Words & Pictures

My Special Needs Kid Got Kicked Out of the Social Justice Club

 
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This is the story of how my high-functioning autistic son, D, was unceremoniously ejected from the Social Justice Club at his pricey San Francisco Bay Area private school. I know—no irony there whatsoever.

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Our journey began when a rough sixth grade year at our public elementary school (School #1) prompted the district to offer D placement for the following year in a non-public* middle school geared specifically toward kids on the autism spectrum.

School #2 was an unmitigated disaster. The academics were a joke, and the social environment—touted as “world class”—was worse. When a series of anti-Semitic slurs culminated in a group of kids following D around his classroom chanting “Hitler Hitler Hitler,” I asked the principal whether the school educated their students about diversity.

 

Of course, she said. We tell them it’s not nice to point out when someone is different.

 

Ummmm…no.

Which brings us to the above-mentioned pricey private school (#3). All classes there were one-on-one tutorials that met two or three times a week. The program was designed for kids who, for whatever reason, were not thriving in a traditional school setting. It included both students with learning disabilities and highly gifted learners, as well as those with unusual scheduling needs, such as Olympic-track athletes. Before choosing it, we met several times with the director, a cheery blonde woman I’ll call N. She assured us that their individualized program could comfortably accommodate both D’s academic gifts and his social challenges. We enrolled him there with high hopes. 

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Because of the one-to-one teacher/student ratio and the irregular hours, social opportunities were extremely limited. The only times the kids encountered each other were during the ten-minute breaks between classes or, schedule permitting, during lunch.

By this point I knew that throwing my son into an unstructured, unsupervised lunch hour with a largish group of neurotypical peers was not a recipe for success. The school did offer a few weekly clubs during the lunch hour, though, staffed by teachers. One of these—the Social Justice Club—fit D’s interests and schedule. Since he generally functioned well in structured small group environments, I spoke to N about him joining, and we agreed to give it a try. After his first day in the club, N emailed to tell me it had gone fairly well.

A few weeks later, I received an email from Y, one of the club’s leaders. She began by telling me how much they enjoyed having D in the group. His enthusiasm for a wide range of subjects is infectious! After club meetings, he can often be heard in lively conversation with other club regulars who share his interests.

 

Great!

 

D has had a little difficulty allowing others to finish their thoughts before jumping in—a difficulty shared by many other enthusiastic high school students. He has responded well when I have verbally reminded him to wait for his turn. His enthusiasm and original thinking have made him a great addition to the group.

 

Okay. Not perfect, but okay. My child is enthusiastic! He’s original! He responds well to verbal reminders!

 

The next paragraph got to the point. At the last meeting, while discussing discrimination, D said that there was one group that deserved to be discriminated against: Canadians. It was clear to Y that D intended this statement as a joke, but even so, it violated the group’s Safe Space Guidelines, which prohibited statements of prejudice of any kind. She said that if he said something like that in the future, she would first attempt to help him to rephrase the statement in a non-prejudicial way. If he refused to do so, he’d be asked to leave the meeting. Should this occur, she said, he’d still be welcome to return for future meetings.

 

So that’s it, I thought. His Canadian thing had been going on for a while, and I was both horrified and amused by it. Horrified because I abhor prejudice of any kind. Amused because, well…Canadians. Not exactly a group that springs to mind when you think of those facing discrimination on a daily basis.

A child engages with the Your Brain exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A child engages with the Your Brain exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

That night I went over the guidelines with him, emphasizing that no statement of prejudice toward any group of people was ever acceptable, even as a joke.

 

Another month went by without incident. Then one day I received a phone call from N, telling me that D was no longer welcome in the Social Justice Club.

 

Oh no. Did he say something else about Canadians? I asked.

Canadians? No. She sounded surprised. He was interrupting the other kids so much that they were leaving the group.

 

Leaving the group? Why didn’t someone tell me? I asked.

 

Y emailed you, she said.

 

She emailed me a month ago. She said they loved having him and that the interruptions were manageable.

 

Well they’re not any more, she said firmly.

 

But why didn’t someone let me know it was a continuing problem? I could have worked with him.

 

I don’t think there’s anything you could have done, she said.

 

Why would you say that? They told me he’d said something negative about Canadians. I spoke with him, and it never happened again.

 

We went back and forth for some time. Eventually she said stiffly, I’m sorry. Our staff just isn’t equipped to deal with this.

I was so upset by the lack of process that I took it up with N again a week later. Why don’t we brainstorm solutions? I said. I might be able to get someone to accompany him. She wouldn’t budge.

“Self-Reflected” by Greg Dunn. Part of the Your Brain exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Self-Reflected” by Greg Dunn. Part of the Your Brain exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Two years have passed since these events took place. We’re in another part of the country at yet another school, but this time it’s a school that understands and embraces D in all his brilliant, quirky, sporadically awkward glory. We’ve come a long way from School #3 and its Social Justice Club, both literally and figuratively, yet to this day, N’s unyielding assumption that there was no way to remedy that situation continues to nag at me. Would she have gone straight to expulsion from the group if he were not autistic?

 

Several studies have shown that students with disabilities are punished, suspended, and expelled at a rate more than twice that of their neurotypical peers, and that’s at public schools where, on paper at least, there are legal protections in place. At private schools, which aren’t covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I’m sure the rates are much higher. In our particular situation, I can’t help feeling that if a neurotypical student had behaved as D had, there would have been some warning or temporary dismissal such as Y described in her message.

 

The Wikipedia page on social justice states, Social justice is the concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activities, and social privileges.

 

Social justice provides the foundation for a healthy community, says the website for the organization Reach and Teach. It grows out of our sense that each person … has value.

Detail from “Social Consciousness,” by Sir Jacob Epstein, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Detail from “Social Consciousness,” by Sir Jacob Epstein, Philadelphia Museum of Art

As a person with autism, D belongs to a group that has faced generations of marginalization, misdiagnosis, and misunderstanding. (Check out Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity for a fascinating in-depth chronicle.)

For a club devoted to the study and practice of social justice, then, having an autistic voice within the group would seem particularly important. Viewed from that perspective, ejecting D from the group did a disservice not just to him, but to the other students as well. After all, welcoming diversity doesn’t just mean including someone who looks different from you on paper. It means learning to understand and accommodate those differences in real life—even when it’s difficult—and incorporating what you’ve learned into your worldview.

 

Does that mean they should have let him keep interrupting? Of course not. But they should have worked as hard to find solutions for him as they would for any other student, if not harder. Going the extra mile to include a member of a marginalized community would have given the other students an excellent opportunity to practice social justice.

 
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*A non-public school is a private school that contracts directly with the public school district to place students with a variety of special needs. (BACK TO TOP)

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