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How Dismissing Bullying as 'Kids Will Be Kids' Hurts Children With Autism

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Over the years, I’ve received countless calls and emails from parents asking for advice in regards to schooling for their son or daughter who is on the autism spectrum. Because of that, I wanted to share a situation I experienced as a child with autism.

I wasn’t sure how it ended up happening the way it did. I was in 4th grade in a special education multi-disability classroom with kids ranging from the age of 6 to 14. I was in the middle of recess when a kid in my class started screaming in my right ear. I started to panic. The noise made me feel uneasy. I told him to stop. I started to get angry. He stopped.

I looked at the substitute teacher, who was staring back at me, looking more scared at the moment than I was. I turned in my chair, away from the boy, and watched while my other classmates were hanging out around me. I tried to focus. I had a hard time getting my thoughts together about what I should do. A scream was directed towards me again. Same guy, but the left ear this time. That was when I lost control.

I stood up and grabbed the chair I was sitting in and pulled it over my head. Now I was the one doing the screaming, at him. The boy’s scream stopped and he looked terrified.

I pushed the chair towards him until he suddenly grabbed it in mid-air. I was now pushing the chair towards him, while at the same time he was pushing it towards me. The boy was about 5-6 inches taller than I was and maybe 2 or 3 years older. My grip was loosening every second of this back and forth, and he was clearly the stronger of the two.

The substitute teacher started yelling at both of us to stop. I dropped my grip and put my hands up to my ears, while the boy got a free love tap with the chair to my right shoulder, until he lost his grip and the chair went flying towards the ground.

I remember the substitute teacher specifically tried at a lighter tone, “You are lucky your real teacher isn’t here, or you would both be suspended.”

I went to the back of the classroom to get away, sobbing. The substitute teacher didn’t say another word about the incident for the rest of the period.

I was pretty quiet for the rest of the day, until one of my best friends came up to me later and said, “I heard what happened. The word is that someone told him you don’t like noise. That’s why he started screaming. He wanted to see what would happen; if he could use it against you.” I rolled my eyes and that’s pretty much all I remember from that day…

After repeated incidents, my parents pulled me out of public school and tried to place me at a private school out of our district, under the “Universal Placement of Students” clause. It was a small, expensive private school for students with neurological impairments. They had to sue our school district to help with funding.

This is a process I’m sure many parents with kids on the spectrum have experienced. They also drove me back and forth 50 miles round trip for the next eight years until I finished high school.

In that private school setting, there were only 160 kids. We all had some letters to describe us and the atmosphere was much better. Also, everyone on staff was trained to deal with students with some sort of special need.

Looking back now, as a 6’3” college graduate, national speaker and best-selling author, I think about whether other individuals like myself are still dealing with similar issues today. I don’t expect this to help anyone narrow the choice of where to send a student on the spectrum to school — public, private, mainstreamed, or self-contained. But I realize my experience can be described as a rite of passage for many “special” kids. It is a rite of passage that no child on the spectrum should have to suffer.

Educators and staff saying, “these are kids being kids” is unacceptable. Even though the kids who tormented me may have had their own problems, adults need to be aware and step in.

Inclusion for kids on the spectrum may not always be the right solution.  In my case, I was left in an atmosphere of bullying with no one to help. Public schools are facing dwindling budgets and often aren’t able to provide the protected environment kids on the spectrum need. I was lucky to have parents who found a safe and protective environment for me. Many kids are not as fortunate. I hope by spreading awareness of just how scary our world can sometimes be, people will display more sensitivity and provide the resources for us to feel safe and grow.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Originally published: September 26, 2016
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