It’s been 21 years since my son was in 5th grade, but the memory of what his science teacher did to him is still fresh in my mind. While he was at his first elementary school, we didn’t know he was on the autism spectrum. What we did know was that he had some learning disabilities which made it difficult for him to function in a traditional classroom without extra support.
“Old School” Thinking
My son loved to learn! But he struggled at a traditional school with teachers who practiced “old school” teaching methods. In 5th grade, more written output was required and it was so difficult for Jonathan to keep up. It wasn’t because he didn’t understand the material, his brain just isn’t wired for lengthy writing assignments. In addition, he has dysgraphia so the physical act of writing is painful. But his 5th grade homeroom and science teachers were so rigid in their thinking that they saw him as “lazy” or “stupid” rather than acknowledge that he had a different way of learning.
Lack of Empathy and Understanding
I’ll never forget the time that he came home after school so sad and upset. When I asked him what happened he told me that his lab partner in science class complained that he wasn’t doing his fair share of the work. Of course, the lab partner the science teacher assigned him was the same boy who taunted and teased him on the playground.
What action did this teacher take? She chose to punish my son rather than use it as an opportunity to teach his lab partner about patience and compassion for my son’s struggles. She chose to ridicule my son by telling him he had to work alone. Everyone else had lab partners, but he would not.
I couldn’t believe the lack of empathy for a child who was trying his best but couldn’t measure up to “normal” standards.
Unwillingness to Change
When I went to speak with her, she was so firm in her position and unwilling to budge. I was so taken back by the look on her face and lack of compassion. I was so heartbroken, the tears flowed as I begged her not to make my son “the loser with no lab partner.”
She wouldn’t commit to making any change. I told her that the school year was almost over and it was very likely that he wouldn’t be returning the next year.
The next day my son said that he became lab partners with two boys (the ones who were always kind and friendly to him). I’ll never understand her motives for partnering him with his bully and not these boys from the beginning.
“New School” Thinking
We took him out of this school and away from teachers with “old school” thinking. We found a school with teachers who embraced his learning style and accepted him for who he was. No, that’s not quite right. They adored and admired him for who he was. They didn’t punish him for the way his brain worked.
They nurtured and believed in him. They proved to him that he was smart and talented. And guess what? He became student of the year and went on to graduate from college with honors.
Only Mom Has Scars
Fortunately, my son doesn’t remember that science teacher or what she did to him that day in class. He doesn’t remember how long it took for his new teachers to build his trust and confidence. But I’ll never forget! I use the memory as motivation to do whatever I can to make sure no other child with autism is labeled or misunderstood.
Note for parents and teachers: I asked two of our autistic writers with experience in early education to write “What Your Autistic Students Want You to Know.” Read what they have to say and get the free guide with more of their advice and tips.