My son is officially on the Autism spectrum. He has Asperger's. It’s not something I generally discuss; it’s his information to do with what he will and I’ve always told him he can tell anyone he pleases, or nobody at all. It’s personal, end of story. And it’s his personal, so he’s in charge.
For a while there, he announced his Asperger's status to everyone. Like, everyone: the woman who makes us coffee each day, the mailman, the elderly woman who by sheer chance shared a seat with us on the train on one occasion. If I’m honest, I flinched a little. A part of me wished he wouldn’t put it out there in such an enthusiastic fashion. But at the same time, I was determined he grow up knowing who he was - just absolutely perfect in every way. If that meant announcing his particular diagnosis to all and sundry, then fine.
He attends a very expensive private school and so, after much thought, I let them know he had a formal diagnosis. Perhaps naively, I felt they’d be more understanding and support him. I know the school accepts funding in order to do this; it’s why the powers that be insisted I provide paperwork to substantiate my boy’s diagnosis. But if they’re supporting him in any way, on any occasion, it’s somehow slipping by me. And while he may not be paying too much attention - he’s just a kid, after all - I can assure I certainly am.
I guess, like many parents, I figured a private school would be best for my somewhat vulnerable, clever, hilarious, imaginative, unusual, darling son. But it's beginning to seem I was wrong on that score.
This was especially true the other week, when he told me he had received a petition. A hand-written petition, given to him in class, in which a half dozen or more of his fellow students told him he was disgusting. They went on to explain exactly why. Then they signed the document and presented it to him.
See those little crosses there? They're to mark the time I spent away from this computer because my heart was thumping so hard, my breath so ragged and fast I had to take a moment from writing. I can still feel the tears welling.
My son let me know about the petition the evening of the day he received it. He was quiet as he told me, and sad - desperately, heart-wrenchingly sad. I apologised to him, held him and told him that what the other kids had done was wrong and cruel and awful. I tried not to weep when he could see me.
If you're aware of Asperger's - you might know someone who is on the spectrum, or perhaps you're on it yourself, or you're just knowledgeable - you'd know it comes with some classic hallmarks. One is a tendency to repeat specific habitual movements. These might mean touching your face, adjusting your belt or clicking your fingers. These movements are referred to as ‘stims’.
My son always has one 'stim', occasionally two, on the go - they change often but they’re there. On this occasion his classmates felt it was ‘disgusting’, and so they told him so. Only they didn’t just tell him, they took the time to draw up a petition before signing it, one by one. And then they gave it to him, to let him know, fully, completely, that he is disgusting.
It broke my heart into a million pieces. And his too - which, of course, is much worse.
I sent an email to the teacher charged with pastoral care for my son and his classmates, and I did not hold back. I was aware he had spoken to the kids who had drawn up the petition and was letting them know their behaviour was unacceptable. I thanked him for taking the issue in hand, but then I went on. I couldn’t not.
“As you probably know my son wasn't in school today. This was because he was too upset to attend and I didn't blame him," I wrote.
"I'm not sure kids this age understand that this level of cruelty can affect a person for life. I'm hoping they now have, at the very least, a vague grasp of just how difficult they have made my son’s life and how devastated he is by it.
"He has Asperger's and as such has certain body ticks. These change from time to time, but he will likely always have one or two. He is entirely unable to stop it.
"Perhaps these young men might like to think about their own flaws being on display, and then being mocked and ridiculed by an entire class who took the time to write about them and had the heartbreaking forethought to give the paper to the person involved.”
'That hand-written petition broke my heart into a million pieces.' (iStock)
The kids were spoken to and my son received a written apology. It was typed, and the kids who had been involved posted their signatures at the bottom. The apology began: "We’re sorry for the misunderstanding..."
I’m not sure what they’re referring to. There was no misunderstanding. They, as a group, let my son know they feel that he is disgusting. They felt the need to put pen to paper and sign a document declaring so, and then give it to him.
The supposed apology broke my heart all over again. And worse, it made me despair for young people today. Yes, kids do stupid things and yes, they’re cruel. And generally, they have no idea of the impact of their actions.
But when they’re already covering their backs by inferring there was a ‘misunderstanding’ as opposed to owning their wrong-doing and genuinely trying to make up for it? Well, I don’t know where we go from there.
To those kids, I would say this: one day, you’ll grow up. And maybe, hopefully, you’ll come to understand that not everyone is a cookie-cutter carbon copy of you, that some people are different, and that that’s not just okay - it’s glorious.