Last week, a video surfaced of a teacher yanking a microphone away from Caleb Riddle, an autistic 6-year-old, so he wouldn't be able to speak during a Thanksgiving performance like all of his classmates had. It was cruel, intentional and left the child in tears on the stage. The teacher didn't even attempt to comfort him.
The apology that followed the public condemnation was half-assed:
Harrison County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin told 5 News: "It's a mistake that was made. There was no malice. This teacher, as all of our teachers, truly care about these young boys and girls. The program was over, at least as I understand, and the teacher had taken the microphone."
Manchin added that the teacher "feels very bad" following the incident.
As the father of an autistic 8-year-old, I agree that there was no deliberate malice. I rarely see deliberate cruelty from adults towards those on the autism spectrum. There was, however, ignorance, indifference and and a complete lack of compassion. That's even worse.
There is a serious problem in our public education system stemming from a lack of training and understanding about autism. This often results in autistic children being pushed aside and left out just like Caleb was. This is bad by itself, but it also sets a terrible example for the other students. These are children that will grow up to be adults that will also push aside and ignore people with special needs.
My son has had teachers who have moved heaven and earth to include my son, Jordan, in class activities and to give him the extra attention he needs to thrive. He's also had one very early on who simply put up with him being in his class and did the bare minimum necessary to get Jordan to the next grade and out of his hair.
It's not hard to imagine the woman in this video being the latter kind of teacher. There's no malice, but there's also no kindness or caring and her students will remember that lesson long after they leave her classroom. Autism is complicated and uniquely different for every person and we as a nation are long overdue for a crash course in Autism Spectrum Disorder; how to understand it and how to treat those on the spectrum with respect.
It's only within the last decade or so that we've started to widely integrate autistic children with neurotypical ("regular") children so both groups can benefit. In Jordan's case, he currently has a protective posse of girls who force him to participate in group activities and to model appropriate behaviors. Jordan is learning to socialize and they are learning what it means to autistic. They're also learning what it means to be a kind and decent human being, helping those who need it.
I know that autism doesn't make for good photo ops for politicians (Jordan doesn't "look" autistic because there's no such thing as an autistic look), but there are millions of autistic adults and children in this country. How we treat them on a policy level says more about us as a society than all of our flag waving and patriotic fervor combined.
Caleb's teacher failed the most basic test of compassion and if she can't bring herself to care about her special needs students as much as her neurotypical ones, she shouldn't be trusted with their education. We can be better than this and we must be.