Why We Are Homeschooling Our Autistic Son

Emily Willingham



Since TH was in kindergarten, he’s had a nemesis. Ironically, it was the very first person he met at his school, as we had just moved into the district. Idiots that we were, we thought she seemed pretty nice and encouraged TH to engage with her. Of course, he didn’t. Or, at least, he didn’t do it the “right” way.

Two weeks into the kindergarten year, we learned that a parent had contacted the teacher, complaining about our son, claiming he’d made “death threats” against her son. Turns out, her son and this girl we’d met that first day together had teamed up against TH and had (and I’m not making this up) threatened to cut his head off and throw it in the trash. TH had parrotted this back to them, and that’s the part that the boy had told his mother, conveniently skipping over the rest.

That, as many of you know, is the classic scenario. Low-arousal autistic kid finally gets fed up enough with bullying to respond or retaliate, and low-arousal autistic kid is the one who gets in trouble because he hasn’t previously exhibited any signs of distress or called attention to the events that precipitated his actions. Classic.

We’ve watched that happen ourselves over the years, watched TH be attacked or taunted, watched it build to the point that even he had to respond, and then watched an adult who was supposed to be watching the whole time suddenly check in and punish TH. And we know that it’s happened at school repeatedly over the years.

Another thing that is a repeat pattern for us is the school’s response. We’ve had five or six paroxysms of stress and deep emotional pain over his 3.5 years at this school thanks to a buildup of taunting and bullying of our son during unstructured situations that eventually peaks in that oh-so-ironic outcome of another parent complaining about him when it was their child who instigated. It’s been boys. It’s been girls. It’s like he walks around with an enormous target sign on his forehead, or a t-shirt that reads, “Hey, come bully me because I probably won’t do a single effective thing to stop you.” As in, he never complains to a teacher, never cries, never shows distress that an adult could register. Or at least, an adult who doesn’t know him well enough could register.

We’ve had our last paroxysm. We’ve had it. For the last several weeks, things have escalated yet again on the playground. We’ve made it clear and the school has clearly indicated that they understand that our son isn’t at his best in unstructured situations. That he is most susceptible to being targeted and most helpless to respond with appropriate defense in these situations. The school, with each paroxysm, has girded its loins, buckled on some do-the-right-thing armor, and done right by our son. Last year, after one of our biggest spasms, they set up such a structured situation that the rest of the year went so smoothly, we were all deceived into thinking that now, Everything Was OK.

It wasn’t. The do-the-right-thing armor gets rusty, loins ungird, vigilance slips, it all starts up again. Kids say many ugly things to him, daily. They want him to die. They want him to go to hell. They hate him. He’s ugly. He stinks. They “don’t like autistic people.” He’s a bully (Oh. My. God). It’s still Lord of the Flies out there, and my son is still Piggy.

One of the constants through all of this has been that little girl we met first back in kindergarten. She’s a persistent little bully, having consistently targeted our son at every available opportunity, from the school bus to the cafeteria to the playground to chance encounters in the hall. And she doesn’t stick only to words. She kicks. She punches. And, she uses her fingernails.

The school has, for years, been well aware of this situation with this particular child and has promised to keep her away from TH. Yet, for the last several weeks, as I know from his daily after-school reports, she’s been in the picture. I’ve listened to what he’s said. I’ve thought carefully about whether or not I should call the school and complain or see if TH is at a point where he can work these things out for himself. I do not want to be a helicopter parent, having the Powers That Be monitor my son’s every minute of the day.

And because I was too cautious, we ended up with this set of injuries. Because the school dropped the ball on a situation of which it has been aware for years, we have this set of injuries. And because we are sick of the emotional and physical and mental shocks that each of these paroxysms brings on, we have decided to withdraw our son from the school. We have decided to homeschool.

Many people commented on my post showing this set of injuries to my son’s face, one of which I believe will become a permanent scar. They’ve suggested lawsuits, calling the police, calling the parents. I’m not a litigious person — I’ve got a graduate school experience to demonstrate that I don’t sue people even when I’d be completely justified in doing so and probably walk away with a nice little packet of Benjamins. And some of you have asked how the school has responded. Here’s how.

I sent that picture to one of our son’s teachers, his favorite and the one who apparently saw and asked about the facial injury. I also sent it to his behavior teacher, who’s worked with him for his entire career at this school and who is most aware of this situation with this particular girl. And I sent it to the principal, thinking he might want to know about what children at his school are doing on the playground. Again. I add that the day of the injury, no adult contacted me about it. No adult treated the open abrasion that the fingernails of another person had produced on my son’s face and neck. I’m pretty sure there are standard operating procedures in place for such things. If there are, they weren’t followed. If there aren’t, there should be.

The teacher emailed me back that night. The behavior teacher emailed me several times the next day and called me. The principal? Radio silence. Not. A. Word.

I learned from a parent that a mother who went ballistic about our son’s calling her son the boy’s name with the word “pooh” at the end threatened to sue and that this somehow got the attention of the school authorities and led to action of some kind. (I also learned that this mother mocked our Circle of Friends effort and gleefully announced that she certainly wouldn’t be signing on for that and was pleased to note at least one other parent who wouldn’t be doing it. We’re a ever-widening circle of Christ around here, we are.)

In spite of my fiery Irish temper, I’m actually a pretty deliberative, thinking person, as my overcautious response to this most recent buildup indicates. I don’t act now at the age of 43 without thinking things through very carefully first. And I have to say, for the first time in my life, I’m deliberating very carefully and thinking through a certain thing that is usually not in my nature.

Meanwhile, we’re withdrawing our son from school, and he will begin his homeschool career here, with his heartbroken mother who had hoped for better from this society in which we live. Foolish, foolish hope.