Students vote boy out of class


Edited to add: Please go to Bev’s blog if you want more information on how to try to get them to put a stop to this crap.

PORT ST. LUCIE — Melissa Barton said she is considering legal action after her son’s kindergarten teacher led his classmates to vote him out of class.

After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Barton’s 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher said they were going to take a vote, Barton said.

By a 14 to 2 margin, the class voted him out of the class.

Barton said her son is in the process of being diagnosed with Aspberger’s, a type of high-functioning autism. Alex began the testing process in February for an official diagnosis under the suggestion of Morningside Principal Marsha Cully.

Read the entire story here.

This reminds me forcefully of a warning that Laura Hershey gave a long time ago in her “Crip Commentary” web column, after viewing the series “Survivor” on television.

She went on to write “Survivor” Promotes Ideology of Exclusion:

In the midst of these escalating social conflicts, there now appears a game show — mere harmless entertainment. It’s fun, gossipy — so we don’t question its underlying principles. But the rules of this “game” seem designed not just to reward the winners — that’s an expected part of any game — but especially to punish the losers.

Somehow, I realized, this game seemed eerily familiar to me. I remember exercises I participated in during adolescence — several times at church youth camp, once in a high school class — called “values clarification.” This involved a group discussion about making difficult choices in some hypothetical adverse situation. As I recall, these exercises were supposedly intended to help us understand our own beliefs. That sounds benign, even enlightened. But in reality, I remember I often felt deeply troubled not only by the outcomes of these discussions, but also by their instigation.

A typical example: My peers and I were told to imagine being stranded on a lifeboat, along with an assortment of strangers and a dwindling supply of food and water. Our companions on the boat included a young pregnant woman, a surgeon, an unemployed drifter, an elderly man, a Boy Scout, a woman with cancer, and so on. The setting and the cast of characters varied, but the basic idea was that some people would make it, and some people wouldn’t — and that it was up to us to decide, based on what we thought of the relative value of each fictitious person.

I never had much to say during these discussions. When they were over, I often had a queasy feeling that stayed with me for several days. I never fully understood why, until much later, as an adult. I gradually came to understand that these so-called “values clarification” exercises were based on a preordained set of values, which I could not accept. The games assumed that there weren’t enough resources to go around; and that some people have more value, more right to live and to consume resources, than others do.

I remember the same queasy feeling when watching the show “The Weakest Link” — which functions like an ultra-crisp, ultra-efficient version of “Survivor”. People are voted off each round, and when they are they are told, “You are the weakest link — goodbye.” It’s like a distilled essence of social darwinism. And people seem to love it.

And people seem to learn it practically from the cradle, unless it’s just some kind of awful misguided instinct. The following will be familiar to nearly any autistic person who wasn’t extremely lucky. I’m only picking from my life because it’s easier to remember my own observations than someone else’s.

I can remember being near the age this kid was, and walking onto a playground at school. There seemed to be a lot of fascinating things to climb, so I tried. And was promptly grabbed from all sides and shoved off the structure, to repeated cries of “Amanda’s on the ship!” If I by chance (because I don’t know how else it would’ve happened at the time) drifted into one of the lines that the other girls were always forming — “Anyone who wants to play My Little Ponies, line up!” and so forth — I heard an emphatic and smug “You can’t play”. And I also remember the first kid among this same group of kids who seemed to be nice to me — who was then marched in front of me by another kid and told to repeat, “I don’t like you” to me. She did. That was the end of that. If the words to any of these things were a mystery to me (and all but a tiny number were), the tone of nastiness and exclusion was unmistakable and it happened without fail when I ended up in the path of groups of kids.

And I remember as well that when I was bullied so mercilessly — at an age where I understood far better what was happening — that I was afraid to go to school and lashed out defensively at nearly anyone who tried to interact with me at all, I was the one who got counseling, and I was the one who was talked about by teachers as if there was something wrong with me. And I was the one who had to repeat a grade and change schools. The bullies were left to go on doing their thing, because it was only natural to be nasty and cruel, but wholly unnatural to be terrified of people who acted in this manner. I’m not saying I never did anything wrong, nor that I treated everyone with absolute kindness. Not even close, and I imagine at times I was a nightmare to deal with in my own right. But good grief.

I also remember thinking that I’d finally escaped all that, in my ill-fated attempt at high school. Even years later, I thought that while people had certainly said nasty things to me, I’d gotten off light. Then as an adult I got in touch with James, who’d been one of the kids who was more likely to hang around with me at the time, and who apparently got his own share of grief for even doing that. He told me that he’d been bullied pretty badly in junior high, but that he hadn’t seen much like what I got in high school, including the fact that even some of the teachers were in on it.

(And yes, teachers were in on some of this stuff throughout school. In one memorable instance a teacher who frequently found new and creative ways to humiliate me so the other kids would laugh, actually wrote home to my parents about my great “sense of humor” — which seemed to actually mean, that he enjoyed laughing and getting others to laugh at my expense. Others, like a particular gym teacher, were more into physical rather than emotional violence. Some teachers were okay, but some of them seemed outright sadistic. A shocking number of autistic people I know, me included, have had teachers or other authority figures ask everyone in the room to tell us everything they hate about us.)

I wrote in a previous post about some of the long-term effects of things like this, and I noted the following:

I’m not telling this story to make you feel bad for me as a person. I’m telling it because assorted variants on these experiences are so close to universal among the autistic people I’ve known. How can you get a good idea of the social abilities or emotional range of a set of people who are treated like this from the moment we encounter other children, sometimes from the moment we encounter other people at all?

I still want to know this.

I also want to know what on earth it means that it’s considered “good social skills” to learn to be one of the people that excludes. And autistic and non-autistic people alike can eventually learn to be that, even if we weren’t much like that to begin with. I’m not trying to say we can’t, I’m not going to pretend not to notice what happens to autistic people who gain the power to become exclusive. But it’s sheer ugliness that these horrible things are treated as normal, and being the target of them makes you seen as somehow worse than the people doing the targeting. And the people doing the targeting are seen as the ones to emulate, it seems like.

It was also an ugly truth to realize that while some people grow out of it, many people who begin as bullies grow up to remain bullies. I fully realized that when a parent of an autistic kid called my friend a “retard” when he was mad at her, then later went on to say that he always tells his son to quit acting like a “retard”. I imagine that if he’d gone to school with me or my friend he’d have done worse than name-calling. (This is also reason #4285 why I don’t believe that “special children are given to special parents” nonsense.) It wasn’t the first time I’d seen an adult be hateful by any means, but it was the first time I connected the adults to the children in my head.

Daniel Mont wrote a book, A Different Kind of Boy. It was about his autistic son Alex. Daniel wanted to put Alex in a gifted program, because Alex was ahead in many areas and he read literature suggesting that Alex’s social and perceptual differences might actually be partly the consequence of intellectual differences. There’s an entire chapter on it that everyone should read. Alex took an IQ test and met all the requirements for the program. Then he went to one meeting of it. The other children, who were regarded as perfect and exquisitely sensitive, decided, apparently, that they didn’t want Alex around. The parents backed them up completely:

“You mean, you’re not letting Alex join?” I was incredulous. “He passed your IQ test.”

“Yes, but the other children feel he really isn’t one of them. Do you konw what I mean? I’m sure there are other programs he can sign up for. We’re sorry, we feel bad because you and Nanette were so nice.”

“Well, what did he do?” I fought to restrain my anger.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mont. Our decision is final. We really have to trust our children on this.”

I hung up the phone. I was furious. Absolutely furious. What kind of monsters were these people raising, anyway? “They are not like us. We can tell if he belongs.”

And at that point he realized the elitism that runs through most such programs (all that I’ve seen anyway, and not just intellectual elitism either — the gifted programs I was a part of were mostly populated by middle-class or wealthy white kids, most of whom wouldn’t have been put there were we anything else), and the disturbing nature of the assumption that the children were the ones best able to make the decisions in this matter.

I have read in the past about schools in some places — most American schools are not like this — where children work together to solve problems, and where the kids who learn faster in any particular area, instead of being separated out and told they’re special and above everyone else, end up being taught to use their talents to cooperate with the other children. “Winning” or “getting ahead” isn’t the goal there — and all the children tend to learn more than they do in the more cut-throat style of schools. If schools have to exist that sounds like a much better set of principles to run them on.

As I mentioned in my other post — my brother was, as he describes it, the “town scapegoat” in the small town I was born in. People sometimes think he’s exaggerating to say that everyone hated him there, just like they sometimes say my friend Joel and I exaggerate when we say teachers joined in with some of the other kids’ bullying towards us. From what our parents say, if he’s exaggerating it’s not by much.

Oddizm claims that autistic people are “eminently hate-able”.

I don’t think we are. But I think that we are, like many other disabled people, subject to widespread hate. And that the hate often wears a lot of other masks — but is, basically, hate, in all its guises.

And hate in some of its most raw guises is what autistic people encounter in kindergarten.

If schools are going to exist and teachers are going to teach in them (and I’m not a big fan of schools, but I know to say they’re widespread is an understatement), they ought to discourage hate and exclusion. As should parents.

They ought not to join in.

And they sure as hell ought not to outright invite it and celebrate it the way this teacher has.

If this were the way things were done, then anyone who was the wrong kind of “different” of the day — autistic or non-autistic — would be voted out of every kindergarten where prejudice against people like us existed. I would’ve been “voted out” in preschool, and the kids were doing their darnedest to try even without a teacher’s encouragement.

Children aren’t born knowing how to behave towards other children. None of them are, autistic or non-autistic. They have to learn that everyone’s dependent on everyone else, that people aren’t better than others just by being better at something, and that tendencies to do bad things to other people are things we all have to fight, not give in to, if we want society to be remotely just to anyone.

And this teacher is leading these kids in the wrong direction to learn any of those lessons.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

85 responses »

  1. That’s awful that the teacher did that. Exclusion is a lesson taught often enough merely by the complacence of authority figures to bullying and exclusion, and doesn’t need any more reinforcement.

    When I was in 7th grade, as a part of a series of activities meant to be fun and encourage something or other among students, there was a game modelled after “Survivor” and the classroom was divided into two teams, and everybody would earn points for their team from activities from balancing an egg in a spoon in their mouth to attending class. That year I hardly attended class because I spent half the time recuperating (physically and emotionally) from bullying, plus other health problems at the time. I didn’t even elect to participate in the first activity, and predicted that I would be the first voted out (and in fact voted myself out). It really does serve as a good metaphor not only for how people get excluded, but also how the same people are often convinced to exclude themselves because they already see the pointlessness of trying to pretend that they’ll fit in, or develop such bitter cynicism (like me) as to develop disdain for your peer group and their activities because of this treatment.

    After four years in a high school where the most bullying I’ve gotten doesn’t even qualify as such (only two insults that I have heard), I no longer feel this extreme disconnect and am good friends with some people who are very different in some of their perspectives from me, when before I had very narrow criteria for what a friend of mine could like.

  2. I’ve read the news story a couple of times and I’m still speechless. The kid’s only 5 years old! It’s very upsetting.

  3. At least two of Alex Barton’s classmates voted to keep him in their class.

    Besides the action of the teacher being wrong, ethically and morally, it seems to me that it is also illegal.

    Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, it is illegal for school systems to use policies and practices that intentionally or not result in discrimination.”

    “Under Section 504 children with disabilities must be educated with their nondisabled peers ‘to the maximum extent appropriate,’ and ‘removal…from the regular educational environment’ occurs ‘only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.'”

    But this episode raises more fundamental objections than that of its illegality.

    I am reminded of an exercise I have read about in which the participants were divided into two groups each identified by a colour, such as red and blue. One group (say the red group) were told by the teacher or facilitator that they were superior to the blue group. After a time the red group believed that they really were superior and acted accordingly. Similarly the blue group believed that they really were inferior and acted accordingly.

  4. You know – that puts me in mind of something I hadn’t thought about in years.

    In fifth grade I actually ASKED the teacher to round up the kids and get them to list out what I was doing that made them hate my guts so bad.

    Two very important lessons I learned from that one – that I quite literally wasn’t consciously aware of some of the stuff I was doing, but, probably more importantly – them damn neurotypicals are touchier than a raw antimatter pile.

    Yeah … getting in people’s faces, speaking out of turn, etc., etc. – I can see how that can irritate someone, but good heavens they get jealous and petty over some of the most ridiculous stuff.

    But, yes, that is WAY messed up that a teacher would INITIATE 5-year-olds start down that road. That’s ridiculous.

  5. I had a second grade teacher like that. I try to gloss over all the crap I faced in school, which doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect, but it was.

    And I know exactly what you mean about the attitudes of the teachers during that time. They told my mother “Let children be children” because it’s natural and we’d all have to learn to deal with this sort of thing as we grow up anyway. In actuality, by being so permissive they’re stunting these kids’ emotional growth so that they stay immature all their lives. THEY are the normal ones who should “know better” or be able to learn.

    I could go on about why I believe this kind of behavior is allowed and even encouraged and how it’s connected with the greed of the corporate world.

    That teacher needs to lose her license and be blackballed from all teaching positions. If she’s so unsure of herself that she has to lower herself to the level of a bunch of kindergarteners to be “accepted” by them, which is what it sounds like, she’s completely incompetent.

  6. Thankyou for writing this. It’s incredibly difficult to explain this sort of thing to most non-autistic people – they very often don’t even think that it’s possible for children to act like this, and even if they did it themselves as children they often seem to have a sort of selective amnesia about it – as if, somehow, the autistic child is regarded by the young NT brain as something which either cannot truly exist, or at least cannot truly be a human being, and thus all the rules which apply to human beings don’t apply to the autistic child from the NT child’s point of view, but this creates some kind of cognitive dissonance where the NT person can’t even remember the autistic person existing, or else can’t process their existence in some way…

    I’ve not only had this sort of thing happen to me as a child, i’ve had it happen to me as an adult, and i’ve actually observed the NT adults who have treated me this way as an adult struggling to find words to describe how “self-evidently” unhuman or unworthy of existence i was to them, as if some kind of “category error” was going on in their minds, and hatred was their “error message” response to it.

    What i don’t know is whether this is actually socialised behaviour (and if so, how), or whether it is perhaps even something that is inherent to the neurotypical brain (ie, an inevitable consequence of having the communication “circuits” that neurotypical people have and autistic people don’t… perhaps even something that can be regarded as a neurotypical impairment). If the latter, then i don’t know if any amount of social change could do anything about it. :(

    I remember when i was about 19, i went on this “holiday” to Spain which was part of an international exchange between community volunteering groups, including one that i was involved in – it was a group of 8 or 9 16-19 year olds and one (30something) “group leader”, who was a very close friend, and even sort of a substitute parent figure to me at the time. She decided to do a “for fun” camp version of “Big Brother” (which, if you haven’t seen it, is a UK “reality TV” show with pretty much the same premise as “Survivor”, only it’s a sealed house that the contestants are in, under surveillance from “Big Brother” and one is voted off each week… doubtless intended to set Orwell spinning in his grave, IMO it’s possibly the worst television series ever created), in which one member of the group was to be “voted out” each day. I refused to be involved, being instantly ethically disgusted by the concept and trying to voice this in the strongest possible terms, but no one else seemed to get what i was saying, basically responding with variants of “it’s just for fun, don’t take it so seriously”, and acting as if i was “misinterpreting” and assuming that “voting off” would actually mean some serious consequence, whereas it was the whole concept, whether it had serious consequences or not, that i was objecting to.

    (I’ve just recently started watching the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which the character Rei is very, very autistic-like – i’m almost certain that she was based on a real autistic person. I surprised myself with the strength of my hatred for the character of Asuka because of the way she treats Rei, and how much it took me back to my own school days…)

  7. It occurs to me that much of the adult-instigated bullying that happens is invisible to a lot of people. This seems like such an obvious example no one should be able to miss it. That’s why I’ve written about this too, and am encouraging other bloggers to do the same, much as we did for Teddy Willis a little over a year ago, when he was silenced at his school during Autism “Awareness” Month.

  8. as if, somehow, the autistic child is regarded by the young NT brain as something which either cannot truly exist, or at least cannot truly be a human being, and thus all the rules which apply to human beings don’t apply to the autistic child from the NT child’s point of view, but this creates some kind of cognitive dissonance where the NT person can’t even remember the autistic person existing, or else can’t process their existence in some way…

    Whereas I certainly remember other children who were undiagnosed when I was a kid who’d be called autistic now.

    I wonder if this is why so many people believe that numbers have increased — they block out memory of us? Or is it just that, like I mentioned in my post Excuses to be a jerk, they just find other ways to categorize us and thus we-as-we-are become invisible to them.

    I’ve not only had this sort of thing happen to me as a child, i’ve had it happen to me as an adult, and i’ve actually observed the NT adults who have treated me this way as an adult struggling to find words to describe how “self-evidently” unhuman or unworthy of existence i was to them, as if some kind of “category error” was going on in their minds, and hatred was their “error message” response to it.

    I have noticed this as well.

    What i don’t know is whether this is actually socialised behaviour (and if so, how), or whether it is perhaps even something that is inherent to the neurotypical brain (ie, an inevitable consequence of having the communication “circuits” that neurotypical people have and autistic people don’t… perhaps even something that can be regarded as a neurotypical impairment).

    I don’t think that autistic people lack these instincts, at least not uniformly.

    I do think that autistic people lack the opportunity to exercise them.

    I have noticed that when given the opportunity — such as within the autistic community — autistic people seem as capable of exercising them, and as totally oblivious to the consequences of their actions (to the point of often denying they could ever do it, sometimes right alongside doing exactly that), as anyone else.

    Sort of like women are as capable of abusing power as men, but just didn’t always get so much power in the past that it’d be noticed. And so early feminists believed women would not abuse power if given it, that we would be somehow different from men. And we aren’t appreciably different in that respect.

    Many human failings don’t happen in any given person, more because of inability to exercise them, than because of lack of them.

    And any group of people ignores this not only at their own peril but at anyone else’s too.

    Witness, though, how many autistic people look down on people with intellectual disabilities — there is no lack of hierarchy and exclusion there at least.

    If the latter, then i don’t know if any amount of social change could do anything about it. :(

    On the contrary, I think that a lot of growing up and learning responsibility is all about is learning which instincts to allow oneself to use and which ones to suppress.

    For instance, many children will do something violent like hit each other if they don’t get their way. Most adults will have learned to suppress this to some extent.

    I have no doubt that if children learned outright, as a major part of what responsibility towards each other meant, that they had this tendency to exclude, and that it was a bad thing to be fought against, then we would see far more people fighting against it as they became more mature. If something is socially unacceptable that is a powerful force to most people in favor of suppressing or at the very least hiding it, regardless of what it is.

    And for people not motivated by social acceptability alone (or at all), there are always other reasons to know it’s a bad thing to do.

    But if it is an instinct then it is not lacking in autistic people, at least not uniformly, because I see autistic people exercising it, when they get the chance to. And sometimes knowing how bad it is to have it happen to you doesn’t make you not want to do it to others — sometimes it makes you just want to be on the top rather than the bottom, unfortunately, in a world that seems like you are either treated like this, or one of the ones who treat people like this.

    At any rate, I can easily forgive children their instincts, or even adults who’ve never been put in those situations before and suddenly find themselves in it with no clue that they too can behave in the same awful ways. I can’t as easily forgive a society for not doing their best to teach people to fight these particular ones.

  9. I don’t believe that any teacher would have behaved that way towards a child who has an ‘acceptable’ disability such as pariplegia or quadriplegia, or who is blind or deaf. Also probably not a child with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. I don’t know about a child with ADHD.

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  11. Vivian Paley wrote a great book about this very issue called “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”. She’s a retired kindergarten teacher from the labschool at the University of Chicago and in this book she describes how she came to institute that rule in her classroom and how her students learned to follow it. She’s one of my heroes, up there with Montessori, Piaget, Dewey. All of her books are great, but this one in particular made a real impact on how I work with students/clients of all ages.

  12. This makes me mad. When I get mad words won’t come. When words won’t come, I turn to song lyrics to say what I want to say for me. So:

    You’ve got to be taught
    To hate and fear,
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It’s got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

  13. And people seem to learn it practically from the cradle, unless it’s just some kind of awful misguided instinct.

    I think that exclusion *is* a basic human instinct. Most people’s brains are strongly wired to recognize “Us” and “Them”, to divide people up into categories and treat them accordingly, and those who don’t fit the nice little categories are just “weird” and undeserving of respect.

    I’ve slowly become more aware of psychological bullying I received growing up. I’d always thought that those incidents were “my fault”, or at the very least an innocent misunderstanding, but increasingly I’m becoming aware that at least some of them weren’t my fault or simple misunderstandings, but deliberate attempts to embarass me.

  14. You spoke about a classroom where children helped each other. Your oldest brother experienced a classroom like this in first grade. The teacher had remarkable insight and put a lot of extra effort into creating a classroom where each child’s abilities were carefully tracked. If a child needed help in something another child who was proficient at this became a mentor…Everyone had gifts and deficits so everyone became both teacher and pupil. Your brother was hyperlexic so he made a film to teach other children to read and tutored them in first grade…His handwriting was nearly illegible so another student with good handwriting worked with him on this. The beauty of this classroom was the acceptance that everyone had intrinsic value…and everyone had something to give and something that needed to be learned…The teacher won a state prize at the end of the year…but unfortunately the principal did not transfer what was learned here to other classrooms…Still it was a beautiful thing…It was ethical…and reasonable…and it allowed each student to progress at their own rate with no demerits or praise for speed or lack of speed in picking up a subject..Since everyone learned at their own pace it was more work for the teacher as she had constant assessments to do but I think once she had the program set-up it was almost self propelling…It was the only time I witnessed such a classroom.

    I have always dis-liked the premise of programs like Survivor and I don’t just boycott them myself I am happy to tell anyone who brings the subject up why I don’t watch them…I like the idea of
    teamwork….and drawing on the positives of every person to reach a group goal. Everyone has something to contribute…and everyone needs help with some things…We all “win” when everyone succeeds…

    Sometimes I think businesses fail because they have an environment where sharing information
    and brainstorming are discouraged for individual gain. It is the business form of survivor…and it doesn’t work well in the long run…

    As for this teacher who singled out a child in front of their peers for ridicule and gave these 5 year olds the power of exclusion…she needs to undergo counseling at he very least…the classroom needs to undergo counseling….and they all need to make restitution to this child…What she did cannot be allowed to stand or be glossed over. I think all the parents of the children in the classroom need to assemble and talk about what happened so they can also talk with their children at home about the wrongness of this and how to set it right. There is just so much wrong with what happened…I hope too the child singled out gets hundreds and hundreds of supportive responses from people so he knows what happened is not ok or deemed acceptable by others.
    Perhaps someone can come in who can set-up an anti-bullying campaign and turn this into something positive..

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  16. I have no doubt that if children learned outright, as a major part of what responsibility towards each other meant, that they had this tendency to exclude, and that it was a bad thing to be fought against, then we would see far more people fighting against it as they became more mature.
    My NT son is about to graduate the K-8 school he’s attended for the past 8 years. One of the tenets of the school is non-exclusion, and for the past 8 years he and his classmates have heard mantras such as, “When someone wants to sit with you, you greet them with a smile,” and “We don’t exclude.” It works well at school — they share tents (they camp together) peaceably with whoever they’re assigned to.

    Nevertheless, there are movie dates after school, for example, in which children are excluded. The kids ask their friends to go, but not the kids they don’t voluntarily spend time with. There is no taunting, and the kids know better than to issue invitations in front of kids who aren’t going to be included. They really don’t want to hurt one another’s feelings. This seems like a normal process of choosing friends to me. Does it seem like exclusion to you, to choose not to spend time with people you’re not particularly fond of or close to?

    P.S. Some of the sweeping statements here about NTs are quite galling. I’d be pretty upset if someone said, “Autistics are really gross when they eat,” and likewise it’s upsetting to read “them damn neurotypicals are touchier than a raw antimatter pile.” I don’t hold you as the proprietresss responsible, but as long as we’re talking about tolerance and acceptance and inclusion, maybe it would be a good idea to remember that all NTs are not alike, and that grouping people by their neurological make-up is a form of prejudice. I do neurofeedback, which involves EEGs, and I have yet to find a “normal” brain. We all have our struggles. Some are more visible than others.

  17. When I was in fourth grade, the teachers had us try something. We were divided into two groups (presumably randomly); one group was the in-crowd, and the other was the outcasts. (I don’t remember what, if any, labels we actually got; those terms are just my descriptions.) Then, for a short while (maybe an afternoon, or just recess) we were given guidelines, basically amounting to: If anyone of the in-crowd wants to join in some activity with any subgroup, they can; if anyone of the outcasts wants to join in, they don’t have to be allowed to.

    I was assigned to the outcast group, which didn’t teach me much that I hadn’t already experienced. At some later time, we were supposed to have the two groups switch roles, but, unfortunately, they never got around to that part. Other than that, it seems like a good teaching tool to give everyone a different perspective on things.

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  19. I’m absolutely appalled at this teacher’s unbelievable cruelty, and again by all the stories you and others have shared.

    I’m so sorry to hear of all this needless and cruel pain. It makes me so sad and so scared for my own 4.5 year old daughter’s future. She is teetering on the edge of the spectrum, but there is no question that no matter where her eventual diagnosis may fall she will face many social challenges in her life. It breaks my heart to think of her, or any child, having to face such cruelty and I can only hope she is able to share enough with me that I can do something to stop it if it happens.

  20. I had a teacher who continually seated me near children who would bully me. Put gum in my hair, steal my work, cut my hair with scissors. I was also excluded all the time, tripped, kicked, pushed off the playground equipement, etc. Things didn’t get much better in junior high or high school, either.

    It seemed to me that the adults weren’t doing much to prevent these things from happening. Every time I would ask for help they would either nod absentmindedly or ask what part I had to play in it.

    My daughter is glad I’m teaching her at home now. Things aren’t any better now, even with all the “anti-bullying” programs they’ve implemented.

  21. It’s sicking, I felt the same way. I was excluded and ignored a lot like you Amanda, I sometime I was an ass but other times, I didn’t deserve the abuse.

    Deep down I’m still very bitter at my old schools, I think eventually so will Alex. he going to pretty bitter too.

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  23. We actually thought for years that we were delusional, oversensitive, or seeing things that weren’t there when we noticed teachers encouraging and participating in bullying at a school where we attended a “gifted program” for years. People have said things to us like “I don’t think a teacher would really let that happen/if a teacher did that, they’d fire them.” But, no, we’re pretty sure in retrospect that we weren’t hallucinating, it was all real.

    As you’ve mentioned in some other posts, there often isn’t actually that much difference between kids sorted into “gifted ed” and kids sorted into “special ed,” in terms of their behavior– it’s just people’s interpretations of it that are different.

    But, anyway, while a certain amount of “weirdness” was tolerated at that school, even encouraged, beyond a certain point it wasn’t. Beyond that point, certain teachers would start either harassing the “overly weird” kids themselves, or encouraging the other students, subtly or not-so-subtly, to “give them what they deserved.” And we saw quite a few incidents where the teachers pretty much outright goaded other students into verbally and physically bullying the kids they saw as undesirable, even stood around as a bystander and laughed along with everyone else.

    The whole environment of that school was really bizarre. We were told over and over again that certain things we saw as abusive and bullying weren’t, that they were actually jokes and not serious, and that if the victim of the “joke” had a problem with it, it was their fault for not recognizing it as a “joke.”

    (Yeah, we can make a list of specific incidents we remember– we’d just rather not. Like you said, almost every autistic person probably has a list that looks a lot like ours, and it all just starts to sound the same after a point. Though we sometimes wonder about some of the other students we knew there and if they remember things being as bad as we did. Mostly it seems like one of those places where everyone comes out of it talking about what a great experience it was– even one of the most intensely bullied kids we knew there was saying that. Then again, I know there’s plenty of people, “gifted” or not, who delude themselves into thinking that bullying “helped them” and “made them stronger” and that they “learned how to behave” from it.)

  24. I sent various emails to people who should do something about it, and one to Ms Portillo indicating my hope that a panel of at least twelve people will stand up and say what they don’t like about her.

    Then I sat at my computer and started to cry. I had identified strongly with a vulnerable six year old boy and wanted to assure him that he is better than ‘special’. Then I remembered that I had a similar experience myself last year … I am a mature age student and I was in a final year English lit class, and was enjoying literature for the first time in my life. BUT, I didn’t fit the group ethos, and I was told by the lecturer that he and the other students (also mature age) did not feel that I fit in and that it would be better that I left the class. Since this group expect to go on to become English teachers, it does not bode well for my grandchildren’s education. As a consequence of that class, I stopped attending all classes and was given fail grades. Apart from the immediate costs and expenses involved, it meant that I did not graduate and possibly may never do so.

    I was also working at the university, and resigned my job. I am still reluctant to set foot on university grounds.

  25. Thanks for fixing my broken italic tag :)

    I didn’t quite mean that autistic people lacked the instinct to exclude others, or that no neurotypical person is able to overcome that instinct – rather, I meant that it might be inherent in the neurotypical brain to only be capable of regarding someone as a fellow human being if they have a “normal” non-verbal communication profile, and that it might be an inevitable consequence of having the non-verabal communication skills that NTs have to get that “cognitive category error” that makes it impossible to regard autistic people as valid humans – sort of related to the “invisibility” phenomenon:

    I hope that isn’t true, tho – i tend to stray closer to believing it when at the more pessimistic end of my own spectrum…

    Another way of saying might be that, while autistic people have a communication impairment in communicating with neurotypical people, NTs have a communication impairment in percieving autistic people as people.

    I hope that’s a slightly clearer way of putting it…

    “And sometimes knowing how bad it is to have it happen to you doesn’t make you not want to do it to others — sometimes it makes you just want to be on the top rather than the bottom, unfortunately, in a world that seems like you are either treated like this, or one of the ones who treat people like this. ”

    While that certainly seems to be true of a lot of people, it certainly isn’t true of me, and my difference from most other people in that respect is one of the differences that i was aware of from the earliest age. I have always wanted there to be neither “top” nor “bottom”, and whenever i have observed a social dynamic in which there is “top” and “bottom”, regardless of which i have ended up being (usually bottom), my desire was always to have nothing whatsoever to do with it, because at the deepest, most primal level i felt completely uncomfortable with it. To me the only rational form of social organisation, and the only form which feels “instinctively” “right” or “natural”, is complete egalitarianism… which is probably why i’m an anarchist ;)

    Of course, i don’t know whether that’s an autistic thing, or just a “me” thing. I do relate it to my autistic tendency to see things in universal/absolute rather than individual/subjective terms, and my autistic inability to percieve distinctions of social “appropriateness” (ie what it’s acceptable to say or do in some but not other social situations), tho…

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  28. Hmm! The several discussions of “autistic invisibility” (I’ve been chasing links) are very interesting! (I tend to agree with the body-language explanation.) As with several other things I’ve seen here, I’ve experienced a milder version of that. (I’m “only” NLD, so I get weaker versions of a lot of autistic traits.) I do have some control over it, in that I can counter it and “step forward” when I’m not too frazzled, but even so it can be quite annoying. (Especially since it also affects my family!)

  29. I still can’t find words to say that will adequately express how I feel right now. I know that I’m very, very angry, but I know that it also conjures up memories and feelings from my past, too, since I’m a person with (multiple) disabilities and I’ve gone through the bullying, the exclusion, the whole “it’s okay for them” mentality from teachers/professionals, too.

    I have a hard time wrapping around my head why this is so socially condoned. I have a hard time wrapping my head around why there isn’t a full investigation by either the school board or the principal of the school.

    I feel badly for this boy; the DA says that he has “no emotional effects”, but screaming when his mum approaches the school to drop off his sibling, repeating to himself that he is “not special” and reliving the event…those are effects, they are emotional and very much real.

    Him having autism – just as I do – in the Aspergian form – does not make him any less human, any less valid.

    [My apologies if my comment seems really disjointed/odd; I’m having a hard time finding words tonight]

  30. Amanda, thank you for writing this. Sometimes, even though they locked my son “Elf” in a closet sometimes, I wonder at all the socialization my kid is missing now that I homeschool him.

    I’m so glad he’s home, and doesn’t have to deal with this any more. He can socialize plenty whenever we go out (we’re not hermits) and can learn in a loving environment.

    I’ve linked and quoted your post. :]

    Here’s Elf’s story if you want to read it. He is “high-functioning” and can read, write, look you in the eyes, follow directions, etc. So OF COURSE he is manipulating the teachers when he displays autistic behaviours, RIGHT??? (ughhh…)

  31. And they say autistics have no empathy. This is about the coldest hearted thing I’ve heard of, and I would make that woman’s life *miserable* if she pulled that shit on either of my kids.

  32. very interesting thoughts on this situation….

    I’ve worked with a student in Kindergarten on the spectrum who was having trouble socially. Yes, he was doing some things wrong, and yes, he needed help with that. but when he and I were hanging out with the other kids, and I was able to quietly explain some things to him, remind him about waiting his turn, or give him the option of taking a break, etc. he was actually well-liked and got invited to play a LOT. before that he has tons of problems, was hitting the other kids, didn’t know how to ask to play, didn’t know how to wait his turn properly….and none of the kids knew what to do with the situation.

    as much as I had to teach him, I had to teach the other kids to get his attention, how to explain to him so he understood, that it might be a bigger deal to him to switch balls in gym or paddles if they got mixed up accidentally, so please give him back the one he was using…and after all that, they felt more comfortable with him, they felt ready to invite him to play…this woman does not know what she’s doing with these kids. any of them, not just the autistic one. it’s sad and it’s wrong, and it makes me glad I’ve never worked with teachers like that. And I’m sorry that little kid had to go through that, and I’m sorry those classmates experienced that too, and were taught that that’s OK. That’s just terrible, and I hope that the news of this spreads far enough that no other kids have to go through this. geez. how ridiculously horrible.

  33. I think that what makes me the saddest about this story is that if you take away the possibility that this child has ASD it still leaves you with the fact that he is *only 5*. Sad lesson to learn at such an early age.

  34. Angela: I agree. I don’t care if he has ASD or not. To me, what matters is — he’s five years old. What that teacher did to him would be pretty hurtful if he were an adult. But at his age, I can imagine it must have been devastating. The teacher had no excuse.

    (Apparently some of the stories have her claiming that she was trying to teach the kids about tallying. But surely there must have been some way to teach tallying in a way that doesn’t hurt a kid’s feelings. Have them vote on how many kids like chocolate ice cream and how many like vanilla ice cream, for instance. Which might still leave out kids who prefer strawberry, or who don’t eat dairy, but that’s better than teaching kids to exclude other PEOPLE.)

  35. This is wrong on many levels, but it just seems like yet one more thing that we all have faced as we grew up. This was bound to happen to him sooner or later, and the faster he learns that he will never be accepted for who he is, the easier it will be for him. It’s not right, but in this culture, it was necessary. This culture has very specific labels and roles for its people, and one may infringe into another’s place only at great personal cost. This poor boy has just learned his place, and the scars will remain deep enough so that he will not have to be re-trained as to where he belongs. Take what they give you, ask for nothing more than you have, and be grateful for any “constructive criticisms” they heap upon your broken soul. It’s really for your own good, you know. (spoken with much rage and bitterness. yes, I’m being sarcastic. I grew up with this view from my own family, and I reject it utterly.)

  36. I have noticed that when given the opportunity — such as within the autistic community — autistic people seem as capable of exercising them, and as totally oblivious to the consequences of their actions (to the point of often denying they could ever do it, sometimes right alongside doing exactly that), as anyone else.

    Sort of like women are as capable of abusing power as men, but just didn’t always get so much power in the past that it’d be noticed. And so early feminists believed women would not abuse power if given it, that we would be somehow different from men. And we aren’t appreciably different in that respect.

    Oh, yeah, forgot to add this–

    One of the other things that made the environment at that one school we attended so surreal was that everyone pretty much seemed to take for granted there that “we’re different, we’re *gifted.*” And so what *looked* like the same kinds of social dynamics that took place between “normal kids,” even if it was on a slightly more sophisticated (and therefore sometimes more elusive– it was harder to catch people in the act, though not always) level, it just somehow couldn’t possibly be the same. It was different, because we were gifted and this place was special. Somehow.

    Unfortunately, we weren’t immune to this. There was some weird social algorithm we never understood whereby most of the time, in most groups, we were the lowest rung on the ladder, the one everyone turned to if they needed a scapegoat, but at certain times it was someone else. We never understood why. On some of those days, we took “advantage” of the temporary power we’d gotten by default, to pick on the new odd one out. We participated one time when some classmates decided to “impeach” another student from the class. (This didn’t *actually* expel him from any classes and the teachers weren’t involved, it was just that everyone went around telling him he’d been kicked out of the class, wouldn’t let him sit near them or talk to them, etc.)

    We felt very guilty about it later, and in the years since. Not that guilt changes what we did or makes it up to them, but at least we know now there’s nothing actually noble or useful about taking over your oppressor’s role.

    One of the things we’ve noticed from going around and around in various social outcast groups for years is that there does seem to be a possibly instinctual desire in a majority of people to find the person who’s lower than you and kick them (figuratively or literally). Sometimes in outcast circles, the fighting to find someone else to put down, to prove someone else is beneath you, can get really nasty and intense.

    We’ve never actually been sure, for instance, whether The Geek Hierarchy is actually funny, or disturbing. I mean, we have socialized in a lot of the listed groups and know who considers themselves geekier than whom, and we could actually amend it with a few groups that aren’t even listed there, and diagram exactly whom they consider themselves superior to and who considers themselves superior to that group. But we have seen some genuinely vicious bullying, lying, and degradation going on between and even within some of those groups. We’ve been treated horribly ourselves by some people (for example, roleplayers and SF fans) who were hardly typical, didn’t all act or look normal, expected to be social outcasts, and had people among them who were probably neurologically variant in some way. And some of them still felt the need to issue death threats to us to make sure we didn’t come back to their house again. It’s like everyone trips over each other in the mad rush to find a “next one down” to point to and keep down.

    So, yeah. We’ve seen too much crap ourselves, or seen crap that was inflicted on friends and family members, to believe that insert-group-here can’t engage in bullying, exclusion, or abuse of power. Or, for that matter, that being a social outcast, or disabled in some way yourself, means you have no tendency to perceive other people as being less human than you. I know it can certainly work that way for autistic people, because we’ve caught ourselves doing it. One of the hardest things for us in working to become a disability rights advocate has been realizing and trying to deal with with our own prejudices and assumptions about other types of disabled people, even if we’re okay with “our own kind.”

    I honestly tend to think that someone who claims that they have never dehumanized anyone else in their own thoughts, that they never once looked at someone who didn’t look, move or sound “normal” in the way they expected and had that person register as being not quite human in their mind, is not being honest with themselves. I know we have– about the same people a lot of non-autistic people have that reaction to, also: homeless people, people with certain obvious physical disabilities, etc. We don’t have those reactions so much now, but in order to have them *less*, we had to admit to ourselves that we had them in the first place so we could address the issue, instead of denying it and/or thinking that admitting it would mean we were “bad people” and we wanted to think we were “good people.” (We don’t believe in “bad people” versus “good people” in that same way any more.)

  37. Maybe the children should now be allowed to tell this teacher what they don’t like about her and then vote her out of the class. What is this teaching our children…if we don’t like you or understand you we can just take a vote and you are out of our lives. These are 5 year old children who are being directed by a what one would think is an educated human being. No matter what disability a person has they deserve the respect. This is my opinion a case of Discrimination and to believe that the school officals and the attorney general condone such behavior is outrageous!

  38. Thank you! You write! I’m getting involved. Words can’t express for me very well how sick I’ve been feeling and just how much *Sympathy* I’m feeling for Alex Barton. I have been publically humiliated just like this on several occasions. It’s been something I’ve wanted to address in addition to how some adults have emotionally abused us as children and sometimes even continue to abuse us as fellow adults. I don’t know that I’m all that much different as a person now than I was when I was five in terms of how much I can’t stand this kind of abuse.

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  40. You probably wont like this.
    I think there is not enough information about waht happened for me to be able to decide if a bad thing was done. I know the world is not fair.
    I had to learn to find ways of living with the other big clever monkeys and it was hard to do.
    I survived and every challenge became useful.
    Now I am exceptionally gifted at things that were difficult because I had to work them up from the basics.
    I think as his mom loves him this small person will be ok.
    As for the teacher, lets wait and see. Good things can come from bad situations.

  41. I didn’t read the comments but I am going to respond to the questions about people’s immediate responses to others with disabilities.

    It IS human nature to be spiteful and even aggressive towards weakness it is in fact the nature of most mammals, especially in regards to carnivorous. As much a civilization is supposed to restrain these compulsory actions they still filter through, and as wrong as they are by our PC standards today they are a trait that has allowed our species to become what it is today.

    It is the most basic and primal version of weeding the “sick” from the pack and our weening away from those feelings is going to lead to a society where not one human on the planet is free of a disabling genetic disorder.

  42. I don’t tend to buy the idea that human beings simply have an instinct to hate sick people and that’s that.

    Nor that carnivores (and humans are not carnivores) simply have that instinct and that’s that.

    I’d buy that humans have a tendency to group along the lines of difference in certain ways — some of which are disability-related and some of which aren’t.

    In general, though, a social species is going to have a pretty strong instinct to take care of each other, including taking care of sick people. Not to just toss out sick people. And there’s evidence of that instinct going back at least as far as there have been people.

    I also have trouble believing that people’s indignation over this is just because of some kind of modern “political correctness” — it seems to have at least as much force of instinct as what you’re describing, in fact.

  43. Brilliant post. Thank you, and thank you to the other commenters, for reminding me who I am, where I came from, how bad this stuff is, and why it matters so much.

    I think it’s worth noting that it’s not just autistics who are excluded and dehumanized. It’s anyone who can’t follow the rules for how people are ‘supposed’ to behave or at least for how to be liked. I have seen people with other mental conditions that kept them from interacting ‘normally’ with other people being dehumanized as well. I know I’m not completely innocent of putting such people down, which means I’ve forgotten my roots.

    Contempt for weakness does not make humanity stronger. Maybe it made us physically strong, but physical strength is not what we need now. What we need now is moral strength, which is the opposite of contempt for weakness.

  44. I loved my “gifted” programs, but I remember a time in elementary school where kids singled out the one black kid and decided he was stupid. If the parents had “trusted their kids” on that call, it would have made the nightly news.

    We had a good program in that same school though that encouraged the gifted kids to work with the special ed kids… I went from making fun of Down’s Syndrome kids on the playground to being relatively good friends with another kid with cognitive difficulties. It was good.

    Many animals, even social animals, do have an instinct NOT to take care of each other. Birds will harass and attack other disabled birds of the same species until they die. A relative of mine saw that happen to a crow she took in that couldn’t fly. The one time she let it go outside, a whole flock of crows descended on it and killed it. Naked mole rats put their sick in the “latrine” where they have to stay until they die or get better.

    There’s sort of a divide in behavior between how social animals act towards kin (or, in the case of more sophisticated ones, friends) and how they act towards other animals who are just part of the group. They’ll care for kin but attack other weak animals that are seen as weighing the group down for any length of time. This probably comes from the fact that animals don’t benefit evolutionarily from helping others that aren’t closely related, unless in a tit-for-tat sort of situation.

    This isn’t an excuse. One thing that humans are supposed to be good at is developing morals that we live by whether or not we’re dealing with “others.” Most people will at least claim they’ve pretty much rejected the morality of social darwinism. So they should consciously avoid behaving in accordance with it.

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  46. It doesn’t even make us physically stronger, given that weakness is a given for all human beings at some point in life, and if not assisted during those times there would not be anyone left to be physically strong.

  47. animal behavior is pretty complex and animals are reasonably good but not perfect at telling the difference between a pack member that is an infant or temporarily injured, and a pack member that is likely to remain disabled or worsen or become a vector for contagious disease. It is a genetically adaptive behavior for social animals to shun or pick at its weaker members, just not a “good” one. Other adaptive behaviors seen in animals include rape, killing each other for personal gain, infanticide, cannibalism, systematic destruction of other species, and so forth.

  48. i am very concerned about not only the incident in question but the individuals whom have justified in some way this behaviour. There is no justification for humiliating a five year old child, disability or no disability. The teacher does not know how to handle these children and should either be re educated or leave teaching.

  49. A response to Samantha:

    You said: “It is a genetically adaptive behavior for social animals to shun or pick at its weaker members, just not a “good” one.” Animals do this because of instinct and programming – they don’t think about how the shunned pack member feels. The instinct is just there because of the concept that a weaker pack member will slow them down. I guess I thought that as humans, we should be above this. To me, what was done to Alex was like this. That’s exactly what I had in mind when I wrote “Vicious”.


  50. “I didn’t quite mean that autistic people lacked the instinct to exclude others, or that no neurotypical person is able to overcome that instinct – rather, I meant that it might be inherent in the neurotypical brain to only be capable of regarding someone as a fellow human being if they have a “normal” non-verbal communication profile, and that it might be an inevitable consequence of having the non-verabal communication skills that NTs have to get that “cognitive category error” that makes it impossible to regard autistic people as valid humans – sort of related to the “invisibility” phenomenon.”

    Here’s my two cents. Most people have to learn to recognize *any* other being as a person, with the possible exception of their mother. Most very young children begin learning this, though it’s still touch-and-go. And I think even in adulthood, sometimes it’s easy to forget. And the more different a person is from you, the easier it is to forget. But by either being reminded, or reminding ourselves, I believe strongly we can train ourselves to recognize other beings as people more consistently and automatically. For example, people who have been taught about the personhood of animals are much better at automatically recognizing that it’s evil to be cruel to one (though it’s still hard for people when the animal becomes less like a human, e.g. fish).

  51. I personally had to learn over a long period of time that some things weren’t necessarily “persons”. My default view of reality as a kid was that everything was potentially “alive” and had feelings; I remember not wanting to throw things away and feeling as if everything in the environment had a kind of “character” to it, if that makes any sense. It wasn’t some kind of delusional thing or anything like that; I just didn’t really distinguish between people and objects. Which is actually an “autistic stereotype”, but for me I experienced it in the direction of “seeing everything as potentially alive” than in the oft-assumed direction of seeing people as somehow inanimate. I’ve heard similar things from other auties as well, though I’d guess like many things, this notion of aliveness/personhood is very individual in its manifestations.

  52. Justification of how the classroom of this child treated it has nothing to do with the analysis of WHY it happened. Science and yes even Behavioral Science have nothing to do with complex societal structures like “justice”. I was simply pointing out that the behavior that stimulates this reaction is ingrained in ALL human beings. Further more I stated that we as a society have deemed it beneath us to listen to these “instints” any longer, but be careful what you wish for. I also believe that it sucks for that child to be treated in the fashion and I also know that I feel this way because schooling, media, and society have instructed me that this is the response I should have. Finally I know by looking at the path we are going down that eventually just like there won’t be any distinct racial colors at some point there will also not be left even one human being that does NOT have a debilitating genetic disorder.

  53. @ Rachel Hibberd’s last comment I wanted to add that I have seen examples of this as well in people who have never met people of another color. I once knew a black man who had never met an Asian, he moved to a little china town and spent weeks LEARNING to tell the difference between people living there. We had conversations about it for hours on some nights as it was a phenomenon I couldn’t relate too, I had moved around so much as a child and had been introduced to nearly every culture the world has to offer where as he had grown up in the same town for 25 years and never left.

    This type of awareness of others can easily lead to violence. As human beings we have a VERY VERY bad habit of placing a fear response onto things we don’t understand, and in the words of Yoda fear leads to hate. This is another example of an automated response people have which can lead to what happened in that classroom.

    Attacking this issue by itself is like treating your flu with a cough drop, sure its makes you feel better and the coughing has stopped but its WILL come back. You have to attack the source not the symptoms.

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  55. Just because animals do it doesn’t make it instinctual. Many animals have cultures too – for example, there’s one kind of bird who figured out how to open milk bottles in Britain and have passed it on to each other.
    Also, many people will tend to interpret animal behavior based on their own biases, and misinterpret a lot. The real power in chimpanzee troups, for example, lies not in the dominant male but the old matriarch. Regarding the crow example, crows are territorial. They will often ‘mob’ outsiders in exactly the fashion you described. I doubt his disability had anything to do with it, except making him less able to escape.

  56. Response to Nicole – I think we’re violently agreeing. I see humans as animals, and it’s sort of wishful thinking to imagine that we’re devoid of instinct. It’s quite possible that humans actually have an instinctual predisposition to want to exclude each other, especially those perceived as weak. And if we want people to actually succeed at overcoming this impulse, if it’s an instinctual one, it means that we’ll have to constantly and purposefully resist against it. We already purposefully resist a lot of other instincts, so it’s not futile either way. I’m just saying that the possibility that it’s an instinct is very real.

  57. Dear Amanda,

    I was deeply moved by the story of what happened to Alex Barton and also by your story of how you were treated at his age.

    I have two daughters who are 9 years old (twins). I don’t think they’re in much danger of being the target of this kind of abuse, but I told them about what happened to Alex and what happened to you. I talked to them about scapegoating, and how easily it happens. I confessed that when I was a kid I had joined a friend in taunting a boy who in retrospect I think must have had some sort of mental disability.

    I told them I hoped they would have the courage to be kind to a kid who was being scapegoated if they ever saw it happen. My wife and I encouraged them to talk to us if they saw anyone being treated this way (or if it happened to them). And we told them not to be afraid to talk to us even if they had participated in picking on someone because it’s more important to try to make things right than to blame people.

    We had a good conversation. The girls talked about a boy who sometimes complains that nobody likes him and how they might be more friendly to him. They were particularly upset at the idea of a kid being coerced into saying “I don’t like you” by the crowd, and emphatic that they would never do such a thing.

    My reason for telling you all this is just to say thank you for telling your story. You’ve suffered a lot, and faced a lot of struggle to be able to freely write about your life. I’m sure other good has come of your perseverence, but I think there has also been some small good done here if your story helps me and my daughters to pay attention, to care and reach out in friendship to people who have been pushed to the margins.

    Thank you.

  58. Yeah, my objection to the “this is just an instinct” thing isn’t that I don’t think humans are instinctual, it’s that, as ettina pointed out, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about both human instincts and the instincts of other animals — formed by assorted biases people have when watching them, and often it’s something completely different going on. There is evidence for both humans and social animals in general assisting “weaker” members of the group who are not getting “better”, going back a really long time, so again, I really think that anyone designed to be a sort of grouping species, has instincts designed to protect each other, and that if people look closer they’ll see them.

  59. Humans certainly do have instincts, but they’ve been heavily disrupted by our higher intelligence. The general effect is that a lot of what would be “simple instinct” in other animals becomes “imprinting” or “prepared learning” for humans. In particular, that “mobbing” behavior is a “standard operation” among higher animals, including humans — the variations are in what stimuli trigger it. For humans that’s shaped by socialization, but the “default” behavior seems to be to pick someone who’s different in any conspicuous way.

  60. I was bullied quite a bit as an elementary and middle-school student because I was a year younger, a geek, socially clueless, physically awkward, didn’t have expensive clothes, but looked older than the other girls. Bad combo, right? Anyway, based on that I tend to be a little hyperaware of other kids and their reaction to my 4.5 year old son w/”classical autism.” He wants to play with others at the park but doesn’t know how, and he can talk some but not clearly, so I hover a bit and try to “facilitate.” I have been amazed at how nice other kids and their parents have been so far – sometimes kids ask about his speech or flapping, and I just say that he’s still learning how to speak but he hears fine, and that flapping means he’s happy. It seems that as long as the other parents feel like I am supervising Bobby (he hugs REALLY hard and is very big) they are happy for their kids to play with or near him. At this age, that’s all I ask for.

  61. This I think just goes to show how utterly cruel people can be sometimes. My heart goes out to Alex Barton and his mother, as well as the two students who voted to keep Alex in class. That teacher should be fired on the spot and prosecuted for her actions. I wonder how she’d feel if something similar were done to her. She needs help, help by a qualified mental-health professional. As for Alex, he will undoubtedly have emotional scars from this experience and will need counseling too. This will perhaps be true of his mom as well. I’m going to try and contact the school listed.

  62. Responses to a few people:

    Sometimes by the way I think ethics often boils down to choosing which instincts are appropriate to act on, rather than simply “acting against instinct”. I don’t know that we’re as divorced from instinct as we pretend to be, I think we just use logic to justify it. ;-)

    I’m reluctant to say people need psychiatric help (a number of people commenting on this have phrased that in a number of ways), because qualified help from psychiatry in the domains it’s actually (theoretically) supposed to function in is rare.

    It can happen — in fact one person who abused me in the past was told to get counseling, and did, and it changed things for the better — but it’s rare, and even that person admits it is. My case manager tells me that he’s seen too many a scene of outright domestic violence in which the abuser’s therapist backs them up because they’re too lazy to work out what the real problem is. (He told me this because I’d noticed and commented on one such situation myself. Even with what I know of that field in general, I was surprised to hear it happens that often.)

    Also, too often “this person needs help” becomes an insult of sorts, too. When what people frequently mean is closer to “This person did something really awful — or even just something I don’t happen to approve of. But their problems are Someone Else’s Problem. Not mine. We have professionals for that.” And it sort of allows everyone but psychiatrists to completely wash their hands of that person.

    (This post is important to read in that context, as is Bev’s stuff on the subject.)

    “You need help” can also be a way of saying “You’re broken”, “You’re crazy”, etc., only in a politened-up sort of language.

    Not to mention the fact that psychiatry tends to, when confronted with things like this, turn ethical problems into medical problems, turn the solutions to ethical problems over to “trained professionals” instead of regular people (because regular people could have no insight into human nature without a whole lot of training in seeing human nature exactly as psychiatry-of-the-day sees it)… etc.

    And there’s something else lurking inside the idea that a person need only be educated and then they’ll treat people better — something of an assumption about what education is and means, I think — but I am having trouble putting it into words. Sorry for the half-response and non-response there, I guess; I can’t seem to get the entire story of what’s in my head out my fingertips today.

    (And a complete side-note — I haven’t been able to read my mail in a few days so if I’m not responding to anyone, that’s why, it’s nothing personal.)

  63. Maybe what’s bothersome about the idea that educating someone will make them act better toward other people is the assumption that we’re all the same “inside”.

  64. I think it’s also the assumption that a less educated person is going to treat people worse than a more educated one.

    Not that knowing certain things won’t sometimes help a person act better in certain situations. But it’s not the only piece of things — and if certain other pieces are not there it won’t help at all, and if certain other pieces are there it won’t be necessary.

    I mean, I can remember when I used to step on snails. I didn’t know they were alive, I just liked the crunching sound. One time a girl from across the street saw me doing that and said certain words about it. I didn’t understand them, but I understood the sadness in her voice and the sense that I’d done something that harmed someone. (The words were, incidentally, “That’s cruel.”) And I never did it again.

    That’s a case where clearly a piece of information was missing, and I behaved better once I knew it.

    So I know those situations exist.

    I’m just bothered by the assumption that if everyone who does something wrong knew what the were doing was wrong, they wouldn’t do it.

    And the (often very classist and/or ableist) assumptions that can go with the words uneducated, ignorant, etc. when they’re used to explain wrongdoing.

    All that is part of it — and I won’t deny that learning something can help some people avoid doing the wrong thing, but there’s a bunch of stereotypes and assumptions that you have to tread carefully around when saying these things, even when you mean well by them.

  65. Perhaps it also has something to do with the idea that people with “educated” type certifications are inherently superior–which of course is untrue, but with the more prestige you have, people are less willing to think that you don’t deserve it.

  66. To be more clear, people are less willing to believe you violate their values, unless they somehow take issue with the system.

  67. Sometimes by the way I think ethics often boils down to choosing which instincts are appropriate to act on, rather than simply “acting against instinct”.

    An excellent way to put it… I agree with this and much else you’ve said.

    I don’t know that we’re as divorced from instinct as we pretend to be, I think we just use logic to justify it. ;-)

    Definitely! Modern cognitive science has revealed that most of our decisions are not so much rational, as rationalized after the fact.

    As far as “you need help” coding for “you’re broken”, therapists in general are very much modern heirs to the role of the counseling priest. Psychological theory is all very well, but the “natural role” of a therapist definitely includes moral guidance, to the point where it’s extremely difficult for a therapist to avoid giving such, even if their “school” discourages it.

    And as far as learning “who are people”… well, the closest surviving thing to a “natural state of humanity” would be a tribal society. And in most historical, and many modern examples, the rule is very simple. Your tribe is “people”, everyone else is “not people”.

  68. PS: What changed that tribal rule was the transition to city-states, when war could mean having your fields burned, your city demolished, and (most importantly) the rulers slaughtered.

    Thus for example, in the later Greek myths such as the Iliad, we see that abusing travelers has become an offense against the gods (but it still occasionally happened anyhow). Compare to, say, the (very old) Oedipus tale, where Oedipus has no problem with attacking and slaughtering a group of travelers on the road — but the part he gets punished for, is that (unbenownst to him) the victims included his father.

  69. “Also, too often “this person needs help” becomes an insult of sorts, too. When what people frequently mean is closer to “This person did something really awful — or even just something I don’t happen to approve of. But their problems are Someone Else’s Problem. Not mine. We have professionals for that.” And it sort of allows everyone but psychiatrists to completely wash their hands of that person… “You need help” can also be a way of saying “You’re broken”, “You’re crazy”, etc., only in a politened-up sort of language.”

    Well put. I was going to point out something similar. Having a psychological or emotional problem and doing morally wrong things are not the same. To equate them is insulting to people who really do “need help,” and also kind of promotes the wrong idea about what “help” is. It’s not the job of therapists to take over for people’s moral sensibilities.

  70. I wanted to say thanks for giving us the info on Bev’s Blog. I blogged about this a while back…
    It saddened me & made me so very mad that someone could do this to a 5 yr old!
    Someone he should be able to look up to & trust.

    It goes to show that one can place very little faith in the education system in place for our children.


  71. I just de-spammed a lot of legitimate comments that ended up in my spam folder.

    Responding to someone or another awhile back:

    Regarding the thing about teaching “non-exclusion” in school, is that school is far from the only place kids are. A society that actually cared about this to a high degree would be teaching about it — by example — all the time, not in trite little sayings to memorize (as if that teaches kids anything) but by real and genuine actions.

    We had a program when I was in kindergarten called the “green circle”, where we all got pins to wear and a guy came in and kept saying stuff like “if you’re inside the green circle it’s good, but if you put someone outside the green circle it’s bad”. I think that this made very little sense even to the children without receptive language impairments, and is really a silly way to go about teaching anything like that.

    Responsibility isn’t generally something you learn in school — you can, but it’s mostly taught by people around you, by consequences if you don’t behave responsibly, and by how other people are acting, and maybe what they talk to you about. Teachers should do their part but they shouldn’t and can’t be doing the whole job and they shouldn’t do it in all those useless and/or patronnizing ways.

    In college I was once the recipient of the “reach out to the weird person because it’s the right thing to do” crap and I found it boring as hell and patronizing. That’s not real inclusion, that’s just lip service sort of stuff. The people who did that meant well but they truly weren’t that interested in me and I wasn’t that interested in them.

    A lot of the stuff you talk about sounds similar to what’s discussed in Hell-Bent on Helping: Benevolence, Friendship , and the Politics of Help, which you might want to read. The stuff they describe in there is pseudo-inclusive stuff and so is sitting people down and telling them to smile at whoever sits next to them.

    But choosing that you want to go out with this or that friend isn’t the same thing as systematically bullying and shutting someone out for all the wrong reasons. And I really don’t see how it’s relevant to the experiences people are talking about here — which aren’t about just someone not liking someone. (And even if you don’t like someone, there are right and wrong ways to go about dealing with that.)

    As far as generalizations about non-autistic people go, I don’t agree with them either, and normally am around to say something about it, but I haven’t been as active online lately as I could be. (Which is why I still have thousands of unread emails.) So thanks for saying something about it.

    At the same time, while I’m not into the autistic supremacist or NT-bashing crap and tend to call people on it when I notice it, I’d like to invite you to read my post titled What happens when you ignore power relationships.

    Because a lot of your comment (not just that part) seems to not take those into account, but I can’t fully explain how, so I thought I’d show that example. (I don’t think what you’re saying is anywhere near as bad as that example, but it’s something to think about.) Also, from another site, “But I’m not like that!” deals with some similar stuff in a different way.

  72. My case manager tells me that he’s seen too many a scene of outright domestic violence in which the abuser’s therapist backs them up because they’re too lazy to work out what the real problem is.

    Yeah– we’ve seen something sort of like that too, unfortunately. What we saw was people who were told to “get counseling,” and when they did, they ended up just talking to the therapist for an hour about whatever *they* wanted to talk about or deemed to be a problem, which in most cases was not the fact that they were abusing others. The fact that they were abusing others was rarely even touched on at all. But somehow they were still seen as “working on the problem” just by virtue of the fact that they could sit in a therapist’s office for a hour a week, while they continued to be abusive.

    And most of the time, at least online, when we see someone saying “this person needs help” or “this person needs a good psychiatrist,” it definitely is a “polite” (except not really) way of expressing social disapproval of someone’s behavior and beliefs. And, yeah, unqualified faith in the system.

    On how psychiatry makes ethical problems into medical ones– we have a really long rant in us, somewhere, that needs to be organized and fleshed out, about how the concept of mental illness is used to obscure the existence of actual moral wrongs. I mean, how many times do you see, in the wake of news articles about autistic children murdered by parents or guardians, comments like “that person clearly must have been mentally ill,” or “I hope they get the help they need”? (Well, along with all the crap about “if you don’t understand why they did it you have clearly never raised a child like this,” but a lot of people seem to try to absolve the killer of responsibility by saying “they must have been mentally ill” too in some places, we’ve noticed.)

    It comes out in stories about school shootings, too– we had to stop reading all the editorials and news articles about the Virginia Tech shootings because we were getting so angry over all the talk about how this clearly demonstrated the need for mandatory mental health screenings in schools and how if this person had been caught and identified and “treated” he would never have killed anyone and etc, etc, that we couldn’t even see straight. It’s like a cheap, cut-rate solution to the problem of evil. People do bad things because they have chemical imbalances in their brains. Therefore, if we just get everyone on the right drugs to fix their brains, there will be no more evil in the world. (Having grown up with family members who *could* have been seen as “doing bad things because they were mentally ill,” we think it’s a *lot* more complex than that.)

    …oh, also, we had an email we wanted to send you, but it can wait. It’s nothing urgent, and we’re just worried that if we send it now it might get lost in a flood of spam or something.

  73. Amorpha: I generally agree with your comment, but I’d like to point out that, at least in theory, they point of “making them get help” is to change them so that they won’t do the nasty things, or at least give someone the chance to sound an alarm on someone before they do it.

    Of course, this is undercut by the general ineffectiveness (often incompetence) of most therapists — for somebody like VATech’s Chu, talk therapy by itself won’t cut the mustard, and a lot of therapists (especially the incompetent ones) can’t tell when the situation is out of their league.

  74. I think it is pretty well inevitable that much of the responsibility for teaching children “non-exclusion” and responsibility will fall on schools, particularly with their ‘child-minding’ function.

    About teaching “non-exlusion” in schools, this article – is about Playback. This is a Scottish organisation which provides education resources which are “designed to challenge existing mind-sets by encouraging personal reflections through examining experiences and understandings of disability.”

    A report and evaluation of their resources and activities found that “participating pupils were able to clarify more fully the meaning of disability, reject the ‘not normal’ tag and recognise that everyone is unique”

    “children began to see disability in a very real way and that their attitudes shifted from sympathy to empathy”.

    Pupils had greater awareness of social barriers and began to see disability in terms of social issues, and to “recognise the negative impact of being excluded, physically and psychologically, and the feelings associated with exclusion.”

    If I were the recipient of the “reach out to the weird person because it is the right thing to do” policy in that college I would find it boring as hell and nauseating. But I expect the people who formulated that policy thought they were putting into practice the best features of inclusive education. It is because such people are well-meaning that it is difficult for them to change that policy, and even more so if it has become highly regarded by the education trend-setters.

  75. But at least when I grew up, there was all this time outside of school when kids were either with our parents, with slightly older kids watching us, or with other adults.

    And it was largely during those times when we were seeing ethical behavior modeled for us in ways beyond the purely artificial. It’s much harder to show a kid ethical behavior when you’re in a category of people (teachers) which is separated in so many ways categorically from students, and students are looking to each other as examples of how to behave, rather than looking to the teacher.

    If people are going to learn this stuff it’s really going to have to happen more than just in the classroom, and when it does happen in the classroom it can’t be some kind of artificial abstraction.

  76. This is something in which I am very interested.

    I agree that teaching ethical behaviour and the
    value of inclusion should be done not only in achools, but also at home and in the wider community. But there may be cases where teaching at school is necessary, such as for children of racist parents.

    I also agree that such teaching should not be reduced to trite sayings which children memorize to please their teachers, nor as an artificial abstraction.

    Religious bodies, such as churches or synagogues, have traditionally played an important part in teaching ethical behaviour and inclusive values. That is when they are true to their highest ideals.

    I work as a volunteer in a small library which is mostly used by teachers. It stocks books on what in the UK is called citizenship, as a subject taught in schools. Basically this is about teaching children who are different in various ways – such as in terms of ethnicity, disability, sexuality – to have positive views and behaviour towards one another.

    On the one hand, some people would condemn the teaching of citizenship or similar subjects in schools as “indoctrinating our school children with politically correct opinions”. On the other hand, there is the danger that it becomes another school subject which pupils learn to get good grades and pass exams. But if it is done imaginatively and sensitively it can change attitudes and behaviour.

  77. First off I Just want to say you have a beautiful mind. I love your writing. The boat story ya was used on me at one time in my life. And I am not sure I still even know the correct answer for everyone else, but I know the one for me. Mine was used in the army on me. I had received a very serious injury where I lost my memory. My mistake was telling a doctor I didn’t believe I could kill anymore. The doctor decided he would prove me wrong. He used the boat story on me, and told me you have to make a choice , you have to decided who lives or dies. My first response was I explain the situation to everyone and say I am sorry but someone has to die so that others can live, does anyone want to volunteer? I was told I couldn’t do that I had to make the decision. I said ok I will die then. I got a long lecture about why I didn’t value myself as a human being, blah blah blah. Told I couldn’t make that decision. Ok, those are decisions are bad ones, We have some food correct? yes replied the doctor. Ok using a strip of my pants and a sharp metal object we fish for food. Was told I couldn’t make that decision. I just looked at him and told him, you only want me to say what you want me to hear. I cant make that decision all those people have some value. I cant do what you want. Then the doctor not being a professional at all, started to berate me, call me a coward, and some other not so great things. He even hit me in the shoulder. I couldn’t take anymore. I ended up hitting him. As they dragged me away for hitting an officer , he was laughing at me. Smiled at me and said “see you can kill, you have angry in you”, No I replied , you pushed me to far , I only hit you, I didn’t kill you. And I like the idea of trying to catch more food. That is my decision and I am sticking with it.

    No charges were brought against me for doing that. The orderlies that dragged me away heard what I said. Even though that doctor did torture me a little more after that, he was removed as my doctor. I hope he didn’t treat any other people with his insanity. Ya that story still sickens me too. Why must there only be one answer to a problem? Why must the answer always be to reject or harm. That is more insane than anything else. Lets make fish hooks..

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