Two months ago, I got a call that no parent ever wants to receive. I was sitting in my first therapy appointment in five months. After a devastating relationship loss, a grueling first year at a new job, and a set of new teachers who had not yet read my fifth grade son’s individualized education plan (IEP) two whole months into the school year, I was already at my wits end. I desperately needed a place to vent, and feel supported. I had just exhaled and said my first sentence, when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the number and instantly recognized it as my son’s school.
“Hold on I need to take this. I’m so sorry”.
It was my son’s Spanish teacher calling.
“Hi, I’m in the middle of therapy, is everything ok? Can I call you back or is there an emergency?”. On the other end, I heard, “Yes, there’s an emergency, your son stabbed another student with a pen and I have to talk to both students’ parents”. My pause was long and dizzying. As alarming as those words were, I knew that they were an extreme description of whatever had taken place. I have a lot of experience with translating and interpreting the things that my son says and does, as well as the way he perceives the things other people say and do. My son is on the autism spectrum, and does not like to be touched. Between sensory and auditory processing challenges, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder, he can often take certain types of interaction as a threat and respond in fight or flight mode. He’s gotten much better about this over the last few years with therapy, medication and accommodations outlined in his individualized education plan (IEP) that prevent triggering circumstances and allow his brilliance, humor and sensitivity to be fully seen. I asked if this teacher had read it and how he was supporting my son. He said, that he’d just started working at the school and no, he had not yet read it. This was deflating to hear since just weeks ago, I’d met with his main teacher who also had not read it and was frustrated with his “difficult personality”. She’d called him “ignorant” the first week of school because he mispronounced a student’s name and she’d emailed me to tell me that my son was a constant disruption because he flapped his wrist in class repeatedly. When I asked my son about how he liked his new teacher this year he said, “I think she doesn’t like me because I don’t like to be touched. She thinks it’s weird”. Though he is a straight A student with the third highest test scores in the class, I had the sense that my son was being set up for failure without the adults at school being prepared with the required knowledge, compassion and strategies for instruction that is mindful of his disabilities.
I asked what happened, and to talk to my son. He said that three different kids had been bullying him during class: pointing and laughing about his hair (he’s growing it out), picking up his things, throwing his hat and finally, he picked up a pen and struck one of them. I let him know that this was wrong and that he should have asked the teacher for help. “Stab” was an inappropriate word to be used and caused undue stress for everyone. Both teacher and principal agreed and apologized for that choice of words. But, instantly I became worried about how such a description could have easily escalated to school discipline, parental accusations, and police involvement. I considered how his response could have followed my son without any attention to the harmful behavior that led up to his actions. Children with disabilities are disproportionately bullied, and people with mental illness disproportionately populate corrections institutions nationwide. Instead of caring for people who experience the world differently, we treat people as if they are inherently wrong. When we do this, we fail each other tragically.
As a parent, it is sad and scary to leave my child at school all day with people who don’t understand him at best, and at worst, do not like him. School options seem limited for students with disabilities and support services are being cut left and right due to public budgets. The school principal has told me more than once, that if I am concerned about supports for my son, I should call the Governor’s office who has initiated so many funding cuts causing shortage of staff. More and more, I’m hearing stories about the ways that people with disabilities of all ages are criminalized or even killed while in the midst of mental health crisis. My worst fear is that my son will be in crisis and be harmed instead of helped because people will see him at 5’ 2”, 160lbs as a 10 year old Black boy in distress and view him as a threat. The public consciousness about mental health and neuro-diversity has so far to go. I am working hard to get or change the supports that he needs this year. However, through this incident, I learned that I am in a steady state of grief. I mourn the gap in empathy and cognition that prevents people from seeing how hard it is for my son to navigate the world. I mourn that his incredible personality will never be visible to some, because all they can see is the unconventional ways that he communicates. I mourn the sinking realization that some things will never change. Sometimes the people he thinks are his friends are people who are taunting and laughing at him. Sometimes the people he’s “playing with” are running from him and most times these things will happen when I’m not there to notice, advocate or be a real friend to him or intervene with the adult…teacher who should help him socially but doesn’t because “she doesn’t like him”.