For DJ, an 8 year old autistic boy, being yelled at and having his iPad taken away triggered a meltdown. But what started as a meltdown ended as a criminal battery charge for DJ when he hit his special education teacher. While DJ knows hitting is wrong, he is just an 8 year old boy who had a meltdown. His actions were not premeditated and he does not deserve to be criminalized for them.
Autistic children are often placed in school environments that are overwhelming with too many demands placed upon them. He used his iPad as a comfort and it was taken away by force as his teacher yelled. His means of coping with sensory overwhelm were removed, by force while his teacher yelled at him, thus adding even more sensory input for him to process with no means to cope. He reacted in a way that he now regrets and instead of his teacher using this as an opportunity to teach him skills to advocate for himself and find more constructive ways to express frustration, he is instead being treated unjustly and criminalized.
DJ is autistic and he is also black. The discipline disparities among disabled children, particularly disabled children of color and the criminalization of black children are well documented and not something we can ignore in this case.
Autistic children, especially children of color are being punished for not getting the supports and accommodations they need. DJ is not a criminal. He deserves the opportunity to learn the skills to manage himself and to be taught with respect for his neurology. This can’t be done when we only seek to punish autistic children and criminalize their reactions to not being supported appropriately.
Sadly, DJ is not alone. A disproportionate number of Autistic students in New Mexico and specifically in his district have also had to contend with excessive and inappropriate consequences as opposed to the necessary supports they are entitled to by law.
A local group of parent advocates has had enough. They are seeking reforms. They don’t want any other students to end up in a predicament like DJ.
They request the following:
1) A classroom transfer for DJ. He needs to be placed with a different teacher.
2) Substantive changes in the discipline policies in their district schools, specifically with regard to Autistic students and other students with disabilities.
3) District staff need additional training on autism, child-centered classroom management practices, redirection, positive behavior support, etc.
4) The creation of an open, regularly held forum for families and students to communicate concerns freely to educators and administrators.
5) Assurance that retaliation against parents and students for expressing concerns/speaking up about issues they face will not be tolerated.