This is going to be long. Grab your coffee.
Yesterday I received a text from my daughter saying, “I need you to pick me up. Please.” I asked her what happened and she replied, “I had a meltdown and I’m too embarrassed to go out of the bathroom.”
After I talked to her on the phone and she explained a little of what happened, I said I’d come up there. When I got there, nobody knew where she was. She had hidden in the bathroom without telling anyone, and they were all looking for her.
The short version of what happened is this: they were in the gym playing basketball and a boy happened to push her. She fell down, other kids laughed, she felt humiliated then angry at feeling humiliated, her adrenaline kicked in, and she kicked out. It just so happens that her kick caught the boy in the face.
The gym teacher accused her of intentionally kicking his face. Anyone who knows my daughter knows this is inaccurate. She is prone to self-harm, not other-harm. She is not aggressive, and not violent.
I spoke with the assistant principal of her grade, and he was compassionate, thoughtful and had an easy way with B. After speaking with both him and me, she decided not to have me take her home from school but try to push through it and stay the rest of the day. I was extremely proud of her for making that effort, and it worked. It’s a step toward success for her, because she is making progress to self regulation and learning that even if she has a meltdown, it doesn’t mean the ruin of the rest of her day. She can calm down, pick herself up and keep going. This won’t always be the case of course, but it’s an achievement on her part that I am happy to celebrate for the victory that it absolutely is. A year ago she would have been down for the entire day.
A word: By now you are probably aware that I follow a strict self-restraining policy of not posting any detail of my daughter’s life as an autistic without her express consent, and this is no different. We discussed this last night, and I explained why I wanted to write about it. She was amenable to this, so here we are.
After she came home from school she had the write-up from the teacher and the principal’s decision after investigating the matter. She is to have 1 hour of in-school-suspension as a consequence of her actions yesterday. He and I both reiterated to B that we know she did not intend to cause harm to anyone, but the result of her lashing out was that another student was struck in the face. She has had one other incident of this kind before, two years ago, when she was in meltdown and flung her lunch bag across the room. Or at least, she intended it to go across the room. Instead it hit another girl in the neck. I explained to B then as well, “What if you had been holding scissors? You could have seriously hurt that little girl, your friend.”
So she understands that being Autistic is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. There are mitigating circumstances, and the body’s physiological response to stress is something we all can understand and empathize with, but I do think it’s still important to learn that actions do still have consequences, and the gravity of learning to self-regulate as well as control physical aggression as much as possible.
The principal – in my opinion – made a gesture of discipline. The standard for this type of incident is a full day of ISS, not one hour. But this being her first incident like that at school, coupled with the knowledge of the history she has faced since school started this year (with the two boys pushing her down to hurt her), gave him reason enough to be lenient. I am thankful he was.
I am copying the letter that I wrote to attach with the ISS note because I think it’s important to show how language again plays a factor in how autistic students are perceived and treated as a result. Without my attached letter, anyone in B’s future school years would look at this in her record and see her as prone to violent outbursts when that is just not accurate.
(I have modified names for privacy)
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us this morning. I’m sending in the signed form for B’s ISS. I do also want this letter left attached to the form, as I vehemently disagree with Ms Je’s use of the word ‘intentionally’ in her write-up.
Autistic children, as I am certain you’re aware, have a difficult time with processing and expressing their emotions accurately. This can bleed over even into their verbal speech (i.e., saying ‘hot’ when they mean ‘cold’, etc). Ms Je has put a negative interpretation on my daughter’s actions without taking that into account, the fact that 1) she was pushed down by yet another boy in this school, 2) humiliated when other kids laughed at her when she was on the ground, and 3) her humiliation expressed as anger when she kicked up.
In speaking with B further, I have determined that she did NOT intentionally kick this boy, but as he was leaning down she happened to kick and it caught him in the face. My daughter is prone to self-harm, not harm to anyone else. Every other incident in this school so far has been at the instigation of a male student. She has had two separate incidents of physical assault and harassment by boys this year.
This led her father and I to instruct her to defend herself. As autistic kids go, they tend to be very literal. It is entirely possible she interpreted J’s pushing her as a sign of undue aggression and responded defensively. Additionally, gym has always been a super stressful event for her even under good circumstances. The noise of shoes squeaking on the floor, kids yelling, the echoes in the cavernous room, all add up to an environment that provokes hypersensitivity and likelihood of a meltdown. The body has a physiological response to sudden and unexpected stress, and in many cases with autistic kids, this prompts a fight-or-flight reaction due to the spike in adrenaline. When Mrs Je did not speak with B about the incident immediately, just punished her by making her sit out and not listening to her, she pushed B into a meltdown, which added to her humiliation because then the kids laughed at her even more.
Mrs Je can make the claim of deliberate intent but unless she is prepared to provide me with video footage to support her claim, I am objecting strongly to her accusation of my daughter’s intent, especially given the fact that B WAS pushed by another student. Even if it was “during the game” she was still pushed and she cannot differentiate between the intent of harm and something that is just part of a contact sport. She can’t tell the difference and responds the same as if this was one of the boys who pushed her to hurt her.
Per our face-to-face conversation in your office this morning, B understands that even if she did not intend harm to J, she is still responsible for consequences of her impulsive actions because the result is still that she struck another student. His actions may have precipitated the response but she is at the age where she can learn that she can only control her response, not anyone else’s.
Again, thank you for handling this so quickly, and with thoughtful compassion. I really appreciate it. I wish you were sticking around.