Category Archives: Human Rights

“Autistics Aren’t Welcome Here”: The Bullying of Autistic Students in America’s Schools

His final social media post said he was “tired of being bullied.”  According to his mother, he had been hounded at school for years—at one point coming home with a broken nose and a concussion.  The school administration knew that other students were preying on him but took no action.  At one point, he even visited the school nurse and told her he wanted to kill himself, but the school never followed up. 

And then, suddenly, a ray of hope.  The district STEM school admitted him to their program.  This meant, his mother said, that he would finally be able to “leave a school where he was tormented by students and neglected or ostracized by the administration.”  The STEM academy was aware that he was autistic but was willing to take him anyway.  But then it turned out that the STEM school didn’t offer a “base class that was required for the boy’s autism.”  And so the school district rescinded their permission for him to transfer, leaving the child “devastated.”  So he did kill himself.  He was eleven years old.[1]

Suicide attempts and successful suicides are far more common among autistic than more neurologically typical children.[2]  Bullies, especially cyberbullies, encourage suicide with messages like “you should die” and “dig a hole and bury yourself.”[3]  But autistic children don’t need such messages to realize that their lives in school are unbearable, or to look to death as a relief: “I would have killed myself if my parents didn’t take me out of public school.  The bullying was that bad.[4] 

The fact is, if you are a school bully looking for an easy target, the nearest kid with autism fits your needs perfectly. Generally naïve about social customs and interactions, such children are easily manipulated or tricked into dangerous situations.  Because of their unusual behaviors (and sometimes by personal preference), they tend to be socially isolated, lacking any protective support network of peers. They may also be mistrusted or even disliked by teachers and other authority figures, who will fail to back them up when they report being bullied.[5]   And even when parents report bullying to the schools, too often nothing is done.

What We Know About the Bullying of Autistic Children in Our Schools

So here’s the thing. I just started high school. And up until today, I have been really liking it. But today when I went into my binder, I found a note. It said, “Autistics aren’t welcome here go find a new school.”[6]

If students with autism are especially likely to be suicidal, it is mostly because they are so disproportionately affected by bullying. Some researchers have found that autistic children are four times more likely to be targeted by bullies than non-autistic ones. 40% of autistic kids are bullied every single day, compared with only 15% of neurotypical kids.  Children with autism are also more likely to be targeted than children with other special needs—with the possible exception of those with ADHD.[7]  In any given year, researchers estimate that between 57% and 94% of all autistic kids are bullied.[8] 

In general, bullied children receive little support from American schools.  “I feel like the public school system failed me,” writes one disillusioned adult.[9] This is true of all children, sadly, but autistic kids have special difficulties.  Most of these kids believe that their teachers and school administrators are indifferent to their suffering. It is possible, of course, that busy teachers genuinely don’t see the cruelty perpetrated in their classrooms.  However, victims often find it hard to imagine that their teachers can’t see what’s happening, since the situation is so painfully obvious to them (and since they often report it).  So they conclude that the teachers just don’t care: “They did absolutely nothing.  Ignoring it was their best policy.”[10]  This perceived (and to often real) indifference adds an additional layer of trauma to the experience.  A fourteen-year-old with autism who had already made two suicide attempts reported that the bullying

made me feel sad, depressed. It made me feel like people don’t care anymore because when I got bullied I felt like well if they cared about me they would have done something.[11] 

Even when bullying is formally reported to school authorities, it is remarkable how often the autistic victim’s testimony is not believed. Taylor Ibarra, an autistic fourteen-year-old in Aynor, South Carolina, killed himself in December 2017, after years of bullying. A classmate who had also been bullied at the same school stated, “It’s not fair how they treat the kids and how the administration does nothing about it. I never really fought back physically, but I went to the counselors the principals the teachers, nothing was done. This kid actually lost his life to it when it could have been prevented, and they did nothing.”[12]

Given two different accounts of what happened, schools may refuse to choose a side: “[The teachers’] favorite mantra was always ‘it’s their word against yours’.”[13]   Remarkably often, though, they take the bully’s account more seriously than their autistic victim’s.  Bullies almost always have a stronger support network than their autistic victims, so they easily find corroboration for their claims of innocence.  When it is supported by his or her friends, schools have no trouble accepted a bully’s version of events:  “. . . when I reported it to the teachers, “sorry we have to go with majority on this.”[14]  And after reporting fails, the situation commonly gets worse. Seeing that they can get away with it, bullies increase their attacks.  Indeed, teachers and administrators may actually punish the victim, while the bully gets off scot-free.[15]  In Arkansas, one autistic child who reported being bullied was called a “tattle-tale,” and forced to sit in the “time-out” chair.[16]  Eventually, victims simply stop looking to their schools for support: “I got tired of teachers never doing anything about the bullying so I quit telling my teachers about the bullying.[17] 

To make things worse, the adults in charge of schools may be bullies themselves.  Most school personnel don’t fall into this category, of course, but across the country many individual teachers, aides, coaches, and administrators have done horrible things to the autistic kids in their charge.  In Georgia, one teacher was forced to resign after the school determined she had repeatedly sprayed Lysol into her student’s face.[18]  In an Indiana school, at the end-of-the-year awards ceremony, a special education teacher gave her student a “Most Annoying” award.[19]  In Washington State, another special education teacher responded to a mother’s request for a “quiet space” for her son to work by placing his desk over a toilet in the staff bathroom.[20]  In Michigan, a teacher recorded and distributed a video of herself and the school principal taunting a child who had gotten stuck in a chair.[21]  In California, a teacher forced her autistic student to clean her shoes in front of the class.[22]  How can students turn to their teachers for help, when the teachers themselves are so cruel?

The Long-Term Effects of School Bullying

The long horrors of their school days haunt many autistic adults. They remember (sometimes they can’t stop remembering . . .) being poked and prodded, scratched and kicked, punched, doused with noxious liquids, and pushed downstairs.  They remember being choked unconscious, set on fire, waterboarded (literally), stabbed with knives. They remember being the one not invited to the birthday party, not picked for the sports team, not wanted as partner for a class project. They remember being alone on the bus, alone at lunch, alone on the playground. More than anything, they remember the mockery and humiliation, the insults and cruel imitations, the echoes of savage laughter. And maybe this is why there was such a visceral reaction when speech pathologist Karen Kabaki-Sisto published a piece called “10 Perks Kids with Autism Get from Bullying” on the Autism Daily News, in October, 2015.[23]  Presumably Kabaki-Sisto meant well, but her piece was jarringly tone deaf to actual autistic experience.  

How could anyone suggest, wrote many autistic adults, that their horrific sufferings at school had a positive side?  And they are right.  Bullying induces such severe distress in schoolchildren that it may exacerbate or actually create psychological disorders— especially what psychologists call “internalizing” disorders (in which emotional distress is directed inwards.)  Loneliness, anxiety, poor self-image, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts appear or intensify after bullying.  Prolonged bullying (the type most autistic kids endure) erodes trust in other people, leaving the victims feeling alone and helpless.  Responding to Kabaki-Sisto, “Jennifer” reports that her own experiences with bullying left her with

A complete inability to trust others: This is due to never knowing who is actually your friend or who is setting you up to be the butt of a joke and/or using you for their own personal gain. You also realize your peers don’t give a damn about you enough to stand up for you, when they see you being harassed, made fun of, and physically abused by others.[24]

Intense anxiety can follow.[25]  While Kabaki-Sisto suggested that bullying might make autistic children more aware of the people around them, one autistic adult described just what kind of awareness might result:

. . . she will grow to be afraid of everyone around her. She will be constantly afraid the next person walking down the street will take umbrage with her behavior. She will be afraid of doing anything that isn’t “normal,” and will question her own behaviors and thoughts to the point of near nervous breakdown.[26]  

Kabaki-Sisto had suggested that bullying might lead to increased independence, but “Purpleaspie” did not view that as a positive thing:

In a twisted way bullying did increase my independence, as it taught me that I couldn’t rely on anyone to help me, certainly not the school principal or vice-principal or any of the teachers or counsellors, so I had to depend only on myself.[27]

Such lack of trust increases social withdrawal, “to avoid exposing yourself to betrayal in the first place, or because you lose the confidence and self-esteem you might have had before.”[28]  But this only worsens the situation. Withdrawal destroys even the tiny bit of social support a child might have once enjoyed, making bullying easier than ever.

For bullied autistic students, school is a place of terror.  School refusal is a very common outcome:  many of these kids bolt when told it is time to go to school.[29]  Others may act up in school on purpose, eager to get suspended.

After I had been suspended the first time and got to stay home from school, I CONSTANTLY was trying to get in trouble in order to get suspended again. My parents never let me watch TV or anything like that on the day I was suspended, but it didn’t matter I was happy to be home, away from bullies.[31]

Even those who can force themselves to go to school suffer from debilitating fear. In ninth and tenth grade, my own autistic daughter used to vomit every single morning before going off to face her tormentors.  (We home-schooled her for her junior and senior year because we just couldn’t stand to watch her suffer any more.)  “IndieSoul” used to “shake and sweat from anxiety in school and hide in the bathrooms during recess.”[32]  Another victim reports fainting “just out of fear.”[33]  Autistic individuals already experience high anxiety, but years of bullying lay the foundation for chronic anxiety disorders: “I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be completely rid of the anxiety.”[34] 

Particularly severe or long-lasting bullying may actually produce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[35]  To my knowledge, no researcher has examined the numbers of autistic adults suffering from PTSD due to school bullying, but many individuals report having PTSD for that reason.  Some describe their symptoms in online fora for autistics:  

Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of the days when I got bullied in school. They range from the typical teasing, to having things thrown at me, gossiped about, falsely accused of vandalism, being called mentally challenged, ‘roasted’ by the entire classroom when I had done nothing wrong or didn’t say anything at all, and eventually ignore[d] by adults when I complained and after that, beaten up.[36] 

PTSD produces many other symptoms:

I suffer from panic attacks, palpitations, hallucinations, nightmares, physical sickness (rare) and have an overactive responce to potential dangers, even if the ‘danger’ doesn’t really exist. It is absolutely horrific to suffer like this.[37] 

Such debilitating symptoms make a decent quality of life nearly impossible.

The most dangerous lesson bullying teaches autistic (and other) children, though, is that they deserve it.  This is what the bullies tell them, this is what parents and school staff may inadvertently reinforce, this is what they eventually internalize—that they are less than other people, inherently flawed, unworthy of decent treatment, and deserving of the “punishment” they are constantly receiving.

The assistant principal at my old school told me it was my fault I was being bullied and that I should change what ever it was I was being bullied about.[38] 

I even had a school counselor tell me that it was my fault that people treated me the way I did because of the way I acted. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, she didn’t tell me, and I didn’t know any other way to act.[39]

. . . when I was made fun of pushed around etc in school I always thought I deserved it because I “asked” for it, not being normal etc.[40] 

By high school, Kirsten reports,

. . . my self-esteem had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t even conceive of the notion of self-love. In the back of my mind, I thought I was slow, stupid, ugly, a loser, and any other unwanted adjective I could think of.[41]

Children who have absorbed these lessons often develop clinically significant depression. “I got bullied at school and was depressed all of middle school/high school.”[42]  “I got a major clinical depression because of bullying.  I’m on meds now.”[43]  Depression hinders both social and academic achievement, but it also frequently leads to thoughts of suicide—one study has found that such thoughts are 28 times more common among autistic than among neurotypical children.  Suicidal ideation is not something inherent in autism; it arises from being bullied. The same study found that bullying multiplies by three the likelihood that children with autism will think about or actually attempt suicide.[44] 

If I had not been bullied at school I would have had a refuge.  Not having that?  I tried to kill myself a few times and failed.  I didn’t get found or helped, I just didn’t do it right.  I am glad of that but telling me that I am stronger because of this [as Kabaki-Sisto did] is an insult to my intelligence, common sense, and every autist on the planet.[45]

However happy, engaged, and enthusiastic they may have been at an early age, autistic children—like other bullied children—ultimately lose their early sense of self.  Izzy Tichenor was “a happy child. She was a happy little girl, she did well in school …”[46]  But early in November, 2021, ten-year-old Izzy killed herself.  News stories about her suicide have focused on the racist bullying she endured at school—because her death came soon after the U.S. Department of Justice had issued a scathing report about racism in Salt Lake City’s Davis School District, where she was a student.[47]  Racism was certainly a factor in her death. Izzy told her parents that her classmates had repeatedly called her n*****, and used other racial slurs.  They told her she was ugly so often that she asked her mother to remove a birthmark on her face with a razorblade.[48]  Izzy took a bottle of Febreze to school one day; asked why, she said it was because the other kids had told her she smelled bad.[49]  And other African-American students in the school district reported similar problems.  Their classmates had criticized their skin color and their smell, called them “apes” and “slaves,” and talked about lynchings.

But Izzy was not only African American; she was also autistic—an extremely dangerous combination in American society.[50]  Although most news reports have focused on the racism at her school, Izzy’s “autism and learning disability were also allegedly targeted” in the bullying, according to her family’s lawyer.[51]  And not only by students.  Izzy told her parents that her teacher didn’t like her: “She doesn’t say ‘hi’ to me. She says ‘hi’ to all the other kids.”[52]  When Izzy asked her teacher for help, she was told to sit down, that she [the teacher] didn’t want to deal with her.[53]  Sadly, American teachers often dislike their autistic students, and this teacher’s negative reactions to Izzy may have had as much to do with her autism as with her race. 

Most U.S. schools already have anti-bullying programs in place, but these programs don’t work very well.[54]  Bullying is a complex issue, with social, emotional, intellectual, and institutional components.  Much more research and many more trials will need to be done to find interventions that work.  But funding for such efforts must be found.  It is clearly long past time for American schools to face up to their bullying problem:  year after year our kids are killing themselves because of it.  More specifically, we need programs that help children with autism—those most vulnerable to both bullying and suicidality.  Unless our schools can find and implement programs that actually work, more children will die.  Like Izzy Tichenor.   Taylor Ibarra.  Kennedy LeRoy.[55] Too many.


[1] “Mother Sues Burleson ISD [Independent School District] After Son’s Suicide, Alleging School Took No Action in Bullying,” NBC Dallas-Fort Worth Channel 5 News, updated July 31, 2020:  https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=burleson+texas+suicide.

[2] O. Shtayermann, “Peer Victimization in Adolescents and Young Adults Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome:  A Link to Depressive Symptomatology, Anxiety Symptomatology, and Suicidal Ideation,” Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing 30 (2007), 87-197; Benjamin Zablotsky, Catherine Bradshaw, Connie Anderson, and Paul Law, “The Association between Bullying and the Psychological Functioning of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 34 (2013), 1-8; S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013; Danielle Ung, et al., “The Relationship between Peer Victimization and the Psychological Characteristics of Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 32 (2016), 70-79.  See also the personal accounts of Hello07, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, January 19, 2011:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; redrobin62, in the “Is Suicide Common In People With Aspergers?” discussion on the same website, April 23, 2015: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.

[3] Kayla Epstein, “A teen with autism attempted suicide after bullies told her to ‘die.’ Her family is suing the school,” The Washington Post ,May 30, 2019.  Compare the “Why Are People Telling Me to Kill Myself?” (2017) and “I Was Jus Bullied, Called a Retard & Told To Go Kill Myself” (2015) discussions on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=341134, and http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=299688.

[4] PunkyKat, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, January 19, 2011: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165 .

[5] On the reasons behind bullying autistics, see Rebekah Heinrichs, Perfect Targets:  Asperger Syndrome and Bullying (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing, 2003), as well as the articles cited below.

[6] Horsegirl, in the “Not Sure What I Should Do About This…” discussion on the AutismForums website, September 25, 2018:  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/not-sure-what-i-should-do-about-this.27179/#post-549051.

[7] For comparison with neurotypical children and children with other special needs, see Jessica Schroeder, et al., “Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem:  A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44 (2014), 1522-26; Neil Humphrey and Judith Hebron, “Bullying of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Conditions:  A ‘State of the Field’ Review,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 19 (2015), 849.  For comparison with obese children, see Ryan Adams, Somer Bishop, and Julie Taylor, “Negative Peer Experiences in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities 52 (2017), 75-107.

[8] M. C. Cappadocia, et al., “Bullying Experiences Among Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42 (2012), 267 and 271; Neil Humphrey and Judith Hebron, “Bullying of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Conditions:  A ‘State of the Field’ Review,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 19 (2015), 849.

[9] Victim of bullying, IdahoRose, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, December 24, 2010: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[10] LeeAnderson, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, December 24, 2010: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[11] Cyberbullying Research Center, “Helping Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder When Bullied or Cyberbullied,” September 14, 2016:  https://cyberbullying.org/helping-kids-autism-spectrum-disorder-bullied-cyberbullied.

[12] Amy Kawata, “Vigil held for 14- year old Taylor Ibarra in hopes to prevent teenage bullying and suicide,” WMBF News (Myrtle Beach), January 21, 2018: https://www.wmbfnews.com/story/37312824/vigil-held-for-14-year-old-taylor-ibarra-in-hopes-to-prevent-teenage-bullying-and-suicide/.

[13] Verdandi, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, December 24, 2010:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.  See also Pandora_Box, in the same discussion, December 24, 2010.

[14] Pandora_Box, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, December 24, 2010: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.  See also CreativeInfluenza, in the same discussion, December 24, 2010.

[15] Some examples of the negative consequences of reporting:  Sparrow Rose Jones, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind (Self-published, 2013), p. 94; MightyMorphin, in the “If You Were Bullied At School . . . “ discussion on the Wrong Planet website, July 22, 2012:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=204456&start=45; JoeDaBro, in the “My School Hates Autism” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, May 27, 2013:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=231793.

[16] “Parents of Child with Autism File Bullying Lawsuit Against Omaha, Ark. School District,”  KY3 Television (Springfield, Missouri), December 12, 2017:  http://www.ky3.com/content/news/Parents-of-child-with-autism-file-bullying-lawsuit-against-Omaha-AR-School-District–463754753.html.

[17] ladyelaine, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, December 29, 2017:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=45.

[18] Carl Willis, “Mother Says Son Was Sprayed with Lysol by Teacher,” WSB television (Atlanta, Georgia), November 14, 2017: http://www.whio.com/news/national/mother-says-son-with-autism-was-sprayed-with-lysol-teacher/MoQdOQjYHI7i4NA35prrLJ/.

[19] Liz Weber, “A special education teacher gave her autistic student a year-end award: ‘Most annoying’,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2019:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/06/04/indiana-teacher-bailly-preparatory-academy-gives-autistic-student-most-annoying-award/.

[20] Emily Rueb, “A School Put an Autistic Boy’s Desk in a Bathroom, Setting Off a Debate on Stigmas,” The New York Times, September 24, 2019:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/24/us/autistic-boy-bathroom-toilet-desk.html.

[21] Lee Moran, “See It:  Teacher Films Herself, Principal Teasing Autistic Boy Stuck in Chair,” New York Daily News, February 26, 2014:  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/teacher-films-principal-teasing-autistic-boy-article-1.1702106.

[22] Kayla Dimick, “Lawsuit claims SPS [Southfield Public Schools] teacher humiliated student with autism,” The Southfield Sun March 8, 2017:  https://www.candgnews.com/news/lawsuit-claims-sps-teacher-humiliated-student-autism-99915.

[23] It was later pulled from the Autism Daily News website because of the outcry against it.

[24] Jennifer, “A Response to the Ten Perks Children with Autism Get From Bullying,” on the Autistic Giraffe Party  (now simply known as Giraffe Party) Facebook page, October 14, 2015: https://www.facebook.com/autisticpartygiraffe/posts/429266380617441.

[25] On the high levels of anxiety among autistic children and adolescents overall, see J. Wood, and K. Gadow, “Exploring the Nature and Function of Anxiety in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 17 (2010), 281-292.

[26] J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 ‘Perks’ for bullied autistic kids is bull,” Medium magazine, October 16, 2015:   https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.

[27] “There Are No Perks to Being Bullied,” on the Purpleaspie blog, October 16, 2015:  https://purpleaspie.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/there-are-no-perks-to-being-bullied/.  See also Ian Nicholson, “Ten Things THIS Autistic Kid Learned from Being Bullied, on the Digital Hyperlexic blog, October 15, 2015:  https://thedigitalhyperlexic.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/ten-things-this-autistic-kid-learned-from-being-bullied/.

[28] S.M. Neumeier, “Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks,” on the Silence Breaking Sound website, October 15, 2015: https://silencebreakingsound.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/bullying-is-abuse-and-abuse-has-no-perks/.

[29] Alex Forshaw, “Bullying:  Resurrecting Buried Trauma,” on the My Autistic Dance blog, October 18, 2015:  https://myautisticdance.blog/2015/10/18/bullying-resurrecting-buried-trauma/.

[30]

[31] SchrodingersMeerkat, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment” discussion on the AutismForums website, November 29, 2017:  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/is-suspension-really-a-punishment.22893/#post-455520.

[32] IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder?” on the Wrong Planet website, July 3, 2012:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798.

[33] Iknewyouweretrouble, in the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, June 27, 2013:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=231102&start=15; see also franknfurter’s contribution to the “What Were You Like in Elementary School?” discussion, again on the Wrong Planet website:  “i also had panic attacks a lot, and was bullied, it was not a time i care to remember, only emotions about elementary/primary school i remember feeling was anxiety” (https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=226220).

[34] IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder?” on the Wrong Planet website, July 3, 2012:   http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798; see also Oten’s contribution to the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, May 24, 2013:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=231102; NerdyKid’s contribution to the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, January 19, 2011: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; xxautisticfoolxx’s contribution to the “Unable to deal with the cruelty of life” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, March 1, 2018:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=360970.

[35] School bullying has been identified as one potential cause of PTSD in the general population:  T. Idsoe, A. Dyregrov, and E. Idsoe, “Bullying and PTSD Symptoms,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 40 (2012), 901-11; T. Gumpel, “Prolonged Stress, PTSD, and Depression Among School Aggressors and Victims,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma 25 (2016), 180-96.  Little research has been done on school bullying and PTSD among autistic individuals; see only C. Kerns, C. Newschaffer, and S. Berkowitz (2015). “Traumatic Childhood Events and Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45(2015), 3475-3486.  The authors include bullying as one of the potential sources of traumatic stress.

[36] Ameriblush, in the “Remembering years of bullying” discussion on the AutismForums website, December 3, 2017:  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/remembering-years-of-bullying.22944/#post-456806.

[37] Jellybean, in the “Complex PTSD As Result of Severe Bullying” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, July 24, 2009:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=47533&start=45.

[38] This_Amoeba, in the “People Normalizing Bullying You Got As A Child” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, February 4, 2017: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=336587.

[39] Hanyo, in the “If You Were Bullied at School, Did It . . .” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, July 1, 2013:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=234399.

[40] Daedal, in the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, January 19, 2011:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.  See also J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 “Perks” for bullied autistic kids is bull.” Medium magazine, October 16, 2015:  https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.

[41] Kirsten, “Bullying . . . The Real Problem . . . An Aspergian Woman’s Perspective,” on the Wrong Planet website, 2017:  http://wrongplanet.net/bullying-the-real-problem-an-aspergian-womans-perspective/.

[42] IHaveAspergers,” in the “Is Suicide Common In People with Aspergers?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, April 20, 2015:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.

[43] hello07, in the “People with Apergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, January 18, 2011:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.

[44] S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013.  A more recent study suggests that bullying multiplies the risk by two:  Rachel Holden, et al., “Investigating Bullying as a Predictor of Suicidality in a Clinical Sample of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Autism Research 13 (2020), 988-997.

[45] Kateryna Fury, “Why Bullying Isn’t Healthy for ANYONE,” on her Textual Fury blog, October 15, 2015: http://snip.ly/oLlW#https://textualfury.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/why-bullying-isnt-healthy-for-anyone-a-post-intended-for-karen-kabaki-sisto-trigger-warning-for-everyone-else-also-i-cussed-a-bit/.  T

[46] The Tichernor family’s lawyer, quoted in Elizabeth Joseph, “10-year-old Utah autistic student dies by suicide weeks after scathing DOJ report on school district,” CNN News, November 13, 2020:  https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/12/us/isabella-izzy-tichenor-utah-bullying-claims-suicide/index.html.

[47] Elizabeth Joseph, “10-year-old Utah autistic student dies by suicide weeks after scathing DOJ report on school district,” CNN News, November 13, 2020:  https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/12/us/isabella-izzy-tichenor-utah-bullying-claims-suicide/index.html;  “Justice Department Reaches Settlement to Remedy Severe Racial Harassment of Black and Asian-American Students in Utah School District,” U.S. Department of Justice, Justice News, October 21, 2021:  https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-reaches-settlement-remedy-severe-racial-harassment-black-and-asian.

[48] Austin Facer, “‘It strikes a lot of chords’: Izzy Tichenor’s family’s lawyer speaks on her case, plans to take it to federal court,” on ABC4, Salt Lake City, Utah, December 9, 2021: https://www.abc4.com/news/digital-exclusives/it-strikes-a-lot-of-chords-izzy-tichenors-familys-lawyer-speaks-on-her-case-plans-to-take-it-to-federal-court/.

[49] Elizabeth Joseph, “10-year-old Utah Black and autistic student dies by suicide weeks after scathing DOJ report on school district,” CNN News, November 13, 2020:  https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/12/us/isabella-izzy-tichenor-utah-bullying-claims-suicide/index.html.

[50] Leonard Pitts, “When Should We Teach Kids About Race? Must Be Nice to Have a Choice,”
 The Miami Herald, November 12, 2021 (behind paywall);  reprinted on Newsbreakhttps://www.newsbreak.com/news/2432400515601/when-should-we-teach-kids-about-race-must-be-nice-to-have-a-choice-opinion.

[51] Austin Facer, “‘It strikes a lot of chords’: Izzy Tichenor’s family’s lawyer speaks on her case, plans to take it to federal court,” ABC4 News, Salt Lake City, December 9, 2021:  https://www.abc4.com/news/digital-exclusives/it-strikes-a-lot-of-chords-izzy-tichenors-familys-lawyer-speaks-on-her-case-plans-to-take-it-to-federal-court/.

[52] Lauren Sue, “’I Let Them Work It Out”:  Vile Teacher Allegedly Tells Mom When Black Student Told Her [the teacher] Skin Stinks,” The Daily Kos, November 11, 2021:  https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/11/11/2063667/-DOJ-declares-Utah-district-a-safe-haven-for-racists-weeks-before-Black-10-year-old-commits-suicide; Elizabeth Joseph, “10-year-old Utah autistic student dies by suicide weeks after scathing DOJ report on school district,” CNN News, November 13, 2020:  https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/12/us/isabella-izzy-tichenor-utah-bullying-claims-suicide/index.html.

[53] Keith Reed, “Black Fifth Grader’s Suicide Blamed on Bullying,” The Root, November 10, 2021:  https://www.theroot.com/black-fifth-grader-s-suicide-blamed-on-bullying-1848034647.  This part of the article is a quotation from an article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, which I have not been able to reach because of their paywall.

[54] “Overall, the existing educational interventions had very small to small effect sizes on traditional bullying and cyberbullying perpetration”:  Esperanza Ng, et al., “The Effectiveness of Educational Interventions on Traditional Bullying and Cyberbullying Among Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Trauma, Violence & Abuse 23:1 (2022), 132-51.  See also H. Gaffney, et al., “What works in anti-bullying programs? Analysis of effective intervention components,” Journal of School Psychology, 85 (2021), 37– 56.

[55] Los Angeles one.

Passing and Exhaustion

“I identify as tired.” [1] –Emily Ballou

Autistic people who can appear “indistinguishable from their peers” pay a huge price for that achievement.  The cost is exhaustion—exhaustion to the point of incapacity, of burnout, of despair.  In the absence of a “typical” neurology, it takes a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy to maintain the façade of normalcy.  And the energy taken up by that process is not available for work, for play, even for self-care.  In a blog post often cross-posted and referenced by other members of the autism community, Kassiane Sibley offered a particularly rich discussion of this issue.  The passage is very long, but I want to include it in full because the language is so evocative.  It opens with a word often used by the online autistic community: “allistic”—meaning someone who is not autistic.

The Allistic Emulator software we run on our Autistic operating system needs constant attention. Have you ever run an emulator program? Like all of them, mine is slow, it is buggy, and it takes up processor power that’d be better off being devoted to another task. And it constantly needs upgrading to perform anywhere close to spec. . . .  When I gave a shit about my safety & about the people who taught me this–which was everyone in my life in my youth, as that’s how these things tend to work–I was constantly upgrading my emulator. Constantly relearned more in depth performances. It made me tired, anxious, cranky, and it failed frequently. The failures were distinguishable in the worst kind of way.  Failures were marked in tears. In full on meltdowns. In self loathing and self injury. Inability to do anything–eat, sleep, move–because of exhaustion and inertia. Did I mention self loathing? Severe anxiety. Self isolation (if I do it first they can’t!). Intimately detailed, ritualized recitations of all the ways I failed at being a human being. Because keeping up the act of humanity is what is required to be thought of as human. How very Lovaas.  So much energy was put into being a real person that I didn’t have the cognitive capacity to do as well as I could at any of a number of things. Between the day to day facade and flat denial of my visual support needs, all my learning bandwidth was diverted into running my shitty, self defeating emulator.[2]

This desperate effort does not, cannot stop with childhood.  “High-functioning” autistic people’s “emulator software” requires constant maintenance and upgrading throughout adult life, sucking away energy that might be devoted to more productive activities.[3] 

Adult autistics trying to pass have to focus intensely on all kinds of things most of rest of us never even consider.[4]  If they are lucky enough to have a paying job, for example, they must still keep the “allistic emulator” going without respite.  They have to work while dealing with the demands of their autistic neurology, without ever revealing that they are autistic—because “coming out” as autistic is likely to cost them their job.  Simply getting to work can be overwhelming.  For instance, riding a bus, requires not only dealing with unpleasant sounds and smells, but also keeping track of somewhat unpredictable multi-step procedures—a struggle for people with executive functioning issues.  You have to find the right bus stop, get on the right bus, pay the fare, move through the crowd on the bus to look for an available seat, watch for the right stop, move through the crowd again to get off, get from the bus stop to the work site, etc.—all while looking as “normal” as possible.[5]  Once you get to work, you face multiple sensory challenges.  Flashing lights on computer screens, and overly-bright fluorescent lights (which also, by the way, make a low level buzzing noise many autistics find intolerable), cause headaches and dizziness.  The constant noise as people move around the room, talking on the telephone or to each other, is not just “background noise” if you are one of the many autistic people who can’t distinguish between different layers of sound.  The overwhelming office wall of sound makes it difficult to understand what your boss or the person on the phone is trying to tell you, and embarrassing when you make a mistake.[6]  Intense smells in the bathroom and lunch room make you nauseous.  You are constantly aware of the uncomfortable tightness or scratchiness of work clothes.  You may even have to struggle to maintain the correct physical appearance.  Michael Scott Monje (the pen name of Athena Michaels-Dillon) describes what it’s like to “artificially hold” her face, for hours, to hide the fact that her eyes are not symmetrical and that her mouth naturally twists so that one side is open.[7] 

Employment also consists of a multitude of supposedly simple social interactions—involving eye contact, small talk, and constant snap judgments about appropriate responses.  All of this can provoke intense anxiety.  “I am exhausted at the end of a work day,” writes Judy Endow,

because it takes a great deal of effort for me to continually stifle my reactions to sounds, sights, smells and movements that others do not typically notice. I have to particularly pay attention to conventional social mannerisms such as remembering to look at people during conversation, track which words are ‘work words’ and which words are ‘social fluff words’ and respond accordingly. I work at this because I like to be able to fit in and in many respects my continued employment depends on it.[8]

Autistics trying to “pass” as neurotypical at work cannot use their best coping mechanisms—they can’t use stimming to release tension, they can’t hide in a dark, quiet room, or have a complete meltdown on the bus–because this will break through the neurotypical disguise and expose the autistic beneath.  (The meltdown on the bus may also lead to a police call and involuntary hospitalization.)  All you can do is suck it up.  Yet as one autistic blogger puts it: 

What [the people around me] don’t see is my suffering. They don’t know that sometimes I am panicking on the inside or going through sensory overload right in front of them. How could they? . . .  I learned to hide these things years ago. Nobody sees me freaking out, knows when I am having stomach issues, or my head is pounding from the florescent lighting of the office I work in two to three days a week.  I don’t complain. I smile, push forward, pull up my big girl panties and do what I have to do to make sure that I am able to provide the best possible life for myself.[9]  

The coping comes at home, like this: “For every hour that we manage to pass, we spend two or three or five recovering. We pull off a great passing act at work and pay for it by needing the whole weekend to recharge.[10]  Or:  “That me sitting here having a conversation in a way that reads as baseline normal to you is so high-energy that I’m going to start to break down from it in about half the time as you and have to go home and collapse.”

The harder these autistic adults work at passing, the higher the price they pay in exhaustion; the more exhausted they get, the weaker their ability to keep up the act.  Michael Scott Monje is a successful writer and a university lecturer.  But she has trouble keeping her face looking “normal,” and she also has trouble continuing to speak “normally,” as fatigue sets in:

I can talk for extended periods, but the more tired I get, the more my speech impediment slips out. It starts as a stutter, then I go tonally flat, and eventually I lose control over my enunciation and start to sound like the stereotypical autistic. Usually I also get frustrated and have a hard time keeping myself from shouting when this happens, because I stop being able to say the words I intend to say, and instead I insert similar-sounding but incorrect words, like saying “speak” when I mean “steep”. When it gets really bad, I will be able to see the word in my mind’s eye, as if I was silently reading, but I will not know how to say it out loud. [11]

In other words, this intelligent, accomplished person who is sometimes able to be “indistinguishable from her peers,” will eventually collapse into her natural, non-speaking autistic state when she becomes just too tired to keep up the act anymore.


[1] Emily Paige Ballou, “I Identify as Tired,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, December 31, 2019:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2019/12/i-identify-as-tired.html.  Ballou is using a phrase taken from a famous routine by autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby.

[2] Kassiane Sibley, “The Tyranny of Indistinguishability:  Performance,” on the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog, November 7, 2013, now moved to her Time to Listen blog:

http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-tyranny-of-indistinguishability.html.  Compare Trogluddite, in the “Is Camouflaging Bad?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, July 9, 2018:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=366036&p=7954962.

[3] Emily Paige Ballou, “I Identify as Tired,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, December 31, 2019:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2019/12/i-identify-as-tired.html.

[4] Kate, “Passing,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, September 14, 2012:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2012/09/passing.html..

[5] See the “How common are public transport issues in people with ASD?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, November, 2011:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=179933&start=16.

[6] See, for example, youngeezer, in the “Cannot Stand the New Office” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, November 27, 2013:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=245949;  and the “The Negative Impacts of Open Offices” discussion on the same website, October, 2017:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=355333.

[7] Michael Scott Monje (Athena Michaels-Dillon), “Not That Autistic,” originally published on her blog, Shaping Clay (http://www.mmonjejr.com/2013/01/not-that-autistic.html), but updated (among other things, to add the information about her facial muscles) for publication in The Real Experts:  Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, ed. Michelle Sutton (Autonomous Press, 2015).

[8] Judy Endow, “Losing an Autism Diagnosis,” on the Aspects of Autism Translated blog:

http://www.judyendow.com/autistic-behavior/losing-an-autism-diagnosis/.

[9] “Anna,” “Off the Spectrum:  How Autistic Are You?” from the Anonymously Autistic blog, :

https://anonymouslyautistic.net/2016/08/09/off-the-spectrum-how-autistic-are-you/.  On the long-term costs of passing, see also Emily Paige Ballou, “The Unrecovered,” on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog, January 11, 2020:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2020/01/the-unrecovered.html.

[10] Kassiane Sibley, “The Tyranny of Indistinguishability:  Performance,” on the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog:

http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-tyranny-of-indistinguishability.html.

[11] Michael Scott Monje (Athena Michaels-Dillon), “Not That Autistic,” originally published on her blog, Shaping Clay, in 2013, but updated for publication in The Real Experts:  Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, ed. Michelle Sutton (Autonomous Press, 2015).

Uh Oh. Here comes data…

Dear Folks. As you know, I’ve been working for years now on a book on autism and human rights. I’ve recently been looking for publishers, and one of them, on their submission portal, asked how long the book was. So I went back and counted words.

Whoops! It’s way, WAY longer than anyone is going to publish or most normal (autistic or neurotypical) people would want to read. Being who I am, I need to provide data to back up the points I make. But the data is making the book far too long. So–change of plan.

I’m going to take most of the data and detailed arguments about the data out of the book and put it here on my blog. So if anyone wants to know why I say certain things in the book, the back-up information will be here.

Of course, dear readers, that means YOU get stuck with all that data. I will do my best to feed it to you in small and fairly palatable chunks, and to intersperse it with other things. I hope you will stick with me, because this information is important and should be widely known.

Thanks for your patience.

If This Isn’t Discrimination, What Is?

So Tory Ridgeway was awarded a Navy ROTC scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University this spring. He was very excited, hoping to be the first military officer in his family.

But then the Embry-Riddle ROTC program discovered he was autistic. This was not something he had kept hidden—he wrote about it in his application to the school. Maybe they just never actually read his application?

In any case, they have just told him the offer was rescinded, because of his “developmental disorder”—in other words, not because he didn’t meet the qualifications, but simply because he was autistic.

Many autistics have served honorably in the military. Some have spent their whole lives in the service. But presumably they either didn’t know they were on the spectrum or were able to “mask” successfully.

It’s time for more autistic service members to “come out of the closet.” And it’s long past time for the Armed Forces to do the right thing for Tory and all the other young people out there who want to serve their country.

“Likeability”

I’m working on my chapter on employment and housing right now, and I’ve learned that “likeability” is a real Human Resources thing. People interviewing for jobs actually get rated on “likeability.” And according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, this is exacerbated by video interactions. Apparently, during video conferencing, likeability has more impact than persuasive arguments. And of course during the pandemic it’s all video.

How can this be anything but discrimination against people with autism who, by definition, struggle with social interaction?

“You Ever Been Charged with a Crime Before?”

According to a recently filed law suit, “L.G.” was handcuffed by a police officer, slammed to the floor, and pinned there for more thanhalf an hour, as he cried and yelled that he was in pain. The officer in question asked him “You ever been charged with a crime before? Well, you’re fixing to be.”

The crime in question? Spitting. Nothing more. Just spitting. In the end there was no arrest, but L.G. was severely traumatized. This event took place in September, 2018, in Statesville, North Carolina.

Oh, and did I mention that L.G. was an autistic 7-year-old? And that he was targeted in his special needs classroom, as two teachers looked on without intervening to help their student?

Interested in My New Book?

Hi. As many of you know, a lot of the posts on this blog are part of a book on autism and human rights in the United States that I am close to finishing.

Now I’m starting to spread the word about it (before they even consider your book, publishers want you to have a group of people who are interested in buying or reviewing it already in place . . .)

If you are interested, please go to my author’s website at http:/meganmclaughlinwriting.com and sign up for email updates (I promise there won’t be too many, because that’s annoying, right?)

Thanks!

Suspension and Expulsion: The Experience

Many students—not just autistic ones—believe that they have been unfairly suspended or expelled from school.  Many students—not just autistic ones—do not fully understand why they were suspended or expelled (sometimes it is hard for adults to figure that out either).  Suspensions are very often used as a punishment in U.S. schools not only for serious offences, but also for all kinds of minor infractions of the rules.  Crying in school may lead to unofficial suspensions, in which parents are told to pick up their children and take them home.  But students may be officially suspended for not meeting the school dress code (this includes even very young children, whose parents pick out their clothes), for having the “wrong” hairstyle, or even for carrying a backpack with the “wrong” picture on it.[1]  Most school codes of student conduct still include vague terms for misbehavior, such “insubordination” or “willful defiance,” which individual teachers can interpret subjectively.  In recent years, some major school districts have removed this language, but in many other places students can still be suspended for eye-rolling, walking away from a teacher without being dismissed, failing to complete homework, or even tapping their feet on the floor.[2]

Sometimes just needing to use the restroom at an inconvenient time for the teacher or other school staff member will be enough.  In December 2018, an 11-year-old autistic African-American child asked to use the bathroom in his elementary school.  The principal of the school, who was escorting him and another student back to their special education classroom, refused to let him go–even though access to the restroom at any time was the rule for Special Education students.  The child couldn’t get around the principal to reach the nearby bathroom, so he went out the back door of the school to find another restroom.  The principal then ordered school staff to lock all the doors and not let the student back in.  He wasn’t trying to run away—in fact, he spent 15 minutes circling the school, as teachers ignored his appeals for help, walking past him outside without speaking, and even pulling down the window blinds in his face.  Finally, another student took pity and opened a door for him.  The school sent his parents an incident report, but they failed to mention the dangerous and illegal lock-out—and the child received a two-day suspension for leaving the school building without permission.   Only after the school’s security tapes were reviewed did the true story come out.  The principal was then placed on paid administrative leave.[3]

 

Suspension and expulsion are over-used forms of discipline in American schools, for students of all neurotypes.  But autistic children face special challenges.  Sensory, emotional, or other stressors can drive them into meltdowns or shutdowns, during which their “fight or flight” instincts take control, sometimes leading to violent reactions. Meltdowns /shutdowns are clearly “manifestations” of autism, and so theoretically schools should respond to them with behavioral interventions.  Yet in practice, many autistic students face suspension, expulsion, and even arrest for what they do during these episodes. Students cannot control their own actions during meltdowns, so is it reasonable or fair for them to be punished in this way?

Moreover, many teachers don’t acknowledge their own role in triggering these problems.  In New Mexico, for example, a second-grader had a meltdown because his teacher yelled directly into his face, and then took away his Ipad, which was a very important comfort object for him.  She caused the meltdown, during which she was struck in the nose, causing a bruise.  Yet not only was the child—who happens to be black—suspended from school for having a meltdown, but his teacher actually pressed battery charges against an 8-year-old.[4]

In Florida, an autistic fourth-grader who had just gone through a long, stressful day of testing, was bothered by the noise when his teacher put on a movie (presumably as a reward for the other students.)  Seraph put on headphones and sat at a computer to distract himself from the noise, but he could still hear the movie.  So he started tapping computer keys loudly to drown it out.  That’s where the trouble began.  The teacher called in the dean, the assistant principal, and the school resource officer to remove him from his classroom.  He was willing to leave, but, looking for a quiet place to recover from the noise, he entered the school media room.  At this point, another teacher began reading a book to him—yet more noise.  Seraph, with his hands covering his ears, went over to the teacher and knocked at the book, using his elbow.  (The teacher was untouched).  The school resource officer then tackled him to the ground with so much force that Seraph ended up with carpet burns on his face.  He was suspended for several days—not because anyone was injured or even threatened, but simply because he was autistic and overstressed by noise.[5]

 

It is not unusual for autistic students to be get in trouble for leaving their classroom, or even their school without permission.  What is unusual is for schools to acknowledge what autistic students remember–that they often fled to avoid bullying:

I received three suspensions from my school during my time there, two for leaving the room to seek sanctuary in the library when the entire class (teachers included) united in mocking me, and one for deliberate non attendance over a period of days (truanting).[6]

Autistic students are disproportionately bullied at school.  And within a few years of being in school, they realize that the advice they are given—”speak to a member of the school staff”—is almost always ineffective.  School staff rarely stop the bullying.  They may fail to see what happened (and bullies are very adept at flying under the radar).  They may believe the bullies rather than the victim—because a highly verbal neurotypical bully can be more convincing than an autistic victim, or because there may be multiple bullies whose united testimony outweighs that of the victim.  (This is what happened to my own daughter.)  School staffers may simply not care.

one time a boy way bigger than me punched me in the face and made my nose bleed, and a teacher caught me inside trying to clean myself up, and I got yelled at for being inside during recess even though I was dripping with blood; nothing was done about the boy who hit me . . .[7]

People beat me up and they’d go free and I’d be in detention.[8]

Teachers may even dislike the autistic student and want him or her to suffer.  One autistic student listed reasons why she hated school:

Being bullied and being told it was my fault.

Being my teacher’s punching bag.[9]

 

The only solutions for these students are either to endure the suffering (the trauma this causes was described in an earlier post), to run away (and thus be suspended), or to retaliate—and retaliation often ends in their being suspended or expelled as well.  Here is “Aristophanes’s” description of his experience at school:

Attempting to avoid a fight, getting flat out sucker punched instead, and going to the principal who gave me as much detention as the aggressor, reasoning ‘you’re going to be an adult soon, you need to learn to solve your own problems, that’s the lesson here.’

Going back literally a week later, getting punched again, and retaliating by stomping my heel on the kid’s ankle, fracturing his tibia and earning me a suspension that go around.[10]

Other autistic students remember fighting with their bullies, and then being punished for it—while the bullies got off scot free:

Once [a privileged person] tried to stab me and he got off without a punishment simply because [his] family was rich.  I got a suspension and was threatened with expulsion because i kicked him in the stomach and dropped him to the ground.[11]

An increasing number of parents are filing lawsuits against school districts that allow things like this to happen.  For example, a Staten Island teenager was suspended for three days because he allegedly pushed to the ground bullies who had been physically assaulting him for years—including breaking his arm at one point.  His parents sued the school district, “claiming he was wrongfully punished for something his school should’ve done — and that’s stop his bullying.”[12]  A lawsuit pending in Cinncinnati, Ohio, charges a local school district with denying a student’s right to FAPE, both by refusing to recognize his disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations, and by failing to address the constant bullying he was subjected to.  The suit alleges that the school district suspended this young man multiple times, when he fought back or even just shouted at the students bullying him.  Even when he didn’t fight back, the school sometimes disciplined him.  In one of the incidents reported in the lawsuit, a bully spit on him, and called him names on the school bus.  It was the victim, not the bully, who was suspended for this incident.[13]

Perhaps the most significant problem with the use of suspension and expulsion as forms of discipline is that many autistic students hate school, and therefore prefer being removed from it.  This is the attitude of “Agent Smirnoff”:

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in suspension, as it granted me peace from the incessant bullying and allowed me to play on my computer all day.[14]

“deog” felt the same was about expulsion:

The highschool years are very difficult. . . . My misery and depression was profound. I got expelled by my sophmore year. i was ditching certain classes almost every single day…    I was so happy when I got expelled and I have no regrets about that because I was just done . . .[15]

It is fairly common for autistic and other students to misbehave on purpose in order to get some relief from their sufferings at school.  Sebastian, a student in New Mexico “relished being sent to in-school suspension, which he came to see as a haven from the stress of the classroom. Once, his mom says, he randomly punched a classmate in the parking lot in an effort to get sent back to the peace and quiet of in-school suspension.”[16]

When I was in grade school, I would purposely act up in order TO GET suspended. Sure my mom wouldn’t let me watch TV and stuff and would sometimes make me work on store bought workbooks, but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to be at school. Suspension was a reward to me. The school was starting to catch on that I was acting up on purpose and tried something called an “in school suspension”. I was in a classroom with a “babysitter” and with the exception of the “babysitter”, I was all alone. I was allowed to draw and color all day long. The classroom I was in was even quieter than my own house. I perfered quiet. Some punishment.[17]

 

The problem with students seeking out suspension and even expulsion for relief from stress is that they don’t realize the implications for their future.  Having a “record” is not helpful when applying to college or looking for a job, but many autistic students find school so painful that they don’t care.

Instead of suspending autistic students at such high rates, school districts should be looking for ways to make school more tolerable for them, ways to prevent them from having meltdowns, ways to seriously address the problem of bullying.

 

[1] Morgan Craven et al., “Suspended Childhood: An Analysis of Exclusionary Discipline of Texas’ Pre-K and Elementary School Students, Updated with 2015-16 Data,” for the Texas Appleseed organization, November, 2015; updated March, 2017: http://stories.texasappleseed.org/suspended-childhood-updated.

[2] Nina Agrawal, “California expands ban on ‘willful defiance’ suspensions in schools,” Los Angeles Times September 10, 2019:  https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-10/school-suspension-willful-defiance-california.

[3] Jessica Oh, “Child with autism locked out of school,” report on Kiro 7 television in Seattle, January 23, 2019:  https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/child-with-autism-locked-out-of-school/908564250/.  This incident was widely reported elsewhere.

[4] “Teacher files charges against 8-year-old student who hit her”, report on KQRE TV, April 14, 2018:  https://abc13.com/education/teacher-files-charges-against-8-year-old-student-who-hit-her/3344462/.  The incident was also widely reported.

[5] David M. Perry, “America Keeps Criminalizing Autistic Children,” Pacific Standard June 12, 2017:  https://psmag.com/education/america-keeps-criminalizing-autistic-children.

[6] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[7] dragoncat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 28, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.  It is worth noting that this topic elicited four pages of responses.

[8] tlc, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (March 30, 2018):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[9] SchrodingersMeerkat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 27, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[10] Aristophanes, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[11] The Musings of the Lost, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[12] Elizabeth Rosner and Chris Perez, “Autistic student suspended for standing up to bullies, $5M suit claims,” New York Post August 17, 2018:  https://nypost.com/2018/08/17/autistic-student-suspended-for-standing-up-to-bullies-5m-suit-claims/.

[13] Max Londberg, “Suit: Winton Woods Officials Allowed Bullying of Student with ‘Significant Autism’ for Years,” Cincinnati Enquirer August 19, 2019:  https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/08/19/suit-winton-woods-officials-allowed-bullying-student-autism/2054763001/.

[14] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[15] deog, in the “I’m So Done!!!! discussion on the Autism Forums website: https://www.autismforums.com/threads/im-so-done.27361/#post-552380.

[16] Ed Williams, “Criminalizing Disability,” Searchlight New Mexico, May 7, 2019:

[17] MagicMeerkat, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

Suspension and Expulsion: The Data

The reality of school discipline is more complicated than the law would suggest.  To begin with, students with disabilities, as a group, are much more likely to be suspended from school than students without disabilities.  A 2018 report, “School Climate and Safety Report” published by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that even though only 12% of all students in the U.S. have disabilities, 26% of those subject to out-of-school suspension and 24% of those expelled have disabilities.  In other words, students with disabilities are being suspended and expelled at roughly twice the rate of other students.[1]  Students of color, especially African Americans, face even higher rates of disciplinary removal from school.  Among students with identified disabilities, roughly 9% of whites and Hispanics were suspended in any given year, while 21% of Native Americans and 23% of black students were suspended.[2]

If we look specifically at autistic students, we should remember, first of all, that there are still many autistic students who have not been formally diagnosed. Unless they happen to have another, recognized, disability, they are not protected under IDEA and may be suspended or expelled because of behavior that would be considered a “manifestation” of autism in a diagnosed student.  Since girls and minority students are much less likely than white male students to be diagnosed with autism, they are also more likely to lack IDEA protections against excessive suspensions and expulsions.[3]

Relatively little research has focused on children with an actual autism diagnosis, but a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress states that pre-school children diagnosed with autism are ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their “typically developing” peers.[4]  A 2017 research study analyzes data for older children in the state of Maryland, from 2004 to 2015.  The authors found that about 3.3% of both white and African American students with autism were suspended during this period.  White autistic students were much more likely that non-disabled white students to be suspended, while autistic African American students were less likely to be suspended than non-disabled African American students.[5]

The fact that both groups of autistic students this study were suspended at the same rate suggests that both groups were treated equally.  But bear in mind that African Americans are much less likely than whites to be diagnosed with autism and may instead be diagnosed with intellectual or emotional disabilities.  In the same study, 10.5% of African American students with intellectual disability had been suspended at least once, compared to only 7.3% of white students with ID.  If we assume that at least some of those diagnosed with ID also have autism, or have been misdiagnosed with ID instead of autism, then it looks like the rate of suspension for African American students with autism probably is higher than it is for whites.[6]  The authors provided no data comparing students with autism and students with “emotional disturbance,” but African-American children with autism are very frequently misdiagnosed with ED, and students with ED are the most likely of all disability groups to be suspended or expelled.  It seems plausible, then, to assume that African Americans and members of other minority groups with autism are at higher risk of being removed from school than white students with autism.

There is also the question of how often autistic students are suspended.  Sometimes schools suspend children “unofficially,” by saying they are having a “bad day” and would be better off at home.  They call the parents to pick the child up, but do not register this event as a suspension.[7]  This allows the school to get around federal regulations that limit the number of suspensions that can be imposed on students with disabilities.  As a result, suspensions from school can occur with stunning frequency.  A report on television news in Washington state looked at statewide rates of suspension and expulsion for students with disabilities, with results similar to those described above.  The main focus of the report, a young autistic man named Austin, was suspended for more than 100 days during his time in middle school (far, far beyond the 10 days a year allowed under IDEA and federal regulations).  Another young autistic man in Washington state was officially suspended for 24 days, and unofficially for 45 days, for a total of 69 days out of the classroom during a single school year.[8]  While these are extreme cases, it is not at all unusual for schools to use unofficial removals to evade the limits set on suspensions by law.

Repeated removals from school obviously limit children’s educational opportunities, leading them to fall farther and farther behind other students academically.  But beyond that, repeated suspensions and expulsion from school have devastating emotional effects on children.  As Austin, the young man mentioned in the last paragraph, put it: “I felt like I was one of the worst kids that ever was because they were just constantly sending me home.” [9]  Disciplinary removal may alienate children from schools which they see as simply not wanting them.  And so, children repeatedly suspended and expelled are much more likely to drop out of school altogether.[10]  “As a teen, I was expelled from the entire county school system and my parents had to find a private school willing to take me.  At sixteen, I dropped out of school altogether,” recalls one autistic adult.[11]

Finally, repeated suspensions and expulsion promote entry into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” especially, but certainly not exclusively, for young African American males.[12] School “resource officers” (i.e., armed police officers) often intervene in disturbances at school, all too often in inappropriate ways.  They may end up handcuffing and even bringing to jail autistic students seen as “disruptive”—setting up a vicious cycle in which these students see authorities as the enemy and act out accordingly.  In addition, many suspended and expelled students spend their days unsupervised at home or on the streets, where they may engage in a variety of criminal activities, eventually leading to arrest and imprisonment.

As research has repeatedly shown, disciplinary removal from school has no positive impact at all on student behavior.  On the contrary, it is more likely to worsen that behavior.[13]  As a result, the official policy of many school districts is that suspension and expulsion should only be used when necessary to protect other students and staff, or when guns or drugs are involved.  In practice, however, these disciplinary techniques are often used to “punish” students who skip classes, fail to complete their homework, or talk back to their teachers.  As we’ll see in the next post, autistic students who receive these punishments often view them as senseless, and even malicious (a way for “mean teachers” to get back at them).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education, “School Climate and Safety,” 2018 report based on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection:  https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf.   The disparity begins in preschool:  Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.  See also [No author], “Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers,” report on King5 television news:  https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/washington-special-needs-students-disciplined-more-than-twice-as-often-as-general-education-peers/281-608161669.

[2] Nicholas Gage, et al., “National Analysis of the Disciplinary Exclusion of Black Students with and without Disabilities,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 28:7 (2019), 1754-64.

[3] Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Special Education:  A Multi-Year Disproportionality Analysis by State, Analysis Category, and Race/Ethnicity” (2016), pp. 23-24:  https://www2.ed.gov/programs/osepidea/618-data/LEA-racial-ethnic-disparities-tables/index.html.

[4] Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.

[5] M. Krezmien, et al., “Suspension Rates of Students with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities in Maryland from 2004 to 2015,” Journal of Intellectual Disability 61:11 (November, 2017), 1011-1020

[6] M. Krezmien, et al., “Suspension Rates of Students with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities in Maryland from 2004 to 2015,” Journal of Intellectual Disability 61:11 (November, 2017), 1011-1020.

[7] Robert Tudisco, “Can the School Give my Child With an IEP ‘Unofficial” Suspensions?’”, on the Understood.org website:  https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/can-the-school-give-my-child-with-an-iep-unofficial-suspensions; see also Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.

[8] Report from the Washington State ACLU, “Pushed out; kicked out: Stories from families with special education students in Washington”:  https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/pushed-out-kicked-out-stories-families-special-education-students-washington.

[9] [No author], “Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers,” report on King5 television news:  https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/washington-special-needs-students-disciplined-more-than-twice-as-often-as-general-education-peers/281-608161669.

[10] Amity Noltemeyer, Rose Marie Ward, and Caven Mcloughlin, “Relationship Between School Suspension and Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis,” School Psychology Review 44 (2015), 224-40; Susan Faircloth, “Factors Impacting the Graduation and Dropout Rates of American Indian Males with Disabilities,” in Susan Faircloth, Ivory Toldson, and Robert Lucio, eds., Decreasing Dropout Rates for Minority Male Youth with Disabilities from Culturally and Ethnically Diverse Backgrounds (Clemson, SC:  National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities, 2014), pp. 8-9.

[11] Max [formerly known as Sparrow Rose] Jones, No You Don’t:  Essays from an Unstrange Mind (Self-published, 2013), p. 51

[12] Abigail Novak, “The association between experiences of exclusionary discipline and justice system contact: A systematic review,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 40 (2018), 73-82; Amity L. Noltemeyer, Rose Marie Ward, and Caven Mcloughlin, “Relationship Between School  Suspension and Student Outcomes:  A Meta-Analysis,”  School Psychology Review  44: 2,  (June,  2015):  224-24; A.E. Cuellar and S. Markowitz, “School Suspension and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” International Review of Law and Economics 43 (2015), 98-106.

[13] Ambra Green, Deanna Maynard, and Sondra Stegenga, “Common misconceptions of suspension: Ideas and alternatives for school leaders,” Psychology in the Schools 55:4 (April, 2018), 419-28.

Removal from School for Disciplinary Reasons: The Law

My apologies for all the legal stuff that follows.  Understanding how suspension and expulsion can legally be imposed on autistic children requires understanding the complicated provisions concerning student discipline laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended in 1997 and 2004.

In the United States, under the current, amended form of IDEA, not only are children with autism and other disabilities entitled to FAPE (a free, appropriate, public education, in the least restrictive environment possible), but school actions that might deny them FAPE by removing them from the classroom are subject to legal limitations.[1]  The school must be very careful about removing a child temporarily (suspension) or permanently (expulsion), if the child’s behavior is a “manifestation” of her or his disability—that is, the behavior is caused either by the disability itself, or by the school’s failure to carry out the child’s IEP plan.  For example, if a child gets into trouble for not doing what the teacher says, and if it turns out that the child has an auditory processing disorder which makes it difficult or impossible to hear what the teacher is saying, and if the accommodations for auditory processing disorder written into her or his IEP have not been fully implemented, then the school cannot suspend or expel the child.

The school also cannot use removals from the classroom in ways that turns them into an unofficial “change of placement” to a more restrictive environment.[2]  If the school does want a change of placement, it is supposed to follow a formal review process, showing that the school has done all that it can to offer the student accommodations and teach him or her “better” behaviors, without success.  But because these actions present a major obstacle to their child receiving FAPE, parents who know their child’s rights can and do appeal school decisions through the state education system and possibly in court.

Schools use both in-school suspensions, in which a child is removed from the classroom but remains in the building, and out-of-school suspensions, in which a child is normally sent home, to punish unwanted behaviors.  According to federal regulations, a disabled child cannot be suspended in either setting for more than ten consecutive school days in response to a particular incident.  If the school wants to suspend a child for a longer period of time, it must provide appropriate educational and additional IEP services, at the school or at home, so that the child can continue to receive an education.  The school must also hold a “manifestation determination review” to decide whether the child’s unwanted behavior or behaviors is a “manifestation” of their disability. If they conclude that it is, additional efforts must be made to modify the child’s behavior.  The school is required to review his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP) to ensure that it is being fully implemented, possibly conduct a first or a new Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) to determine why the child is “misbehaving” in the first place, and then find ways to teach the student “better” behaviors, while keeping her or him in the classroom.[3] 

Even for students whose behavior is determined to be a “manifestation” of their disability, there are exceptions to the “ten day” rule.  Under certain circumstances—involving guns, drugs, or serious violence against another person—a student may be removed from the school for up to 45 days, as long as educational services continue to be provided in an “interim alternative educational setting.”[4]  The law does not specify what this term refers to—it simply says that the child should continue to receive educational services while in this setting.  Under some circumstances and in some places, children may be sent to special programs run by the school district, but located away from the school itself.  Under other circumstances, children may be sent to juvenile detention centers, residential treatment centers, or even psychiatric hospitals.  There are educational opportunities at these places, but they are—to say the least—extremely limited.

Even without guns or drugs or violence being involved, schools can legally suspend autistic students more than once a year, so long as educational services continue to be provided.  But if a school repeatedly suspends a child, as punishment for the same or similar behaviors, then it is moving into dangerous legal territory.  Repeated suspensions (even if each one is no more than ten days in length), create a “pattern” of administrative behavior that begins to look like an unstated change of placement (a denial of FAPE).  Federal regulations warn schools not to suspend a student with disabilities for the same or similar behaviors for more than 10 days over the course of a single school year, because this begins to look like a change of placement. [5]  If there are more than ten days of suspension during the year, the school district determines whether the suspensions constitute a change of placement, on a case-by-case basis– but parents have the right to appeal to the courts on the grounds that their child is not receiving FAPE.

If a school decides it wants to expel an autistic child, the IEP team must hold a manifestation determination review within 10 days after the decision is made.  If the child’s behavior is found to be a manifestation of autism, then the child cannot be expelled.  If the behavior is not found to be a manifestation of disability, parents have the right to call for a due process hearing, in which the IEP team’s decision will be reviewed by a hearing officer.  Depending on the state, there may be a one- or a two-tiered system—in the former, the case is heard by a state hearing officer, in the latter, the case is heard first by an officer from the school district, and then (if the parents decide to appeal) by a hearing officer from the state.  If the parents are still not satisfied, they can bring a civil law case against the school district.

This is the law as laid out in the amended text of IDEA and in federal regulations.  Disabled students’ rights to a free, appropriate, public education must be protected.  Unfortunately, though, far too many school districts do actually find ways of removing “troublesome” students without considering whether the “troublesome” behaviors are manifestations of the students’ disabilities, and without following the procedures required by law.  I will discuss some of these practices in my next post.


[1]  IDEA, part B, subpart E, sections 300.530-300.536: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/e.

[2]  IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.536

[3] IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.530.

[4] IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.530.

[5] Code of Federal Regulations, 2005.  Title 34:  Education.  Section 300.536, “Change of Placement Because of Disciplinary Removals.”  This regulation was added to the Code in 2005, to clarify the 2004 amendment of IDEA.