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When a Teacher Called My Autistic Daughter 'Inappropriate' in Front of Her Class

I read an article on The Mighty titled, “6 Misconceptions About Autism Debunked by an Autistic Adult,” written by Eileen Lamb, and it brought to mind a rather hurtful experience my 6-year-old autistic child experienced in first grade this year.

The first grade class has a pet hedgehog and one day in March, it was disclosed to the class that the hedgehog had died. When I picked my daughter up from school that day, I could tell she wasn’t herself. She was unusually quiet for the half-mile walk home we take. Once we made it through the front door of our house, she burst into tears and kept repeating “You’re inappropriate, you’re inappropriate. Stop making things up, stop making things up.”

After a few minutes of calming, I finally got her to tell me the class hedgehog had died, and she told the teacher she had a hedgehog that had also died.  The teacher told her it wasn’t the appropriate time to be making up stories like that, and how that bothered other kids in class.

The fact is, our daughter did have a hedgehog named Mazie who passed away before she entered first grade. She had the hedgehog for over three years.

My husband and I both emailed the teacher to try to get a better handle on what had happened. What we read in response to our inquiry pained us deeply. This is an excerpt from the email sent to us. “The way she worded her statement implied she had a dead hedgehog at home for three to four years. Her comment was very off-putting to her classmates who were still trying to process the loss of their class pet.”

Yes, unfortunately, our child did not word herself in the best way, but her statement was not incorrect or false. Given the fact that she is 6, autistic, and this was her first attempt at trying to console another human being — a task that does not come easily for any child, let alone an autistic child who often struggles with social interaction — she did her best. If you break the sentence apart, she had a hedgehog at home for three to four years, who died. And technically the dead hedgehog is still at home, as it is buried in the backyard. The teacher seemed to believe our daughter was saying she had a dead hedgehog decaying in our house for three to four years.

It’s not every day someone tells you your sweet and sympathetic child is “off-putting” and unpleasant. This seems to be an overly harsh critique of a child who was trying to share sympathy.

The teacher further wrote “Since there has never been any mention whatsoever of having a pet hedgehog in your family, and her statement made her classmates very uncomfortable, I could not help her articulate her thoughts and told her that I didn’t think that was true and it was not the time to make things up.” She said this to our child in front of all the other kids in her class, essentially even if unintentionally calling our daughter a liar in front of her peers.

The teacher closed her response by saying, “She seemed fine after I said this,” and implied in a separate follow-up email that because our daughter seemed fine, she was not sure what the problem was and why we were emailing her about it.

She seemed fine… but she wasn’t.

We have previously explained to this teacher how much longer it takes an autistic child to process emotions and information, including sending her links to facts and research. While the teacher embarrassed her in class and made her feel poorly about herself, she did not cry or express her hurt. It sat inside of her all day and through the 20-minute walk home, until arriving at the only place in the world she feels truly safe and protected, for her to let out her hurt.

She didn’t seem fine to me when I was holding her in my arms and she sobbed for hours, her body shaking, her eyes swollen and puffy from too many tears. She didn’t seem fine to me when she asked me why the teacher thought she was lying when she was telling the truth. She likely isn’t going to be fine the next time she wants to console or comfort another individual and remembers the devastating verbal rebuke she received when she tried to convey condolence and sympathy. As parents, we are concerned this may make her hesitant to try to express sympathy or empathy to others in the future.

There is a pervasive, harmful myth that autistic people lack empathy and are incapable of feelings. This hits my heart quite strongly and prompted me to want to share our experience. Not only do people with autism have empathy, but they also experience their feelings very strongly and hurt inside just as deeply as anyone else — even if they “seem fine.”