‘IT’S OK TO HAVE A CHILD WITH A DISABILITY’ | Meet the mum who started Liverpool’s MyTime parents group

TEAM WORK: “When we meet we just laugh and cry – we’re able to talk freely," Melissa Cotterill says. "It’s good because not everyone has family around to support them. My passion is to reach out to people and let them know it’s OK to have a child with a disability." Picture: Chris Lane
TEAM WORK: “When we meet we just laugh and cry – we’re able to talk freely," Melissa Cotterill says. "It’s good because not everyone has family around to support them. My passion is to reach out to people and let them know it’s OK to have a child with a disability." Picture: Chris Lane

Wattle Grove resident and mother-of-four Melissa Cotterill founded the Liverpool MyTime group almost seven years ago when she discovered a successful communication technique which helped her daughter Alyssa who had Down syndrome.

The Down Syndrome Association introduced Melissa to key sign language when Alyssa was a few months old. It’s a common method used between parents and young children with delayed speech.

She said it wasn’t long until they were able to communicate easily. 

“I was blown away with just how amazing keyword sign language was. Alyssa's first sign was at 16 months. When you have a child with Down syndrome speech is delayed and any tools or methods help. I thought this method of signing was amazing and I became passionate about it. I wanted other people to use it, too,” she said.

Melissa gathered a group of parents and children who’d meet at her home where they were able to bond and learn communication techniques.

If there's anyone in the community feeling isolated with a child who has a disability, we want them to know there are support groups out there. Keyword sign language worked for us.

Melissa Cotterill

The group is now one of the MyTime groups which meet fortnightly for parents and children up to 18. The venue is provided by LightGate Church and the group funded by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services and co-ordinated by the Parenting Research Centre.

“We’ve got two play helpers who look after the children while the mums network with each other, share ideas and learn. It's for children with all disabilities or medical conditions. So if there's anyone in the community feeling isolated with a child who has a disability, we want them to know there are support groups out there. Keyword sign language worked for us.

“When our group meets there have been times where we just laugh and cry – we’re able to talk freely. It’s good because not everyone has family around to support them so some might feel a bit isolated. My passion is to reach out to people and let them know it’s OK to have a child with a disability.

“My whole family learnt keyword sign language – it wasn’t too hard. You just sign a few things in a sentence - it's based on Auslan. Some basic words are thank you, please, food, play and bath. And then it’s dropped when they learn to speak.”

Mother and daughter bond: Melissa Cotterill, 45, and daughter Alyssa, 11. Picture: Chris Lane

Mother and daughter bond: Melissa Cotterill, 45, and daughter Alyssa, 11. Picture: Chris Lane

She said her daughter Alyssa is now 11 and still has to have speech and occupational therapies, but she's doing well.

“I’m so proud to have Alyssa, she's gorgeous. For me what's important is to make the point that people with disabilities are people first and foremost and it's more about their abilities, not disabilities.

“And Alyssa does everything like all the other children her age - she wants friends over, she dances, she swims, she loves her sisters and she knows what she wants, she's a typical girl.

“She goes to a mainstream school and loves the children there – she’s never been bullied and they understand she might be a bit slower so they look out for her, it’s very sweet. There's no one else at the school with Down syndrome.”

We weren’t expecting to have a baby with Down syndrome so it was the fear of the unknown.

Melissa Cotterill

She said it’s been a life full of surprises so far.

“I think the start was hard for us because we weren’t expecting to have a baby with Down syndrome so it was the fear of the unknown. We didn't do any prenatal testing because back then it was quite invasive. When she was born we suspected she might have had it because their features are different. She was born at night so we had to wait until the net day for the doctors to do bloodtests and that’s when it was confirmed.

“We felt like we were in the dark but then the Down Syndrome Association actually visited us in hospital – that was a beautiful moment.

“We also had enormous family support which helped and everyone embraced her and loved her. That was incredible. It wasn’t too different – like any new mum, it's all about feeding your baby and making sure she's healthy. You take one step at a time, otherwise it can be overwhelming. The Down Syndrome Association were key - I realised I'm not the only one in the world going through this.”  

However, she said that hasn’t been the only challenge the family has faced the past few years.

“When Alyssa was 3, she had to have open-heart surgery. I think about 50 per cent of children with Down syndrome have some kind of heart defect but not all of them need open-heart surgery. When we went through something big like that we had support from the group.”

She's softened me and made me a more caring person.

Melissa Cotterill

She said despite some challenges, she wouldn’t change Alyssa for anything.

“She's softened me and made me a more caring person. I don't want people to feel isolated –I know you can. Plus, now I'm a Christian and that only happened six years ago. So I have more compassion and that motivated me to reach out to others.”

She said she became a Christian after another of her daughters became sick.

“It's just so powerful how Jesus can turn lives around. I tried to read the Bible in my 20s and didn't get it, I went to church and I wouldn’t hear the messages. But when my daughter was sick and I’d lost all hope, a Christian friend offered to pray. Even though I was totally against God, I said ‘yes please’. I was desperate. When she came all the children were asleep and she prayed and wrote Bible verses amd a letter to my daughter and I felt for the first time I could actually hear the verses – I could understand for the first time. 

“The next morning Alyssa, who was 5, came running to my room, grabbed my face and said "Mummy, mummy – God in my house'" and that was a miracle because I never taught my kids about Jesus except when I was swearing his name in anger. I woke up.

Having that personal relationship with Jesus Christ is like nothing else.

Melissa Cotterill

“From that day, my other daughter started to get better and she went back to school. And it was God knocking on my door to change me and that's what he's been doing – changing me for the past six years. Having that personal relationship with Jesus Christ is like nothing else. I started going to church, learning more about Christianity and having that relationship with Jesus.”

  • Melissa Cotterill invites parents to join her for the next MyTime on Friday, March 16, 10am to 1pm, at Lifegate Church Liverpool, 222 Hoxton Park Road, Prestons. Contact: mmcotterill@bigpond.com or 0418 162 544 .

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