My friend cried throughout our conversation apologizing after each much needed eruption. Her 6th grade son was diagnosed with autism years ago which carried with it fear, unanswered questions, rude comments, ill-equipped teachers, and all too often, no direction. It was recalling the multiple times her son’s school officials called the police who then decided that handcuffing a child with autism in the midst of a stress-induced panic attack was a good idea, when mom would fall apart.
My stomach churned and cheeks flushed with rage as I listened. A sixth-grader in handcuffs was too much for my mind and heart to process. This was outrageous. Inhumane at best. He was left with bruising on his wrists…treated like a criminal. I insisted that the schools actions were not acceptable, perhaps a civil rights violation. Even worse, let us imagine how this repeated experience effects a child. If we treat him like a criminal, how likely is he to become one?
A handcuffed 6th-grader with an autism diagnosis is sadly not the worst thing I have heard regarding the manner in which schools (both public and private) deal with children and anxiety-induced aggression. The challenge here is that our schools at large do not have a plan in place. Little to no training is provided and our educators are left without direction regarding the appropriate methods and deescalating techniques to use when faced with a student in a fight or flight behavior. Our school administrators and teachers need training, support, and resources.
Seven years ago our youngest son was diagnosed with Autism after his pediatrician noticed a few behavioral patterns. Dylan is his name. Our journey has been difficult. Our foundation was forever-changed. We are still evolving and adjusting but our new path has made us closer, required us to communicate better, cry more, console often, laugh regularly, and exude neighborly compassion as a way of life.
Note the texture of our path: there have been sharp, rugged patches and amusement-park-joy-filled triumphs. We have hurt, healed, and grown as a family. Dylan was precisely the gift the Sherron family needed.
Not all marriages thrive under the pressure and realities that parents of children with special and unique needs face. In fact, some marriages dissolve entirely due to the stress, anger, and fear that often accompany the lack of societal, cultural, and familial support.
We have yet to develop structures of support at large for families. We have yet to train our teachers, administrators, or support staff on a national scale. We have yet to train law enforcement on a national scale. We have yet to educate ourselves and our children.
To be fair, progress is happening. In 2019, the Philadelphia Eagles owner built a sensory room for fans on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities. Newsweek reported that the Eagles were joined by the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, and the Jacksonville Jaguars in creating a space away from the roar of the game. Without this, some could never attend a football game as the noise can be over-whelming.
Other notable progress includes the growing number of colleges that offer degrees in Applied Behavior Analysis; the increase in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) centers; and, the expansion of children’s ministries within churches to include children with special and unique needs. These are all encouraging and hopeful feats.
Yet, there is still much to be done.
Three things you can do to help:
- Be supportive of anyone you know who has a child or family member with special and unique needs. Call and check on them. Ask them if they need to talk…and if they say yes, just listen.
- Smile when you see a parent or family with a child who displays behavior you don’t understand or acting out in public. Trust me, they get plenty of dirty looks, rude comments, and they undoubtedly feel isolated enough. A kind smile or understanding gesture is the ultimate act of compassion.
- Educate yourself. Take 20 minutes and read about Autism Spectrum Disorder. By doing this you are elevating yourself to a position that can, at the very least, offer a level of understanding in a poorly-informed society.
Three things parents with children who have an autism diagnosis or other special and unique needs must do:
- Be kind to yourself. Take breaks and ask for help. Being kind to yourself requires you to recognize that you don’t have all of the answers. No one does. Know that you are doing your best. You are enough.
- Tell your story. In order for our society to develop the support structures we need, our neighbors need to understand that we find ourselves stranded on an island. Alone. Simple tasks are now difficult. Many would love to help you but have no idea you are struggling.
- Advocate for your child. It’s an uphill climb, I know. But I also know that You were chosen to be their parent because You can do this! If you think your child is being mistreated or harmed, contact ADA.GOV to better understand the Americans with Disabilities Act and Federally Protected Civil Rights.
I’ll close with telling you that despite the elementary school principal who sat-in on our son’s IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) 1st Grade Case Conference to tell my husband and I that, “Dylan was just, ‘Bad’ … not autistic,” we emphatically say, “No!”
No, our son will not be labeled, mistreated, sent to the office everyday, or handcuffed. Our son is Dylan Anthony Sherron. He loves action figures, storytelling, drawing, cooking, and singing. Dylan is often overwhelmed in crowds and loud places. He is quick to give you a bandaid if you are hurt (even if it’s a heart-hurt). Dylan loves to wear ties and nice shoes. Dylan even does cross-fit three days a week and is thinking about trying out for Junior Ninja Warrior. Dylan wants to be on Survivor when he is older…but he thinks I should go first.
No, Dylan is not bad; Dylan is Superman.