Girl with rare facial condition didn't realise she was 'different' until day she started school

Olivia Hotschilt had no idea she looked different to other children until she walked into a schoolyard and the reality shock hit her.

“When I first started school, I didn't notice it till other people noticed it,” OIivia, now 22, told Today Tonight.

“I walked into school and it was like ‘bam’, you're different. And I was like 'oh really'.

"I looked in the mirror and couldn't understand what I was looking at.”

For Olivia Hotschilt, life became a lot harder when she started at school. Source: Today Tonight

Olivia's story is similar to one told in the new movie Wonder, which opened in Australia this week and has already been a surprise box office hit in the US.

It’s the true story of a young boy Auggie Pullman, a boy born with severe facial deformity known as "mandibulofacial dysostosis".

It follows his journey and torment trying to fit in to mainstream school after years of home schooling.

Hit movie 'Wonder' is based on the real-life experiences of August Pullman (bottom right). Source: Getty

The feel-good movie’s “choose kindness" hashtag has been trending worldwide, encouraging us all to choose friendship over bullying.

And that’s a message Olivia has waited a lifetime to hear.

For 22-year-old Olivia there is hope the film’s Australian release will give her something she craved all her life: acceptance.

“I’m hoping, and the thing is it’s not just about me it’s about the other families and communities that have these people… they are so desperate to have awareness,” Olivia told Today Tonight.

Today Tonight first met Olivia five years ago when she was fighting to erase the stigma on her own.

Olivia, who’s lived with her own facial affliction known as craniofrontonasal dysplasia (CFND), hopes the release of the movie about the struggles growing up with a disfigurement will make her work that little bit easier.

“[Craniofrontonasal dysplasia] is well, obviously a facial condition, it affects the way our bones and everything are fused,” Olivia said.

We first met Olivia five years ago, when she told us of a life that was less than easy. Source: Today Tonight
Like Auggie Pullman in the movie 'Wonder', Olivia hopes people will have greater understanding of childhood with a facial deformity. Source: Today Tonight

“So it just basically, before development or just after development, it deformed my skull instead of completely joining in the middle.”

It's still a mystery as to why Olivia was born the way she was.

“My mum says it’s a blessing," she said.

"For a while there I wouldn't say it was, but now I wouldn't change my past for who I am now."

She says this despite the hurt and torment she endured in the schoolyard.

“Spending lunch times alone or running from bullies hiding in toilets, not even eating because you are too nervous in case somebody came up behind you and pushed you down the stairs,” Olivia said of her schoolyard horrors.

“Class wasn't any different,” she added.

“Any time they could get a chance to hit my hands, or hit me over the head, or take my chair out from underneath me.

“Every day it was battery.”

And every day Olivia came to loathe herself more.

Olivia (pictured bottom middle) did not know she was 'different' until her first day of school. Source: Today Tonight

“It takes a lot to make somebody hate themselves, the constant torment and the constant reassurance, you are literally just your condition.

“You’re worthless. You have no other value than a punching bag,” she said, reflecting on the insults she endured throughout her schooling.

For her mother Jillian, the everyday conflict was balancing Olivia's need to learn with her mental health.

“It was really hard,” Jillian said, remembering how her daughter “missed more days than she was really there”.

But for Jillian it was so much the missing the school that upset her, or the bullying and harm caused by other children – it was protecting her daughter from harming herself.

'Not once did my feelings ever matter to anyone else'

Finally, Olivia had had enough.

Olivia's teen years were full of hurt. Source: Today Tonight

“I cut my hair off and I started cutting myself, stopped eating, [and] it just spiralled got out of control,” she said.

“I was definitely ready to end it all.”

As though the schoolyard bullying wasn't bad enough, Olivia endured four operations to reconstruct her face.

“Not once did my feelings ever matter to anyone else,” Olivia said.

“I would go home and up to mum and say ‘I’m not going to school tomorrow. I’m not.’”

As well as the emotional hurt and torment, Olivia had to undergo four facial reconstruction surgeries. Source: Today Tonight

By the time she reached her teens, Olivia found a new school, one where she was accepted.

“As soon as I went to that school, instead of people running from me they surrounded me and were like 'welcome', and I realised there was more out there for me, and I realised I wasn't that shell,” Olivia said.

Cautiously optimistic, Olivia hopes the release of Wonder will be like that new school from her youth.

Olivia hopes the film's success will help others to understand what it's like for people who are different. Source: Today Tonight

“It’s going to be cathartic, I think, because I feel like I’m not alone, because these things happened to this person and these things happen to every other person that suffers facial conditions,” she said.

“I can't wait to be able to go through that journey with him. I think it will heal some of the wounds I’ve still got.”

And maybe she and people like her will be seen for who they are – not how they look.

And who is Olivia?

“I’m Olivia. I like pizza,” she said.

“I’m strong and I’m independent and I’m sassy. I’m loyal and I’m one of those people you can't forget once you’ve met me.”