A little girl with Autism was left devastated when she was the only one not invited to another child’s birthday party.
Her mother, Katie Koullas, said the event – which came the same week as her daughter, Mia, six, was diagnosed – drove her to create a place where her little girl was celebrated for who she was instead of left out.
She created Yellow Ladybugs, a not-for-profit organisation which hosts birthday-themed parties for girls with Autism, giving them the same social experiences as their peers, but in a more comfortable environment.
‘She told me she was the only one not included, and she was like ‘why aren’t I getting an invitation?’,’ Ms Koullas told Daily Mail Australia.
‘I remember thinking it was really unfair that so many girls, who may be a bit different and quirky, don’t get included.’
‘I went home that night, determined to find somewhere, and there was nothing.
‘A lot of the existing social groups were mostly for boys, and anywhere Mia went, she couldn’t find someone she could relate to.
‘So I just went alright, if it doesn’t exist, we’ve gotta create it.’
Ms Koullas created a Facebook page called Yellow Ladybugs, named after Mia’s special interest in the creatures, and posted a call out to parents of girls with Autism like Mia.
She said she received a ‘phenomenal’ response. The page now boasts 10,000 followers, and thousands of families around the country have signed up on the website.
Yellow Ladybugs hosts birthday party themed events, where guests are even given a lolly bag and a balloon.
Ms Koullas, who works as an events lecturer, said the events were designed to provide girls who are often overlooked with the same social experiences as their peers.
‘If any girls don’t get an invitation [to birthday parties], they have this opportunity to feel like they’re having that celebration, and they can grow up having those good memories,’ she said.
The program has been a huge success, with Yellow Ladybugs filling capacity for their events sometimes in a matter of hours.
Ms Koullas said she has seen a huge burst of confidence in her daughter, as well as the girls who have been constantly attending events.
She suggested the reason behind Yellow Ladybugs’ success was the difference between the parties and other group interaction sessions for children with Autism.
‘We’re all about focusing on their positive strengths, and I think that’s why it works so well,’ she said.
‘It’s not a therapy session where you’re trying to get them to do things just to appear mainstream, we’re just celebrating who they are and enjoying that for what it is.’
Yellow Ladybugs parties are designed to be sensory friendly, as people with Autism can have over or under reactionary senses.
This can often make areas with loud music, big crowds and bright lights less accessible.
‘We negotiate with venues to have the place to ourselves when it’s quiet,’ Ms Koullas said.
‘For example Bounce (a trampoline park) opened up an hour earlier than they would to the public, and we had it nice and quiet with no music so the girls who normally would not want to go because it’s too much of an overload feel really comfortable.’
The girls have also spent time at the National Gallery of Victoria and Inflatable World. On April 2 the group will mark World Autism Day with a trip to Melbourne Zoo.
Ms Koullas has travelled to New South Wales and Queensland to host events for children there, and says she has even been contacted by families overseas.
Looking back, the Melbourne mum says she is ‘really proud’ of what she has achieved.
‘I just felt like Mia would fit in if she could find her tribe,’ the mother-of-two said.
‘There was absolutely nothing wrong with her, she’s brilliant, amazing, creative and clever – she just needed to find someone who gets her.
‘That’s exactly what Yellow Ladybugs does for all our girls, it gives them a place to connect and feel celebrated.’
To donate to Yellow Ladybugs, please visit their GoFundMe page.