and knowledge that takes an age to start getting your head around.

My daughter has Global Developmental Delay. She was diagnosed ten months ago and I’m only yet scratching the surface of understanding her condition, the system, the support and treatment available I know next to nothing about other special needs.

But I do now know a little of the struggle that they and their families face on a daily basis. The worry that their loved ones carry. The time and energy that constant appointments, assessments and therapy take up.

And I know that they, like us, need love and acceptance from not only their nearest and dearest, but from their wider communities.

And that is why it’s so important to talk about special needs. It’s important to tell people about our situation, because it will help them to understand Lottie’s condition. It’s important for them to feel comfortable to ask about it, to talk about it.

It’s vital not to be embarrassed to tell people about your special needs journey. To not ever feel that you have to hide it (unless you want to of course). If they can talk to you, and understand you and your family, they are far more likely to accept your child, to be kind. Nastiness is so often bred by ignorance, so let’s educate people about special needs. Let’s start to remove the taboo, as others have so brilliantly done with issues such as mental health.

I’m not going to start getting on my soapbox about special needs. I don’t have the time or the energy, but what I will do is to talk to anyone who is interested about Lottie’s condition. I’ll take away any discomfort about talking to me about it, and I’ll do my best to line her path with care, understanding and acceptance.

And I urge you to do the same. If your child or friend or family member has special needs, and you feel that you can, please talk about it. Remove the stigma. And if you know of a person with special needs, talk to them or their parent, or their friend about it. Find out about it, understand it, and accept those people for the wonderful individuals they are. Your life will be better for having them in it, as theirs will be for having you.

If I make one person more understanding, and in turn one child’s life happier, my work here is done.