The web has been buzzing over a vile incident involving a 15-year-old with autism in Bay Village, Ohio. A group of teens asked him over to their house, purportedly to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge geared toward raising money for the disease. Instead, as the teen stood in a driveway in his underwear, a bucket full of urine, fecal and spit was dumped onto him from the roof. The boy’s mother, Diane, discovered a video of what happened on her son’s cell phone. Police say that the group of teens who committed it could face delinquency chargers. The parents released the video, hoping to raise awareness about bullying.
People have been justifiably horrified, with many speaking out against bullying. Last Friday evening, his community held a rally with people holding signs such as “No room for hate.” Comedian Drew Carey has offered $10,000 in reward money to help find out who was behind the incident. All over social media, people have denounced what happened.
As horrific as this assault was for this teen and his family, as extra-upsetting as it is to those of us who have kids with special needs, the outpouring of support has been heartening. Still, it’s sad that it takes a shocking incident like this for people to spread the word that people with special needs deserve respect. If that were to occur regularly, though, events like this could be avoided. Not entirely, of course, because there will always be rotten apples. But if kids were raised to treat peers with special needs as their equals, children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other special needs would be less subject to derision, exclusion and bullying.
This isn’t just about making sure kids with special needs are included in school’s anti-bullying messages; this is about parents talking with their kids about children and adults with special needs from a young age, so children grow up with that equality mindset.
Here’s a challenge for parents to take. It involves no icy water, just a willingness to help kids understand the diversity of people that exist in this world, and to talk about it with them.
• Explain to your child how everyone has differences, and that some kids and adults have ones that are more visible—and that different is OK.
• Point out even though a child may act, speak, walk or talk in a non-typical way, in many ways they are like other children: ones who like to play, laugh, eat ice-cream, read bedtime stories…you know. That they feel happy and sad, just like they do. That they are kids.
• Help make kids aware of the ability in disability, and that everyone has their own kind of talents. If you do not have any kids or adults with special needs in your circle, google images of Special Olympics athletes—a good conversation starter. Or poke around blogs by parents of kids with special needs to help your child get a sense of what our children can do.
• Discourage the use of the words “retard” and “retarded,” which perpetuate negative stereotypes of people with disability. (If you don’t get what’s so wrong with them, watch this video.)
• Make this an ongoing conversation, just as parents regularly talk with kids throughout childhood about race, ethics and other all-important topics. Encourage them to ask you questions.
• Bridge the gap that can exist at parks, playgrounds, parties, when kids may be hesitant to approach a child with special needs. Encourage interaction. Tell them to just say “Hi,” as they would with any child.
I hope you’ll take this challenge. It’s not just for the sake of kids like my son—it’s for the benefit of your child, too. Teach your child to welcome and respect people with special needs and you will raise a better human being.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at Atypical Familia (formerly of AutismWonderland).
I once asked a friend if her son knew that he has autism. “No,” she said, “We’re not that kind of family.” I left it at that because I understood what she meant.
Growing up we never talked about my sister’s intellectual disability. My sister’s original diagnosis was mental retardation and on the occasion my mother referred to it, she’d say, “She’s not retarded. She’s just a little slow.”
I can’t fault my mother for not being open about my sister’s disability. My mother’s of another generation. And my sister – who is in her mid-twenties – is quite “high-functioning.” She works part-time, she goes to the gym, she takes the train by herself.
The other day we were out for a family dinner – talking and laughing the way families do. And as my sister was telling me a story, she used the “r-word” to describe something she thought was stupid.
There are times when I hear it, I speak out against it. And there are moments when I let it go. But whenever the word is used in front of my son, I can’t let it go. I will not allow anyone to use the r-word in front of Norrin. I will tell them to use another word.
Hearing my sister use the word upset me and I couldn’t let it go. She used it in front of Norrin. She used a word that degrades herself and every individual with a disability. When I explained to her why I didn’t want her using the word, she apologized. “It’s just slang,” she said.
My sister believed it was slang because she was never taught otherwise. We never talked about the r-word at all in our house.
…however blithe the everyday practice of spicing up one’s speech with the words “retard,” “retarded” and the suffix “-tard” has become? The (presumably) unintended result is still the same. A population of people, who has never done anything to harm anyone, is circuitously targeted and suffers from a trickle-down discrimination that is very real and very painful.
My sister is a hard worker, she is a talented artist and she’s bright. She’s a young women worthy of respect, not ridicule. I wouldn’t want anyone to use the r-word in my sister’s presence and I certainly don’t want her using it.
My son Norrin doesn’t know that he has autism, he is not capable of understanding his diagnosis just yet. But we don’t whisper the word autism. One day, we will tell Norrin he is autistic. It’s not about being a certain kind of family. It’s about teaching him who he is. And teaching him to stand up for himself when he is being discriminated against.
Today is the day to Spread The Word – the annual day to raise awareness about using the r-word. I admire this online movement and those committed to taking the pledge. But awareness needs to begin at home. We need to talk about disability and the words that we use. We need to talk to them about respect for all. We need to talk to them about the weight of their words. Words are powerful weapons and like any other weapon, we need to teach our kids how to use them responsibly.
Sign up to get more helpful parenting advice straight to you inbox.
The letter hit too close to home. I think every special needs parent who read the letter cringed and cried imagining themselves in that mother’s shoes. My heart ached for her.
And I seethed thinking about the mother who had the ‘guts’ to write the hate letter but not the guts to sign her name. If I could write the “pissed off mother” a letter, this is what I’d want her to know about kids with autism and their parents.
To The Lady Who Wrote That Hate Letter:
Kids with autism are kids. Kids with autism are like any other kids in the neighborhood. They go outside to play, to jump and they make noise. Autism parents feel more secure with their kids close by. Many feel kids with autism feel more comfortable in familiar environments. Sometimes parks are overwhelming, dangerous. And if close by means in their yard – they have that right. Every kid should feel safe to be themselves within their own home.
If I had a house with a yard, that’s where my son Norrin would play too. When excited or over-stimulated Norrin makes loud noises too. I’ve watched as children, and sometimes adults have stared or even laughed. They’ve probably wondered if Norrin could talk. Maybe some kids are even scared of Norrin. I can’t stop every person who stares but I hope that they take the time to understand, to learn more about Norrin rather than dismiss him.
And if you slipped that letter under my door, I’d send my kid outside with a bullhorn.
Autism parents are not selfish and we do not feel entitled to special treatment. I think it’s the last thing autism parents are. Most autism parents are completely selfless, caring for their children without asking for help and sometimes refusing when assistance is offered. We are hardworking people. We don’t want or expect special treatment. We just want our kids to be treated like everyone else. We want our kids to have the same opportunities as the “normal” kids. That’s far from “entitlement,” that’s a basic human right.
And what defines normal? Because if your words define the norm then I’m grateful we’re not.
Never underestimate kids with autism. Kids with autism are some of the hardest working kids I know. You have no idea about the pride a parent feels when their child reaches a milestone that other parents take for granted. Kids with autism have potential. Many have grown up to become adults who have made significant contributions to our world. (Um…ever heard of Mozart, Newton, Einstein?) You have no idea what our kids are capable of because you can’t see beyond their disability.
Kids with autism have a right to live. This is the line that hurt and appalled me the most. I can’t imagine my life without my son. I can’t imagine wanting to end his life and it’s despicable that it’s even suggested to any mother. Our life is not easy and it’s not perfect but it is a life worth living. I wouldn’t be better off without my son. My life would have no meaning without him. I don’t know the mother you addressed the letter to, but I’m pretty sure she feels the same way about her son.
We are a united community. As much as I would like to hate you and call you names. I won’t. I feel sorry for you. I feel sorry that your ignorance allowed you to write such a letter to another mother. I feel sorry for your limited vision. I feel sorry that you will never know what it’s like to be part of a community like ours. A close knit community of strangers, friends and family who may not agree on causes or cures or treatments but we all agree that our kids are worthy of respect. A community who responds to your letter with compassion for the child and mother you attack. A community who stands up when they see someone treated unfairly. We are a community you could learn from. You could learn a lot from our kids if you took the time to listen.
Mother to son with autism
If you’re on Twitter or Facebook please show this special needs family your support by sending them a message using the hashtag #Love4Maxwell.
Last February, when the news came out that a teacher who worked with kids who had autism dribbled hot sauce on a crayon to prevent a child from nibbling on them, I questioned whether it would be a good idea to have video cameras in special ed classrooms.
In recent years, I keep hearing stories about teacher abuse. Parents have been forced to wire up their kids with microphones for proof. One that made national headlines was the dad, Stuart Chaifetz, who put a digital record in his son’s pocket, which captured an aide and teacher saying things such as “Shut your mouth” and “Oh, Akian, you are a bastard.” Another dad who did the same caught the aide and teacher bullying his 14-year-old daughter with taunts like “Are you that damn dumb?” and “No wonder you don’t have friends.”
Now getting video cams into classrooms with kids who can’t speak or communicate well has become a mission for some parents around the country. They’re spreading the word via petitions, videos and letters to President Obama, including this change.org petition by a mom of a child with special needs who she says was a victim of physical and psychological abuse by a classroom aide.
Some groups have expressed concerns about privacy issues, notes this ABC News article, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Of course, closed-circut cameras in schools aren’t the definitive answer to the problem of abuse of kids with special needs. But it could help; given the number of cases cropping up, and you have to expect many more go undetected, safety measures are critical. While teachers have been caught with abuse it seems that there may be bigger issues with aides in classrooms, whose training and experience may not be up to par.
Even after teachers are caught they may not be fired; the teacher in the Akian Chaifetz case had tenure and was moved to another school.
Me, I’m all for this. What are your thoughts: Should video cameras be installed in classrooms where there are kids with special needs?
There’s been a lot of attention paid in recent years to the bullying of kids by other kids. And now, another bullying problem has been thrust into the spotlight, one that is even more mind-boggling. It involves a teacher bullying a student, one who has special needs. And, yes, OMG.
When Cheyanne, a 14-year-old with disabilities then at Miami Trace Middle School in Ohio, started resisting going to school, her parents finally found out why: Her teacher, Christy Wilt, and her classroom aide, Kelly Chaffens, were bullying her. The school refused to believe them, so the father wired up his daughter with a mike to get proof. What got caught on tape: four days of verbal abuse and taunts. I’m warning you now, this video is upsetting and downright painful to watch.
“Are you that damn dumb?”
“No wonder you don’t have friends.”
“Don’t you want to do something to get rid of that belly? You don’t do anything at home…you sit.”
The aide, Kelly Chaffens, resigned; she’d been with Cheyanne for four years. The school required the teacher to complete eight hours of anti-bullying and child abuse training. Finally, on Monday, the school put Christy Wilt on unpaid leave until the end of the school year.
The parents are taking legal action to help ensure this teacher is never again around kids, let alone ones with special needs—and doing their best to help their daughter get past this.
As always, when something awful like this happens to a kid, you hope it will raise awareness and prevent it from recurring. It’s a reminder to all of us to make occasional visits to our kids’ classrooms and pay attention to our child’s signals about school, whether or not you have a child with special needs. If you have a child who is not able to verbally express thoughts, as I do, and you ever have any suspicions about abuse, do not hesitate to discuss them with the principal or other authority.
When we hand over our children to teachers, we trust them to educate them, nurture them and do them right. Teachers who are warped enough to treat a child this way need serious psychological help. But I also wish these two women would get jail time. Because treating a kid like that, any kid, is criminal.