The latest case of media-covered teacher abuse has Americans outraged. And well it should. But why don’t we hear about the kids with disabilities who are abused, restrained, and even killed in our schools? Where is the outrage when we do hear about it? What follows is an excerpt from a letter to my daughter, who was diagnosed with Autism spectrum Disorder when she was four years old:
I eventually learned that your sensory overload made “behaving” in big stores nearly impossible. No amount of sticking to my guns (though I did that) stopped the outbursts—you screamed because you were in pain, not because you were a brat. So we went to the store for one thing at a time. If you made it out without a meltdown, you got gum or stickers out of the machine in the entryway. But the rewards didn’t matter. Ten minutes, fifteen. One thing, ten, finish the list (only the list). For years we did this, gradually increasing your tolerance. When you weren’t feeling well, or our schedule changed, you’d end up pressed to the bottom of the cart, whimpering or screaming, depending on the day. Going to Meijer with you had to be about you, not about groceries. I learned my lesson the hard way. The slow, gradual desensitization worked. You can handle most shopping trips now, though Wal-Mart is a nightmare (for both of us) and I either avoid it or give you the option to go or not. You choose not. And that is fine. One of the great things to come out of all our trial and error is that you have learned your own limits, and sometimes, when you’re having a good day and trusting me, I can still get you to push past them. But when you feel you can’t, you can articulate that. That’s a good thing. You know how to say no, and why you say no.
If you couldn’t get through half an hour of Meijer, why did everyone expect you to get through seven hours a day in a school building that resembled, in nearly everyway, a big box store? Years in and out of public schools taught us that the energy you expended just tolerating the school environment—fluorescent lights you can see flicker, chemical and food smells nauseating you, squeaky chairs and sniffling noses and slamming lockers and pencil scratches you can’t tune out, auditory processing problems—precludes any learning and exhausts you to the point that developmental gains in real life start to disappear. You forget how to wash your hair. You forget what to say at a checkout, or how to order your food. Life rushes right by, shoves you to the ground.
During the last year you attended public school, I witnessed well-meaning teachers pin you to the ground to prevent you from leaving the room. They didn’t know I was standing outside the window. When I confronted them, they said that was not a “take down,” which they were required to report. They claimed you lay on the floor, put your arms straight out as if you were on a cross, and then they rubbed your arms to calm you. You didn’t look calm to me. Soon, you were terrified to enter the school (any school, as it turned out). You were traumatized and confused, and couldn’t talk about it. You liked your teachers. But when they reached their hands up to usher you into a room, you panicked. I warned them to keep their hands off you, so they slammed the door behind you as soon as you entered the room. One day, you turned around and fell into the teacher as she did this. You ended up on the hallway floor, and she bloodied her shin on the door. I was done, and so were you. But I had to play along. I was legally bound to at least try to honor your father’s wishes—that you stay in “school”.
We had a meeting. Everyone—teachers, your father, stepmother and stepfather, therapists, grandparents—seemed to think the most important thing was that you finish the school year. You weren’t learning anything. You were terrified and depressed. But I consented to a shortened day, hoping it would ease your anxiety. It didn’t work. We had another meeting.
Toward the end of the year, your school day was one and a half hours long, officially. This school day consisted of playing the Wii in the resource room. Driving you there one morning, you spoke up over NPR, which we always listened to in the car. You didn’t want to go. “You have to go. I’ll be back in an hour to get you.” Then, in an uncharacteristic moment of verbal clarity you said, sadly and cogently, “I’d rather be dead.”
Stunned and frightened, I didn’t know how to respond. For once, I wished you were repeating lines from a movie. But you weren’t. I questioned you, and you confirmed your statement: “I’d rather be dead than at school.” You were twelve years old.