My name is Grace Payne, I’m 21 years old and I have mild autism. I was severely autistic when I was diagnosed at 18 months old.
I have my mum Toni and my dad James, I have an older sister, Shannon and younger brother, Daniel who has severe learning disabilities. He is also an athlete in my Special Olympics club and he is in my basketball, football and athletics team. I also have two nieces, Morgan and Leigh, who are my sister’s daughters. I am from Auckland, New Zealand.
From what I have heard, back in the day, people with intellectual disabilities were not treated well and didn’t get the recognition they deserved. Now it is getting better but still needs improvement. As a country, we need to do more to make our society more inclusive.
Our athletes are not included in mainstream sports team, this can cause athletes to feel isolated and their mental health to suffer as they can’t express their abilities through sport. This can also affect their family members as they are the athlete’s key pillar of support.
All my school life, I was in different schools but was based with Parkside Special School in a satellite class. I always had contact with mainstream children and even did some classes with them because I was able to do so. In Primary school, I did reading and math. In Intermediate, I did wood tech, cooking, art, drama and choir; and in High School I was in the school’s wind band where I played the clarinet. I was also in the basketball team.
In Primary school, my friends and I were lucky to not have experienced bullying from other children. I think it was because we were all so young and naive and probably did not know any better. I remember some of the children from the mainstream classes would involve us in their activities and even let us lead some of the games we played.
In Intermediate school, things were a bit different. Do not get me wrong. There were some children who were nice, they would come hang out with us and treat us no different. But there were children who didn’t treat us like everyone else, they would call us names under their breath or out loud when we walked past them and some would mock some of the things we did like jumping, flapping, and so on.
Personally, I was never physically bullied but I have had some verbal abuse. Some children have made fun of my size and have called me “pregnant”, “chubby”, “fat” and quite a few other names. About my intellectual disabilities however I have had different responses. Some children I knew well would politely ask about my autism as they were curious and wanted to get to know me better. Other children would say to me “are you from that classroom? (the satellite classrooms)”, or “what is wrong with you?” I know they were just curious and when I answered them saying that I have autism, they would say “Well, you don’t look autistic, unlike this other person who looks different!”, as if people looking different is a bad thing.
In High School, I was so scared about what the students from the mainstream classes were going to think of me but I was treated just like everyone else when I was in the school’s wind band or in the basketball team. I was treated heaps better than I was in intermediate school, but I think it was partly because our classes were quite far from the rest, so we were in our own little world.
Being a person with autism, I don’t have any physical impairments. But seeing how some children treat others with noticeable disabilities is really sad, and I think more education and awareness is needed for children with intellectual disabilities to be accepted in society. Thinking back now that I’m older, I think the reason why children teased or mocked us is because they were not educated or included in our environment at school.
How I got through all of the bullying through school was sport. During our lunch breaks, I was always doing something physical whether it was just playing tag, basketball, touch, and cricket with my friends and I think that’s when my love for sports began. I joined Special Olympics in 2010 doing ten pin bowling, in 2012 I started basketball and I’m still doing it to this day alongside power lifting and football. Through the years, I have also tried athletics and table tennis.
With basketball I have competed in many ribbon days and regional games. I have competed in the National Summer Games in 2013 in Dunedin and was going to compete in the National Summer Games in Wellington 2017. Unfortunately, six weeks prior to the games I was involved in a traffic accident on my way to school. We veered off the road, hit a ditch and rolled four to five times and landed on the side. My injuries were a fractured L1 vertebrae and lacerated liver, so it put me out of action for a few months but now I am stronger than ever before!
I represented New Zealand in basketball at the 2019 World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi and I was the first female in New Zealand to go over to the world games for basketball. I competed in the men’s grade and our team came in 4th in the 3rd division. Going to the World Games is my biggest highlight with Special Olympics so far, it was something I never thought I would do, and it was a dream come true.
My life has changed so much since joining Special Olympics, I’ve finally found people whom I can relate to and be myself without judgment. Special Olympics is like one big family, we support and encourage each other in what we do, we bring each other up when we fall down, we welcome everyone with open arms including families, siblings and friends, and we don’t judge or discriminate against anyone.
I have grown so much as a person, my confidence has had a huge boost. I am now co-chair of the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Athlete Input Council and I feel like I now have a voice that I want to use to help other athletes find theirs, and to also educate people about who we are.
Since being a part of Special Olympics, my family has a whole new perspective about people with intellectual disabilities and it has opened a brand new world which they wouldn’t have known or experienced. They have developed so many lifelong friendships. I have been told by many people that I have inspired them because of my disability and what I had to achieve to get to where I am today.
My hope for the future is that we will have a more inclusive and accepting society. There are people who still don’t know about us and what we can do, and my simple hope is that more people will try and understand us, our disabilities and Special Olympics.