For months we had watched a new children’s play park being build behind our house. We had walked along to see it with excitement and I checked the plans to see what equipment would be suitable for my children, especially for my son who has significant support needs.
I saw advertisements for an opening event but knew this would be more than both my children with autism would be able to cope with, so I never mentioned it to my daughter. Instead, later that evening when the event was over, I put their socks and shoes on and surprised them with a walk around to the new park for the first time.
There were no roads to cross but I still had to hold both their hands tightly since neither has any awareness of danger, but once in the enclosed park I allowed my son to run ahead flapping with excitement. I opened the gate and guided the children in. It was early evening but still daylight and it was no surprise that they were the youngest children there. The park was busy and noisy though with older children and teenagers, yet not one parent in sight. I was unsure if my children would cope but what happened next made me realise that it would not be my children who would struggle but actually me!
As my son laughed and walked around stimming I helped my daughter climb to get to the slide. As she climbed up a bunch of children ran towards her shouting, having climbed up the slide and over the top of the frame she was on. I looked round to see another bunch of children running in circles around my son laughing in his face. My children were shocked and scared. They had come to play not be tormented in their local playground!
The more I asked the older kids to leave my children alone the more they seemed to annoy them. They spun the roundabout with my son on far quicker than he was happy with making him scream. They mocked his stimming and noises and ran amok round all the swings and apparatus. It was as if they saw how vulnerable my children were and that made them an instant target. It was awful.
I shouted at them to stop. There were no adults around and the kids were clearly not caring. They poked at my son, knocked into him and climbed on whatever he was playing on. My non verbal son with vision impairment and severe autism was oblivious to what they were doing. The more he made noises and flapped the more they laughed and pointed. His twin sister thought they were being ‘silly’ and kept asking why big children were in a little kids park.
I played with my children and tried to ignore them. I took ‘happy pics’ and planned to post them to Facebook when I got home. People don’t like hearing the bad stuff so I was just going to head those pics up with ‘fun in the park’. My children did have fun. Unfortunately for them other children also had fun at their expense.
I wonder if the parents of those older children have any idea what their kids were up to that Saturday evening? My twins are unaware of what really happened that night, but I am. In an era where disability awareness is common place and inclusion in schools is the norm it scares me that other children still see bullying and mocking kids with special needs something entertaining.
My local authority website boasts that this new park has equipment that is ‘inclusive’ for all children. They have changed some apparatus but sadly we still have a long way to go to change attitudes before I can once again take my children to the park without fear of local children mocking my son with special needs.
We will be back at that park soon. My son will once again flap, spin and make noises. My daughter will want in the baby swing and will sit on the roundabout with her brother. She will go down the slide again and again and again. My children thrive with repetition. Let’s just hope the local children don’t repeat the bullying I witnessed of my son last weekend.
The park changed. Now it is time to change hearts and minds too.