This is long. It’s been a year in the writing, so please bear with me.
Before my son started elementary school in 2007, I met with the principal of the school we hoped he would attend; a small, private, Catholic school where his older sister was a successful student and where we knew almost every family and child. And, therefore, they knew us and our challenges.
We couldn’t think of a better place for our son. We knew that the Christian values, their stance on bullying, the backing of our priest, and the supportive community was just what any special needs child deserves. Here was a kid who had barely survived his first few years, who didn’t speak until he was four, who had to be spoon-fed by me until he started kindergarten; we knew he needed to be in a place where kindness and compassion were paramount.
So I helped the school form a fundraising committee so kids like mine could attend. It was to pay for tools, aides, education and anything else these children needed. I stood up in front of our entire parish and asked for money and they gave it. Lots of it. Now, I feel like a fraud. I am so sorry.
There were times over his five years there that were really good and there were teachers who understood him completely. The students were great with my son and the other parents were just what we’d always hoped for; supportive, happy to educate their children, and never shunning us. Not once.
But, somehow, last year everything fell apart. He was sent home nearly every day for behavioral reasons, he was made to sit out of the Mardi Gras celebration (a religious holiday, no less), and he wasn’t allowed to go on a field trip to the Newport Aquarium even though my husband took a day off work to be his sole chaperone. Never considering that maybe seeing him with his father would give them insight into applying discipline that worked, they simply told us he wasn’t allowed to go.
Here was a child whose life had been full of some pretty awful situations and they didn’t give him the opportunity to be included in fun life experiences. I don’t know if I can ever forget that.
Was my son well-behaved? No. Was he disruptive? Yes. He has autism. He made strange noises in the classroom, he had to be given some tests orally because he got anxious otherwise, he tore library stickers off of books, wouldn’t tuck in his uniform shirt (GASP), he cut up papers, didn’t do his homework and when the teachers would look for his papers they would find them in the recycling bin. Sometimes he talked back or wouldn’t talk at all.
BUT, he was also learning and he had friends who played with him at recess. He was involved in sports and went to sleepovers. He had the kindness and compassion that we were hoping for, just not from some of his teachers.
These are excerpts from a letter that one of them (not even HIS teacher, but another one in the building) wrote about him:
“…I gathered he did a number of things that…were belligerent attempts to gain attention…”
“I made several statements to him, ending with ‘do you understand?’ He refused to answer. I told him to say Yes or No. He refused to answer. I suggested maybe he return to kindergarten if he does not understand opposites.”
“Based on my interactions with him today (and in the past) as well as the challenges faced by many adults in the building, as a result of his behaviors, today alone, any outside observer might wonder why we have decided that (we) can manage this child’s needs. He does not have respect for authority, or a proper concern for acceptable social behavior.”
“I’m not sure he thinks in the long term, anyway. I do believe that (he) fails to see a bigger picture for his own future, but instead travels through each day based on his own assessment of one interaction after another. His decisions are impromptu, so to speak, and the very idea of building up rapport with peers and adults, of long term maintenance of good behavior, are not part of his thoughts.”
Would you leave your child in a building with someone who thought of him like that? Does that sound like someone who had been educated on dealing with autistic children? There was much, much more to the letter. Three full pages of it, in fact. Him not being allowed to go on the field trip was the deciding factor in us pulling him from the school – this letter that we received a few weeks later, was proof that we made the right decision.
But now he is in a school with no typical peers. He is hit, cussed at and screamed at by other students every single day. Yesterday, he came home in tears and said he doesn’t want to go back. Where do we go from here?
And, suddenly I’m wondering if removing the kids from these situations is the only solution. Maybe we need to remove the teachers. Certainly, if a classroom of 10 year olds can show compassion to a child with autism, an adult should be able to. Right? Especially a person who is trusted with the lives and education of our kids.
Maybe we need to take a deeper look at bullying by teachers, at special needs education and how we integrate children into typical classrooms. Maybe when a teacher wants to just give up on A CHILD (whether a 10 year old, medically fragile child with autism or a typical one), we should evaluate the situation to see if the child has more worth than that.
I’m pretty sure that every, single time we’re going to think the child does.