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“Pooh, pooh!” 

“Ka KA!” 
“Hey, ugly boy!”
This delightful extract is straight out of the potty mouth of a five- or six-year-old girl. Directed at my special needs child, who was rim-stim-stimming to his heart’s content next to the hotel poolside where we were staying this weekend.
A less rational part of me wanted to grab this Bratz doll of a child by her perfect little ponytail, drag her across to where her family was sitting underneath a nearby umbrella, and acidly enquire: “Does THIS belong to you?”
But I didn’t. I raised an eyebrow, took another sip of my pina colada and asked the Husband, who was parking off on a lounger of his own next to me: “Are you watching this?”
You know, just in case I was hallucinating in the glorious sun.
“Yup,” he said.
And I did nothing.
In fact, I felt nothing. My heart rate didn’t so much a blip up a notch. THAT’s how okay I have become with the fact that our family is disabled.
Yes. All of us.
Having a son or a brother who is classed as moderately to severely impaired by a neurologist, and yes, even the South African government (for tax purposes) has left out entire family with a limp.
Travis didn’t so much as turn his head to acknowledge her, standing there in her pink and brown Pringle striped swimming costume. He carried on hooting and twirling his toes. Clap-clap-clapping manically with the pleasure of it all.
He ignored that girl, that girl that can stand, all on her own.
That girl who can speak. I’ll bet she’s been able to do that slap-bang since the Infant Milestone schedule predicated it would. Lucky her. Lucky mom and dad.
I’m not angry at that little girl. I’m not even angry at her parents. There’s probably not a little Johnny in her classroom who walks with crutches. She’s probably never had The Speech about why some kids are different, but it doesn’t mean they are special.
But on Monday morning – HERE’S what made me shit a brick: 11-month-old Ryan was standing there when it happened. He watch the whole thing play out, his baby face scrunched in concentration as he looked first at that little girl, and then at his brother. The name-calling. The cruel laughter. The lack of consequences.
And he watched me do nothing about it at all.
Ryan is still too young to have noticed the odd looks and prolonged stares in the breakfast dining hall while we enjoyed our weekend break, but in the next two or three years – he will. The Husband and I shake it off, but will he? And most importantly: should he?
I’m already visualising playground scuffles and bloody noses when some (ignorant) child tells Ryan to his face that his brother is a retard. But the fact is: it’s not Ryan’s job to defend his big brother. It’s mine. It’s his dad’s. And we are complacent.
What do you think we should have done? Should I broken the tranquil poolside vibe to play special needs advocate and speak to that girl’s parents. Or was it better to keep the peace?

Comments 30

  1. It's impossible to know what the best approach is. I want to have a go at the little girl and her parents on your behalf, but I'm not sure it would achieve anything, really. I hate complacent parenting that protects children from life's lessons (theirs, not yours).
    My cousins haven't suffered particularly much at school from having an autistic older brother – both the younger boys have a tendency to defend the underdog, which isn't a bad thing, but I don't think they've ever come to blows. I'll ask them, actually, and let you know what they would prefer that their mother did or didn't do.

  2. Thanks so much, Georgina – I'd really appreciate it if you could ask. I'm so very aware of how I don't have enough viewpoints with this kind of thing. I often remind myself that I'm not the one with special needs. I have no idea what it feels like. Nor do I know what it's like to have a disabled sibling. And I want to know, so that I can make the right right moves.

  3. I have no words because I seriously wouldn't know what to do if I were in your shoes. Really, I wouldn't know what the best way to respond would be. As a mother, my first instinct would be to grab the little shit by her pony and drag her over to her parents but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the best thing to do.
    As for Ryan, well, while it is your job as parents to defend his brother, as siblings, that comes with the territory too, I know from my own experience growing up that siblings do defend each other.
    I'm sorry Stacey, I don't think you're complacent, but I cannot imagine how painful that must be!

  4. In a mist of nicotine deprived anger, I would have indeed dragged the little madam to her parents and enquire about their parenting skills. But that's easy for me to say. I have no children. Nor cigarettes.

  5. That's just the thing, Sharon. I wasn't even a little bit hurt. It was only this morning when I was thinking back on the incident, and I (very, VERY belatedly realised) what it was that Ryan witnessed… that's when I felt angry. More at myself, for doing nothing, than anything else. I think I need to slowly start formulating an Anti-Bully policy, so that next time it happens I can deal with the situation more actively, but without being a complete bitch about it.

  6. To my ears they were pretty lame taunts – 'ugly boy' being the meanest of them – but I wonder what I didn't hear her say to Travis. The girl and her sidekick (another boy the same age) were circling Travis for quite a while before they came within earshot. Dammit, I should have said something.

  7. My aunt's oldest boy (in Matric next year) says that he thinks ignoring is the way to go. He says that they always knew their brother was different, but because teasing didn't bother Danny, the rest of them could just ignore it.
    My aunt says she thinks you should have said to the girl, very calmly, "That's not a very nice thing to say." She says she spoke about Danny to the other boys all the time, explaining that we don't think he's ugly, we love him. They all have a very nice and supportive relationship.

  8. Thanks so much for asking, Georgina. This seems like a very clam, rational and loving way to handle it. Now at least I have the basis for a game plan the next time I'm embroiled in this type of situation. (Instead of just standing there like a deer in the headlights.)

  9. Sure. I'll let you know what the littlest brother says. When he was little and Danny was acting up, used to explain to us, a little embarrassed, "He's a tistic."
    If you ever need insights from them, they'd all be happy to chat. Danny is at least mobile and verbal, but also visibly different and behaviourally otherwise.

  10. I must admit, I sometimes steer clear of confrontation as well simply because I don't want to embarrass my son. It helps that he is an only child, so I don't have his sib to educate in correct behaviour. As Georgina said, no child, special needs or otherwise deserves to be called ugly. I also hate the association between behaviour and ugliness – you know, a kid plays up and parents say, "Stop being ugly now!" That sends such a bad message.

    I know though that you will teach Ryan the right approach, because you are an awesome person.

  11. Just realised I wrote 'clam' in my comment above! Hilarious! I need to work on The Story that we tell Ryan (phase by phase) as he grows up. Travis is autistic and then some (brain malformation, semi-paralysis on one side, non-verbal etc.) I read an article written by a young woman about her childhood, growing up with cerebral palsy, and how she feels it's okay for families to aim for what she calls 'ballpark normalcy'. I love how wonderfully 'normal' and grounded this branch of your family seems, Georgina. They have their stuff together. I can learn a lot!

  12. Hilary – I agree on the use of the word 'ugly'. I feel the same way about labeling behaviours as 'naughty'. I must admit; it was so much simpler when we just had the one child. The three of us 'musketeered' our way through it all. We only had the one parenting style, unusual as it is. Now we have two very different parenting styles, and admittedly, I'm fumbling with what I call raising a 'ruggle' (a.k.a a regular kid).

  13. I have to agree with Georgina – ignore the taunting, teasing and horrible remarks. Mostly, kids (and later teens and adults) who exhibit this behaviour want to get a rise out of someone. If you refuse to take the bait you spoil their fun. As for Ryan, as long as he knows his brother is cherished by the people who love Travis, hopefully he'll learn to ignore the teasing too. And he'll be able to use his brother as a barometre when deciding who is worthy to have in his life – those people who make fun of Travis might not deserve Ryan's attention or friendship.
    As always, it's much easier said than done. Whatever you decide will be right for you and your boys.

  14. I don't know Stace. I have two ruggles and go to bat for them often when little shits in the Spur play area mock them or hurt their feelings. Why should it be any different for Trav? I think this has less to do with his condition and more a parenting choice – take autism out of it and then decide how to act. And saying to the little girl, that's not a nice thing to say is probably what I would've done. but that is my parenting choice, and may not be yours. You have more nuanced layers to think about.

  15. Right again, Jenny. I AM too wrapped up in my 'special needs' approach. Maybe the time has come for me to adopt a more universal parenting style that applies to both Travis and Ryan equally. Honestly, my first instinct was to approach the girl's parents, and explain our situation, and suggest that they take the time to speak to their daughter about how to treat children with special needs. In other words: advocate/educate. It's only AFTER reading all these comments and opinions that I realise the far more effective thing to do was to quietly tell the girl myself that she wasn't being very nice – which is more sensible, and in line with what any parent would do. I have much to think about. I may even need a small parenting 'reboot'.

  16. Both my kids have been on the receiving end of teasing – sometimes I am there and sometimes I am not. When I am there I actually do step in – often reprimanding the kid with something like "was that a nice thing to say?" – now that they are a little older though I don't get involved unless I feel they are out of their depth – happens more with Kiara than Cameron.

    I haven't ever actually approached a parent though – actually I did once to a girl bullying Kiara – it was passively but the mom knew what I was talking about.

    I honestly don't think its about education people about the Lionheart but calling people/children out on their lack of respect and tolerance. I would bet anything that this same little girl would tease an over weight child.

  17. I must say that I was feeling a little indignant on your behalf! However, you have already worked out the right thing to do! Yes, get down to the little girl's level and calmly explain that Travis has special needs and ask her if she knows what that means etc etc. After all, she is just a little kid.. and hopefully her parents would feel mortified at her rudeness (hopefully!).
    Being a special needs parent and how we express ourselves in public makes a huge difference in how the public perceive us… and our kids. The best defense is to act dignified (even if you feel like telling them to f*** off!). 🙂

  18. Been there, done that. Not worth the energy for a parental confrontation. In time Ryan will learn to defend his brother, just as Jaden (now 4yrs old) defends Gabriel (10yrs old and non-verbal) in situations like this and he will grow into a compassionate but tough kid who will teach others about "playing nice" and being nice to others. All best and hugs to your angel child xxx

  19. I agree that Ryan will go into the world and show other kids 'the way' and stick up for his older bro. I also find that little kids (some – usually not the designer-label wearing variety) are actually very sweet and I explain to them beforehand that my monkey is different and does some funny things, but he's a sweet boy when you get to know him. So many of these kids have tried to play with him and shared their toys and been very understanding.
    On a separate note, had that been my child (the little girl) who I actually heard call someone an 'ugly boy', they would have been in some deep wooden-spoon like trouble!!

  20. I appreciate your opinion especially, Di – knowing you've been in shoes more times than I have myself! I really SHOULD have gotten down to that girl's level. Dammit. Unfortunately my time machine is in for repairs, but hopefully I'll get a 'do over' at some point and test out my new skills 🙂

  21. Do heartsore on your behalf that your kids have been the target of a bully. I was very much an outsider looking in as a child, and used to skulk about hoping not to attract the attention of the mean kids – not always successfully. Say what you like about Twitter friends not being real friends, but these last 48 hours I've tapped into a fountain of wisdom and advise that I just don't have in 'real life'. Sharing what you've been through in your comment above makes me, through osmosis, a better mom.

  22. A friend gave me a book once about having a sibling with special needs which she told me was very good but I never got around to reading it as my special needs daughter is no longer with us. I can't for the life of me remember the name though. I did see some books on Kalahari though when I tried to find it, not sure if they are any good. Oh brother! Growing up with a special needs sibling by Natalie Hale, Autism and me: sibling stories by Ouisie Shapiro.

    Personally I would probably have said something to the little girl about calling other kids names, special needs or not, but quite possibly I may not have. I can understand totally your not doing anything, sometimes one just does not have the mental energy for another battle, sometimes you do. I do wonder how I would have handled certain scenarios. I have friends with special needs kids with siblings and those siblings are generally fiercely protective but sometimes get fed up with the whole situation as well. I could go on about it but I think you have been given good advice from many people so I can just wish you luck.

  23. Vanessa – I am so sorry for your loss. I went and found Natalie Hale's 'Oh brother' on Kalahari.com and have added it to my wishlist. While I was at it I also did some reading on Jacobsen Syndrome, just to understand what you and your loved ones have been through. I see it is just as rare as Trav's condition.

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