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When the Bullies of a Child With a Disability Are the Adults

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The other day I was at a birthday party with my 8-year-old, which may sound like a normal weekend evening to some, but for us it was thrilling. My son had hardly been invited to any parties prior to last year, so getting an invitation from a classmate was a big deal. At the height of struggling with autism and anxiety, my son found it hard to make and keep friends because his behavior became unpredictable. Understandably, kids became standoffish because they didn’t know what to expect.

I toyed with the idea of leaving the party and running a few errands since there were plenty of adults to supervise and my son seemed happy on his own. I spent five minutes buckling many kids into their laser tag vests and asked my son if he minded if I left for awhile. “It’s OK,” he told me, as he handed me his new glasses so he didn’t accidentally break them during the game. I gave him a little hug, finished helping his friends get ready and then went back to the party space.

Although I planned to leave, I found myself engaged in a conversation with three other moms of boys in my son’s class. I felt happy and decided to stay — I have become pretty isolated in our journey through autism and it was nice to speak to other classroom parents.

We began talking about things we liked and didn’t about the school and in the conversation The Mom, as I’ll call her from here on out, said to me of my son, “well, he has anger issues.” She said this matter-of-factly, as though she personally knew this to be true, right in front of two other moms. I was in shock, and I’m sure my face showed it. I went on to explain about his struggles with autism and was repeatedly interrupted by The Mom to rehash an incident that had happened one year prior that did not involve her child at all. I was flabbergasted. She continued on about my child supposedly “targeting” another, and I was left to explain that although she may have met some other children with autism, no two are exactly the same.

You see, there were changes that happened all at once at the school last year, as well as some incidents with other kids that left him with his guard up. A series of unfortunate events at school resulted in my child developing PTSD, as was described by one of his therapists. Every single time he took a step into the school, the memories would flood back and he’d be on the defensive, stuck in the fight or flight response. If he sensed anything off or a perceived threat by another student he became aggressive, thinking he needed to defend himself. It caused mass chaos in our whole family.

As part of his developmental disability, my son struggles with social language/pragmatics, an under-responsive proprioceptive system, an over-responsive vestibular system and social skills. He also has extreme anxiety. These are real challenges he faces that can cause behavior issues that many times are beyond his control. He has to learn things that come naturally to most kids, and it’s a huge challenge for him.

After many months of working with a speech-language therapist to help him express himself verbally in times of crisis, an occupational therapist to help correct his over-responsive vestibular system (which can make a child appear irritable, aggressive, resistant to change, among other things), a KST chiropractor to get his nervous system working properly and calm his fight-or-flight instinct and a psychiatrist to find the right medication, my sweet boy found his footing again and not only calmed down but grew by leaps and bounds.

His second-grade year had been full of good behavior, empathy, apologies for any mistakes, and lots and lots of friends. This is why I was so shocked that in January, five months into the school year, The Mom was bringing up words that in no way described my son. In front of other moms who didn’t know about last year’s struggles. At a child’s birthday party.

I ended up telling The Mom through tears that what she did was uncalled for and that my son had worked so hard and was no longer struggling. She admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he seemed different. I then continued to somehow hold it together but fought tears again later as I saw my child interact happily with his friends, behaving beautifully, and felt the judgmental eyes of The Mom on me.

Another mom came up to me later and told me she would also be very upset in my shoes. She tried to sympathize with me, and I was so grateful. The Mom then came to apologize and in doing so told me there were many people at the school who discuss my son as having “anger issues” and being “violent” — words that cut me to the bone. Were adults really talking about my young child a year after these incidents? Why didn’t they come to me if they were concerned? There is a difference between concern and gossip.

I sobbed after we left and called my sister and my mother and heard all the right words: “Celebrate your boy’s incredible growth and thank God he has no idea how grown women are speaking about him.”

But I do worry. If adults are speaking of a second grader this way, it will get back to their children. Their children will hear the way they describe a child with a developmental disability as a person they should stay far, far away from. Their children will not learn to become accepting, inclusive and compassionate — and this is what bothers me the most.

I always say we need to teach our children kindness so they can be a better generation than we were. But how can we truly teach our children kindness if we aren’t kind ourselves? I’m reminded of the words from a Dixie Chicks song, “I Hope.”

‘Cause our children are watching us
They put their trust in us
They’re gonna be like us
So let’s learn from our history
And do it differently

We have to do better. If we want our children to be inclusive, to avoid bullying, we cannot be exclusive or bully ourselves. We have to look at ourselves first and become the people who we hope our kids will be.

Follow this journey at Life As This Mom Knows It.

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Getty image by drante

Originally published: January 24, 2018
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