A quiet voice from the back seat of the car shocked me out of my usual morning stupor: ‘Mama, when I grow up I will be different from other girls.’
It was my older daughter, who, ever since she could form words, has reflected deeply about the world, has a vivid imagination, loves spending time in her own company, and, at just three years and ten months of age, has a clear sense of her own individuality.
Her comment, as they often do, got me thinking. How do we encourage our children to be comfortable in their own skin when, from infancy onwards, they are bombarded by messages about how they should look and behave? In a culture where homogeneity abounds, how can we teach our kids to accept and celebrate diversity?
I speak to Ally, a teacher and also a mum, about her experiences of children in the school environment. ‘There is not nearly enough recognition that children do not fit a cookie cutter mould,’ she says. ‘We spend lots of time at school discussing how differences make us unique and special but it doesn’t always get through to the kids. They have people everywhere telling them otherwise, particularly the media but also friends and family. It would be great to get the message across to adults that they should be embracing the differences that their children bring to the table.’
When my Miss 3 years gets excited, she gets really excited – so excited she likes to flap her hands, to jump up and down on the spot, and open her eyes and mouth wide in amazement. It is a true expression of delight and a reflection of the joy that children find in the world – often in the small things. I love Miss 3 years’ expression of excitement, and so does her dad, and I’ve noticed it’s often quite contagious. However, hand flapping is a trait associated with autism, a neurological condition which sadly remains stigmatised. Not long ago, I saw that stigma at play when someone pointed out my daughter’s flapping in conversation, as if we might not have noticed the habit. The tone was clearly negative. Gobsmacked, I mumbled, ‘Yes, she loves getting excited’ – a weak gesture of support for my daughter who was right next to us at the time. Later my shock turned to anger. What harm is there in a child, or adult, expressing their joy in whatever form they choose? Why are some people keen to stamp out differences in our children, whether they are neurologically different or not? The only harm I can see is in sending children the message that they need to conform to what is considered normal in our society.
I reflect on the wise words of Kristen (Gislason) Callow, a local mum and passionate advocate for autism acceptance. Just about anything Kristen writes is thought-provoking, but one comment in particular has resonated with me:
‘The world needs people who see and process things through an unconventional lens, so it is our job as parents to help give our children the confidence and core skills they need to shine on their own terms. Truth is, a lot of the challenges associated with autism result because our world is not set up to accommodate and support people who are different. I hope that will change for the better over time. Different does NOT mean defective – different does NOT mean less.’
If I have one hope for my daughter it is that she will be ‘different from other girls’, because I know that it is in expressing her individuality and not conforming to ideals that will bring her happiness. And I may be biased but I’m pretty sure the world will benefit from her highly creative approach to life. Some may even find her joy and excitement a little contagious.
Read more from Ginny:
Running in Circles
Allergies: What’s all the fuss about?
The Early Days
Not water – Tears
No Judgements, please
Triumph or Trauma
Riding the Merry go Round
Friends, Near or Far
When is Enough, Enough?
My ( Child’s) Kitchen Rules