Abused at School: Why Autistic Kids May Not Speak Up When They’ve Been Harmed by a Teacher

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When my guardians sent me to school (a public school in our small central Texas town), they assumed I would be in good hands, with a loving teacher who would understand and care for my needs while keeping me out of trouble. 

My mission was to “be good” and “do what the teachers told me,” parting words imprinted in my brain as I ventured to school. “Be good” and comply.

Once in class, I wanted so badly to “be good” but didn’t understand my teacher’s expectations of “good” (because the expectations in school were much different than they had been at home). 

We had this tag system where each kid had a pocket made out of a small tan envelope with our names written on each one in black marker. Our “Behavior Tags” were displayed at the front of the room, right next to where the teacher lectured, on a bulletin board, all the names in rows and columns, so everyone could see who was “good” and who was “bad” – I was almost always “bad,” and everyone knew it.

We each had a “tag” in our pocket that would start “green” for good behavior every morning. Then, depending on the severity, a yellow “Warning Tag” would be added when we made our first mistake.

Sometimes the teacher would give a warning before a warning (or a threat) that she was going to change your tag if you didn’t behave. 

If you did something bad enough (or the teacher was in a bad mood that day) you could go straight from green to red tag.

When you got a red tag, you would lose recess privileges and have a note or a call home about your behavior. The teacher would tell your guardians you had “been bad at school” and that you “weren’t listening to the teacher” (which was the direct opposite of what I’d been instructed to do almost every morning). 

I wanted so badly to be good, but I didn’t know how (because things that had never been a problem at home sent my teacher into a rage).

The behavior tag system was my first experience “walking on eggshells” around an adult, afraid I could be punished at any moment without knowing what I’d be penalized for next.

The teacher, strict and militant, expected unquestioned compliance. This was one of the requirements for “being good.”

We were expected to follow orders without question (even if we had questions about those orders). 

Asking questions when told to do something was forbidden territory, and I struggled a lot with this (because I needed to understand “the why” behind things to take action). 

“Why?” was one of my first words. The question “WHY?” drives most of what I do in life.

I need to understand, and I am always wondering, “Why? Why?? WHY??” You tell me something, and I have more questions. I’m curious and hungry for information, but this need to know more is often interpreted as disrespect, especially by people who see themselves as authority figures.

I always have many questions (something that was NEVER a problem at home). In the classroom, a place supposed to be for learning, asking questions that other people found unusual or didn’t typically ask (or about things most people knew) was frowned upon (even more so if other people laughed at my questions or found them funny). 

Asking the wrong questions in class frequently resulted in having my tag changed from green to yellow or yellow to red, so eventually, to stay out of trouble, I stopped asking questions altogether. 

6 rows of school desk chairs crammed into a room with tan walls no windows and red floors, it feels institutional

Other “behaviors” that got me into trouble, earning me repeated yellow and red tags, were “not sitting properly in my chair,” “not paying attention,” and “being disruptive.” 

“Sitting properly” in the chair meant sitting in a very particular way (that I found EXTREMELY uncomfortable). 

Proper meant: Both feet FLAT on the floor, NOT bouncing. Legs should NOT be crossed unless you’re a girl; girls could cross their ankles. 

I got this part wrong once, and the teacher moved me to the front of the room (to make an example of me) and then tied my feet to my chair to keep them still.

I HATED being used as a “cautionary tale,” but teachers frequently employed me (without pay) as one. 

In addition to “proper” leg and foot position, on the bottom the teacher also expected the top half of us to be “proper” for class, which meant no slouching, never resting your head on your desk without permission, keeping your hands still and quiet (on your desk or in your lap) and your eyes on the teacher (if she’s talking) and on your paper (if you’re working) – none of this is doable for me, even today.

Right now, at this moment, I am sitting cross-legged, hunched, leaning forward, over my laptop at our dining room table. I am NOT still, and am swaying back and forth to the classical music David is playing as he works on a repair project in our bedroom. 

Often I am loud, singing and talking to myself while I work and as I switch tasks. Today I am quiet because I am tired. If I had more energy, I would not be quiet.

Back in school, the teacher would frequently expect me to do things that hindered my learning, like giving up my recess when I got in trouble for having too much energy, not asking questions I had about her lessons and instructions, and looking at her when she was teaching (even though doing so would leave my mind blank). 

For one, I was terrified of this teacher (and didn’t WANT to look at her) because I never knew what would set her off. 

Second, because I’m a visual thinker, I need to be able to visualize things to comprehend them. 

Most of the time, I find it helpful not to look at people when they’re talking to me, especially if I’m trying to process new or complex information.

Of course, there ARE exceptions to this, but for the most part, I can look AT YOU and NOT process what you’re saying, but look like I’m listening, OR I can look away and have a better understanding of what you’re trying to tell me NOT both.

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3 thoughts on “Abused at School: Why Autistic Kids May Not Speak Up When They’ve Been Harmed by a Teacher

  1. It does remind me a lot of a teacher who poured hot tea on me and screamed at us all the time when I was 8. She terrified me. It still makes me feel unsafe when u think about it.

  2. It’s heartbreaking to learn about the challenges autistic kids face when it comes to speaking up about abuse. Your blog sheds important light on this issue. Thank you for raising awareness and sharing these crucial insights – your effort in advocating for a safer environment for all is deeply appreciated!

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