My son, AJ, was in second grade when he had his first encounter with bullies. As I’ve mentioned before, here and here, AJ was diagnosed with special needs early in life. We were lucky that he began receiving early intervention services even before he left the hospital because he was born 8 weeks premature. Because of this, we had social workers to help us get him the right doctors and other services he needed.
One of AJ’s problems is that he couldn’t pick up on social cues. One of the consequences of this is that he couldn’t tell when people were teasing him, and this would have serious ramifications with his experience at school.
About six weeks into the start of the second grade, AJ began acting out at home. He would get angry for no reason. He would hit himself and bang his head on the wall and floor. He would wake up at night with nightmares. We kept talking to him and asking him what was bothering him, but he couldn’t find the words to tell us. We tried asking questions to guide us to what was bothering him. “Are you upset with something at home?” “No.” “Are you upset with something your sister did?” “No.” “Is there something at school that is upsetting you?” This question was followed by screaming and “I don’t want to talk about it!”
After about 10 or 15 minutes of this and AJ being reduced to tears, we finally discovered that he was being bullied by two older kids at school. Two kids, who he considered his friends, were verbally and physically harassing him. He cried as I held him in my arms, telling me that they would push him and throw rocks at him on the playground.
We called the school the next day and explained what AJ had told us. They took him aside and asked him who the boys were and he identified them. We were assured that the teachers would keep the two boys and AJ apart.
Not too long after this, we got a call from school telling us that AJ was throwing stones at the school window. When he got home and we asked him about it, he said that the two same boys told him to do it and they had run off before an adult came. We called the school and asked for a team meeting. At this meeting were AJ’s teachers, his aides, his Special Ed coordinator, and the school principal.
The principal was not very familiar with Asperger’s syndrome (this was in a time before Asperger’s became as well known as it is today), so we explained how AJ’s disability made him too trusting of other kids and that he couldn’t understand subtle social cues that would let him know when he was being picked on. We told him that this made AJ very easily swayed and manipulated, and that we were disappointed that the school did not keep AJ and the boys apart.
He said that he understood, but still had to punish AJ (he lost his recess for a day), and that he couldn’t punish the other boys because no one saw them doing anything wrong, but that he would talk to them and make sure that they stayed away from AJ.
About a week later, we got a call from the school. AJ was going to be suspended for pushing a kid in the playground! One of those two kids. Apparently, what happened is that these two kids were angry that the principal talked to them about how they were treating AJ so they started teasing him and bumping into him on purpose while coming in from the playground. AJ got angry as he being teased and pushed around so he pushed one of the kids down. An adult saw this, and so he was going to be suspended for that.
Photo by trix0r
We went to the school the next day to meet with the principal and told him that he shouldn’t be suspending AJ since he was supposed to make sure that they weren’t even near him to begin with. Also, he should never have mentioned AJ by name to the two boys when talking to them about their behavior.
He basically told us that he stood by his decision and that he didn’t consider their persistent bullying leading up to this incident relevant. He effectively told us that AJ was a problem child that was causing disruptions! He completely dismissed AJ’s diagnosis of Asperger’s, saying that most of the kids diagnosed with ADHD or Asperger’s really just were kids with behavior issues, not developmental issues. After all, AJ seemed like just a regular kid, not a real developmentally disabled one (I’m was sure he was going to say “retard,” but I guess he had at least enough sense to not go there; still, the message was the same). Since AJ “looked” normal and acted mostly “normal,” then he was normal and was really just a spoiled kid who needed some good old-fashioned discipline. He didn’t actually say that, but his point was obvious.
I guess he thought we’d let it drop, but he had another thing coming. We immediately called the Massachusetts Special Education Office and inquired about this situation. As we thought, since AJ had an official diagnosis that was supplied by a child psychiatrist approved by the school system, and because that diagnosis was part of his Individual Education Plan, or IEP, the school had to make appropriate accommodations for his disability. Saying that the diagnosis was bullshit didn’t quite cut it.
We then contacted the Superintendent of Schools in our town and made a formal complaint, indicating that it was our belief that the school had violated AJ’s IEP, and that we insisted that something be done to correct the situation immediately. We told them that we had no faith in the principle at AJ’s school. After that, we called a friend of my wife’s who worked in the Special Ed department at the high school and explained the situation. She contacted the head of Special Ed at one of the other elementary schools in town and we soon got a call from that person. She had us explain the situation and then said that she would check into it and call us back.
The next day we got a call from her telling us that she had confirmed that his school had violated the IEP and that she had talked to everyone involved and felt that the best thing was to transfer AJ to her elementary school, which was across town. Since they already provided transportation for him, there would be no issue with him getting to and from school.
Within a few days, AJ was in his new school and his behavior began to change for the better almost immediately. With the stress of being bullied gone, he was happier and did better in school. The teachers, aide, and especially the principle went out of their way to make sure that this was a good experience for AJ.
We discovered two very important things from this. One is that we were going to have to fight to get AJ the help he needed, because no one was going to make it easy for us. Just because a school system has a good reputation for Special Ed doesn’t mean that every school in the system does it right. Second, that we were going to have to educate the educators about Asperger’s syndrome, since many had never heard of it and some of those who had didn’t buy it.
This wasn’t the last time we would have to fight to get AJ what he needed from the schools. Every time he moved up, from elementary to middle school, then middle to high school, we had to make sure everyone on his team understood what his diagnosis was and what accommodations he needed. Even after this event, which apparently became well known throughout the school system (the fear of a lawsuit, which never happened, did work to our advantage), we still had at least one more time we had to bring out the big guns to get him what he needed.
There is still a stigma attached to diagnoses like ADHD and Asperger’s. People say they are over-diagnosed or don’t even really exist. As a parent of a child with a developmental disability, I know that they exist. While the diagnosis may change with time as professionals learn more about developmental disabilities, and while I’m sure some kids are misdiagnosed, these are the best diagnoses that we have currently.
You would think that, as parents, we wouldn’t have to educate schools about developmental disabilities, but to be fair, they are usually working with information that is three to five years old, at least. It then becomes not just our job, but our responsibility, to work with them so that they can provide the best educational experience for our children.
Featured image by Terry Freedman