I Know Why 2 Different Groups of Kids Bullied My Son Yesterday

Yesterday was perfect. I took him to the zoo. We didn’t have one meltdown. He is learning to feed himself. He only bolted while playing on the playground, so all things considered, totally manageable.

He tried to make friends. He interacted with his surroundings. He played appropriately at the sandbox in the dinosaur exhibit. It couldn’t have been more perfect. More beautiful.

We’ve had so few of these issues over the past few years that sometimes I forget, or rather I don’t think about in clear, vibrant ways, that he is disabled.

Yeah, that word so many people don’t like: “disabled.” “Lacking in an ability.” And let me be very clear, My Boy is the shiz. But there are things he can’t do. And I know it. But I also forget quite often what it’s like to stand him next to a group of children and “compare.” And yeah, I think it’s an important thing to do. I need a plan for him. I need to know how far we have come. How far we have left to go. I need to know goals and what works and what doesn’t. I need to see so I know.

I saw him running and flapping and doing his “scarecrow dance” onto the playground shouting, “My friends are all here” and I watched to see if his simple joy was enough to make friends.

boy on slide at playground

I saw him playing along with the 3-years-olds, mostly able to follow their lead. And I watched them gang up to hit and kick him.

Was it his size? That he was so much bigger? Was it that they couldn’t understand his speech or his behaviors?

I saw. But I didn’t know what it was that I saw. And then I saw him leave the toddlers, whose games and dances he understood. I saw him approach the bigger kids his own age.

And I saw them decide to take him out, too. As if his very existence was billboarding him as an outsider. As bully-fodder. As if they could smell him.

Or see a flashing light over his head declaring, “I am different. And vulnerable. Come hurt me.”

And their taunting punches and kicks that landed softly, as if egging him on, were met with his blank, confused, thoughtful stare. He was present in that confusing, awful moment. And then when the ring leader decided to go after him for real, with me running full blast toward them, I saw My Boy punch that Kid-Bully in the jaw.

And when Kid-Bully stood stunned, I saw My Boy side kick him ninja-style in the hip. And down Kid-Bully went. And My Boy stared at him. A blank, thoughtful stare. Hurt. And confused.

And later in the car I answered My Boy’s questions as best I could. No. You are not allowed to hit… Well, Hit first… Yes, if someone hurts you, it is okay to fight back… Yes, you should come get Momma if you can… No, you are not a villain… I know it’s confusing… I’m proud of you for defending yourself.

And I’m heartbroken you had to. Why? Why is a boy who hasn’t mastered potty training and doesn’t know his ABCs having to learn how and when to defend himself? Why!

Why is My Boy, who just wanted to make friends, unable to do so in a setting that should be so natural? Why do I have to hover just to protect him?

I know why. And it has nothing to do with “Autism Awareness.” And it has nothing to do with “Autism Acceptance.” It has nothing to do with special needs or childhood independence. It has to do with them.

The ones standing in line for lunch at the zoo who think it’s okay to roll their eyes at the awkward teen girl who invaded their perceived “space” as she reached past them to grab a pudding.

It has to do with them. The parents standing in line for the zoo train wearing their babies. When their 3-year-old points at my 5.5-year-old and says, “He’s in a baby seat!” And I reply “No, it’s just a stroller.”

And they usher their kid around the corner without correction or apology or even a glance to let me know they didn’t know what to say. Because I know what you probably told him. Not considering the needs of others who will need strollers throughout childhood or adulthood, you told him that he didn’t need to ride in a “baby seat” today. Because trying to foster independence you, unwittingly, I presume, taught him that children with other needs are babies.

It has to do with them. The parents who let their kids mock and bully a child who acts differently and speaks differently. Because “they’ll work it out on their own” is such a solid parenting plan. And you couldn’t care less who gets hurt.

Until your child gets punched and side-kicked by the boy with autism. And then suddenly, in the flurry of emotions I can’t even name and the flailing scenes moving so fast my mind can’t keep up with my eyes, it isn’t about you; it’s about us.

And it’s about the fact that I am us and you are them.

It’s about me realizing that raising your level of awareness isn’t enough. Because there will never be enough autism awareness to make you move over in line so the awkward teenager all alone can grab her pudding without being visibly mocked by adults. There will never be enough autism awareness to teach you that a simple “Would you like to sit with us?” could have taught others to accept and not reject the teen who was different from yours.

There will never be enough autism awareness to teach you that telling your child “a kid in a stroller isn’t a baby, he’s just a kid” would have made all the difference to the mother pushing the stroller. Or to the kid in the stroller who understands more than you think, because his stroller doesn’t inhibit his hearing.

“Autism Awareness” can’t be “Autism Acceptance” until you are willing to be a kind human. Until you are willing to practice “Human Awareness” and someday, if you possibly can, “Human Acceptance.” Even if it’s just to help another mom have less of a hard day. Even if it’s just so you don’t underestimate the strength and the fortitude of that kid with delays as he takes out your son on the playground. Even if it’s just to stop making everything them versus us and you versus me.

Can we start there? Please? So sometime, somewhere, someday the perfect and beautiful day at the zoo will be less of a hard day. For all of us.

A longer version of this post originally appeared on Letters From a Spectrum Mom.

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