This gap is forever widening by alarming rates, and is something which makes me so sad at times. Sometimes, as Peter Pan found out, being a perpetual child isn't all bad. But most of the time it means a lot more attention for her, and a lot of that attention will be, sadly, and annoyingly, negative. One of my biggest pet hates is Other People - those who don't want to understand, those who judge on appearances instead of taking a moment to think about why a 12 year old would be throwing a toddler tantrum on the floor of Tesco. Bad parenting they will mutter, someone should give her a good hiding, and more recently, children who would have been her peers looking on aghast at the weird, uncool kid who squeals and babbles and dances and giggles and dresses funny.
"She's a bit big for a buggy isn't she?" - woman in the street
"Big Baby"! - 10 year old boy
"Oh my god have you seen what she's wearing" - 12 year old girls in the park
"They'll give labels to anything nowadays" - another woman in the street
....and of course the Looks. Dirty looks, funny looks, judgemental looks, all stemming from ignorance.
I only go out with Charlotte now if I know that I can handle it, if I'm feeling a bit sensitive, or I know that Charlotte is feeling a bit sensitive, then we don't go anywhere. It's just not worth it. It's no wonder we don't see many disabled people out in public, it's because it's so hard to tolerate Other People! It's not that disabled people are rare, there are thousands, millions out there, but Other People make their lives so difficult that it is easier to stay at home and become socially isolated than it is to go out and face them. It takes nerves of steel! And for some of us, nerves of steel are in short supply.
One advantage of Charlotte being so severely autistic is that she has no idea that this is going on around her. I have seen children attempt to bully her, only to be faced with no reaction whatsoever, not even an acknowledgement of the other child's presence, never mind a flicker of anxiety or upset at whatever they have just said. It still hurts me personally, I want to grab them by the scruff of their necks, but I allow myself a wry smile at the fact that the bully has not got what they wanted from her. I feel deep sympathy for those higher functioning children who don't understand why they are being bullied, or hate being different because of bullying and I count us lucky that Charlotte will never be bullied, at least not in a verbal or mental sense.
I have learned over the years to hold my head high when we are out. Even when she is laid on the ground screaming I hold my head up and deal with her as I would at home, as calmly as possible, taking as much time as she needed to overcome whatever had upset her, and completely ignoring those around us. It is incredibly difficult, unbearably so sometimes, but I learned to choose my battles, both with Charlotte and with Other People, because in the end it would be me who had to deal with the fallout if I reacted any other way. Either Charlotte would end up more upset and even more loud and aggressive, or I would end up in a slanging match, which is the last thing I need when I am trying to calm a child who is confused and upset. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an angel, there's nothing I'd like more than to shout "*&^% off" at times, but what good does it do in the end? You certainly wouldn't get any sympathy!
The reason I learned to drive was because we had such a terrible time getting around, public transport was a nightmare; she was neither a baby nor a pensioner so she wasn't afforded the same understanding when we needed to use accessible buses with her Major Buggy. I had arguments with bus drivers who couldn't be bothered to enforce their company's disabled priority rules because their bus was full of pushchairs. I had rows with passengers who wouldn't move, pensioners who complained that they should have priority if we did manage to get on the bus; it was a living nightmare just to go to town.
I ended up so stressed that I applied to the Family Fund, who granted me driving lessons. What a godsend they were! It took me a few months to learn, and three attempts to pass my test, but the difference it made to our lives was immense. Because of the severity of her autism, Charlotte was entitled to high rate mobility allowance, which meant that we could have a car on Motability. The freedom, the reduction in stress, the increased flexibility and timesaving meant so much to us. It meant that we could go to more places, we could forget about the buses and, best of all, Charlotte LOVED IT!