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My high-functioning autistic daughter was suspended from summer camp for hitting a smaller child (my daughter's in the oldest grade; everyone is smaller than she is). I agreed at the time to placate the teachers and parents of the other child.

BACKGROUND: As I spoke to my daughter that evening, I found that she had been placed in a situation that triggers her strongest sensory issue and required two skills that she's in Special Education for: articulating when under stress and socio-emotional skills. She tried multiple times to get this kid out of her face while she was eating, but the kid was young and ignored my daughter's requests to get out of her personal space.

The teachers saw this happening and did not intervene although they have known for years that my daughter is autistic and has limitations. My daughter generally regulates herself by leaving uncomfortable situations. Here they were on a field trip and she was trapped in a confined area.

I feel this incident was extremely unfair and very hurtful to my daughter as she is fully aware enough to feel intense shame for an action that she was developmentally unable to prevent, though at first she gave the developmentally appropriate action (using her words) a solid try. However, the other kid persisted until mine spilled over and struck out.

It's important to note that the punch couldn't have been very hard because the incident report specifically stated that there was no swelling, redness, bruising, or abrasions, so it's not like she walloped the kid aggressively. This was a defensive action.

QUESTION: How should I approach communicating with her teachers that she still needs their assistance in high tension social situations? I don't want to get adversarial at all because these people are her after school care as well and I can't afford to "take my ball and go home," but I want to let them know they let my daughter down by not coming to her aid when she was being harassed and that they're glossing over real developmental disabilities.

Question slightly edited based on @apaul's suggestion

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    The teachers do know about her limitations, as in, they do know that what this kid was doing was something that is a very strong trigger for your daughter? Could they have misjudged the situation, as in, has your daughter recently had some major breakthroughs on these skills and could they thus have thought she could handle it? – Tinkeringbell Jul 3 '18 at 15:37
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    @AJFaraday indeed. Also, the girl did not do anything wrong if she acted after repeated verbal warnings. Understanding "get out of my space" is a fundamental skill that the other child has to learn. Also, part of the blame is definitely on the teachers that did not intervene in a situation of technical harassment. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jul 4 '18 at 10:30
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    @AndreaLazzarotto I strongly disagree with "the girl did not do anything wrong". In contrast, see in the excellent answer below "Being provoked is a reason, but it's not an excuse". Violence is wrong. – Miguel Jul 4 '18 at 13:49
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    @Miguel is it though? What if the kid touched the girl? "Don't touch me" repeated a couple of times is OK, after that a kick in the lower lands is in order. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jul 4 '18 at 15:40
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    @Miguel Trust me, we did not leave her with the impression that she "did nothing wrong." We were very clear with her that this was behavior beyond unacceptable. The rule in our family is "never touch in anger'--not even a light touch while you're angry. It's just that she still needs help managing her triggers and the teachers need to see a girl who is still struggling against her non-neurotypical brain, not a great big 5th grader who is neurotypical and doesn't need help anymore. – SnappingShrimp Jul 5 '18 at 14:42
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My eldest step-son is on the spectrum and had a similar incident when he was 9 or 10. Another kid pushed all of his triggers and my step-son snapped and tried to choke the kid. This was way out of character for my step-son, he'd never been violent before, and after hearing what happened it was pretty clear that he was provoked.

The thing is... Being provoked is a reason, but it's not an excuse. I knew full well that the other kid was being a brat and looking for a reaction, but that doesn't excuse a violent reaction.

So, my ex and I opted to treat the situation as a teachable moment. We let the punishment stand, and took away screen time at home for a week or two. We sat down and had a long talk with him about what happened, how he reacted, how he could have seriously hurt or killed the other kid, and how he should handle being provoked in the future.

As for dealing with the school, it was addressed in IEP hell...(individual education plan meetings are the worst) We never protested the punishment, we just asked that the staff be a little more aware of bullying and asked that they intervene before things got out of hand. We tried to be clear that we didn't want someone to helicopter over him at all times. He needed to learn to deal with uncomfortable situations on his own, but he needed a little help with that, and no one should be a target.

Even though your child is in summer camp, rather than school, requesting an in-person meeting with the teachers/staff will probably go over better than a letter. At the very least, it will leave less room for interpretation. Talking over what you're doing at home and what you would like them to be doing at camp will probably lead to a better, more collaborative result.

I'm happy to say that it worked. After the one incident, and letting the punishment stick, it hasn't been a problem since. He learned from the experience. He's 16 now and is a pretty easy going guy.

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    We did role play for a long while to help her practice what to do when this happens again. We couldn't bear to bring down extra punishment however, since she was so hurt and ashamed by the teachers' reactions and being suspended. I'm sorry you have "IEP hell," we are gifted with a wonderful IEP team who would've handled this better than camp did, but for now, she's unprotected by her IEP until the school year starts back up. – SnappingShrimp Jul 3 '18 at 16:13
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    @SnappingShrimp You could always ask for a meeting with the relevant staff/teachers. An in person chat leaves less room for interpretation than a letter. I'll edit my answer to be a bit more direct about that. – apaul Jul 3 '18 at 16:17
  • @SnappingShrimp No one wants to see their kid hurt/ashamed but it can be a good learning experience for her to feel these emotions and deal with the consequences. You can still be understanding and if she's taking it particularly hard provide some extra support and reassurance that it's not in fact the end of the world. Then (as the answer states) focus your efforts with the teachers on what can be done to improve things going forward. – aw04 Jul 6 '18 at 18:18
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    Technically I emailed the director instead of met in person (my job didn't permit an in-person visit) but we agreed that my daughter tried her best to get out of the situation, which she does well on-site. They agreed to keep a closer watch on her during field trips where she cannot "escape" and asked that we worked together to get her to signal teachers for help when she cannot. The key is reminding the teachers that just because she's a big kid her autism has not gone away, it's just evolving as she matures. – SnappingShrimp Jul 11 '18 at 18:02
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Somewhat different perspective here. I'm on the spectrum myself (also higher functioning, more specifically what used to be known as Aspberger syndrome). I used to have incidents like this as a kid all the time.

Given my own experience, I would argue that you're approaching this from the wrong direction. Most likely, the teacher either already knows that they didn't do as well as they could have, or they just don't care. In either case, you bringing it up with them is not likely to change anything.

There are two problems I see here that are worth considering:

  1. You're giving excuses for your daughter's behavior. This is indirectly undermining what she's trying to learn in those special education classes. By explaining away what happened like you are, you're essentially saying 'it was OK this time', which reinforces what she did as a viable (albeit risky) coping mechanism. Real life doesn't make exceptions like that, and your job as a parent is to raise a contributing member of society, so you need to not make exceptions like that either. This mentality also does not come off very well when dealing with other adults.

    As stupid as this may sound, one of the things I'm most grateful to my parents for is that they didn't try to excuse my behavior when stuff like this happened. I hated it at the time, but it did a great deal more to help me learn to cope effectively with stress than classes ever did.

    Given this, if you do bring things up with the teachers, do not try to get the suspension revoked, and try to avoid making it sound like what your daughter did was OK (or that her reaction was in some way not her fault).

  2. The second problem is that the teachers did not intervene before it escalated to the point of your daughter reacting as she did. Assuming you know absolutely for certain that they knew what was going on and ignored it, you should call them out for this, and absolutely should be aggressive about it. I can't count the number of times I got bullied as a kid right in front of a teacher, who then proceeded to do absolutely nothing until I hit the jackass who was teasing me. It unfortunately seems to be a rather prevalent mentality that as long as a fight hasn't escalated beyond words, it's not a problem.

    However, it's just as likely that they were busy dealing with other kids, and did not notice what was happening until it was too late. In almost all cases except for some rare private schools, class sizes are large enough that one teacher usually can't keep an eye on all their students all the time.

    This aspect is a great way your daughter can learn something from this. Based on what you said, she didn't try to bring the situation to the attention of the teachers before it got out of hand. Make sure she understands that should always be an option if she can't remove herself from the situation and whoever is bothering her ignores her. It may take some convincing, as most kids don't want to be seen as a tattletale, or might think that asking for help is a sign of weakness (it really isn't, despite all the cultural bias that says otherwise), but getting her to start using this as a coping skill will significantly reduce the chances of something like this from happening again.

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    That last para is a great answer, all on it's own! – Martin Bonner Jul 6 '18 at 8:56
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I fully understand that you want to defend and protect your daughter, but as I see it:

  • Your daughter was provoced and attacked the other child, which you claim she was "developmentally unable to prevent"
  • The other child did not purposefully provoke your daughter, it was "developmentally unable to prevent" the situation just as much as your daughter

I think it's better for her to learn to cope in difficult situations. I don't mean overcome her autism and act like a "normal" child but find her own coping mechanisms in a world that will put her in challanging situations over and over again.

You cannot expect her teachers to hover like a guardian angel and deflect any negative inputs from the world. They have to take care of all children equally. But you can give them and your daughter a kind of "magic tool" that lets your daughter express without struggle that she is in a difficult situation and requires help / intervention. That can be a short sentence, a physical object or a melody.

You explained that her usual coping mechanism didn't work.

My daughter generally regulates herself by leaving uncomfortable situations. Here they were on a field trip and she was trapped in a confined area.

Imagine the same situation, but now your daughter stands up, goes to a teacher and presents her "magic tool". There would have been no chance of overlooking or misunderstanding the situation now. If the kid followed her, the teacher would probably hold it back to talk to your daughter calmly first.


Some examples of what this "magic tool" can be:

  • short phrases like "beetlejuice" or "This is bad" repeated over and over. Make sure teachers know exactly which phrase is the "magical" one.
  • Any line from a song or lullaby or book that she remembers very well and can recite in stressfull situations
  • A colorfull ribbon, cloth, scarf or handkerchief that she always has in her pocket (or wears as bracelet) and can wave around in stressfull situations
  • "I'm on the highway to hell" or a similar catchy song or melody that can be sung or screamed
  • Any objects that make a distinguished sound when activated, like a clicker toy or electrical doorbell. I strongly advice against bells and chimes and similar objects that produce sounds when not intended.

As to your letter of protest, don't protest. At least not in the way you did in your question.

You can explain the situation from your perspective, but don't blame the other child and don't absolve your daughter of any blame. That's your biased view as parent. Instead acknowledge that the incident was preventable and that both parties did not act maliciously but are not without blame either.

By the way, this would be the perfect time to explain your daughters new "magic tool" to teachers and parents.


Edit in response to comments

I have no experience in teaching children, but in dealing with people on the autism spectrum in several ranges of age.

The "magic tool" is indeed a child-friendly adaptation of a concept called "Safeword". I chose the obscure name because Safewords are primarily associated with the BDSM scene, which could deter people from further research.

In short, a Safeword is a visual or auditory clue that signals a concept or a state of mind that cannot be explained in simple words. Some real-life examples:

  • SOS is a Safeword for "I'm in danger, I need help". Most people even understand the auditory code of 3 short, 3 long and 3 short beeps despite having no idea what Morse Code is.
  • A panic button is the physical incarnation of a Safeword
  • "Incomming!" signals opponents or enemies approaching in a competitive or war setting.
  • A siren of a police car or ambulance can be understood as a Safeword meaning "Dire situation, make way!"
  • In the BBC show "Sherlock" John Watson uses the Safeword "a bit not good" to signal Sherlock that his behaviour is socially not acceptable.
  • Some families or close friends unconciously develop a Safeword on their own like holing hands in a certain way signaling "I need your support" or referring to a past embarassing situation to say "don't embarass yourself again".

The english Wikipedia article is not very elaborate, so I will summarize the concept in my own words.

  • All parties have to agree beforehand what a Safeword is and what it means
  • All parties have to honor the Safeword. It can be used by all parties.
  • All parties must be able to remember and use the Safeword. "Deoxyribonucleic acid" is a bad Safeword because the chances of remembering and actually vocalizing it in a stressfull situation are slim. Whistling is a bad safeword if you have problems producing a whistle in a stressfull situation.
  • The Safeword should not be used for situations where it is not needed. Therefore the Safeword must not be a common phrase that could come up in everyday conversations. It must not be a sound that is produced regularily (like clapping your hands) or unintentionally (like a bell chiming at the slightest movement).
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    Your answer sounds like you have experience teaching or working with children on the spectrum. Can you expand on your experience, and why people should trust you to try this approach? – Azor Ahai Jul 3 '18 at 18:11
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I would take a slightly different stance. Your child hit someone, and she should be punished for doing that as the other answers state.

I would however follow up and say that the other child should be punished for bullying; and enquire what the school plans to do about that. This way your daughter is taught that it's not acceptable to hit people, but also the bully is taught not to.

Hitting someone is as harmful as other forms of bullying - or rather other forms of bullying are as harmful as being hit, and while one is visible, the other is not.

I would protest that both children should suffer the same punishment from the school, not that your child got punished.

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    What interpersonal skills does this answer teach? – Clay07g Jul 5 '18 at 3:11
  • @Clay07g A different mind set; "both children did something wrong and should both be punished" vs "My child was put into an unacceptable position by another and shouldn't be". Interpersonal skills are usually nothing to do with the other people, but yourself; and entering a situation with the wrong attitude/mind set will always result in bad responses. – UKMonkey Jul 5 '18 at 8:46
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I am going to give an answer that will get me downvoted, but here we go.

Your daughter was "correct".

She used her words, then she responded with a measured, albeit physical response. I have taught this to my kids. Use your words, but if your scared of afraid, then you not only have my permission to hit, but I will never punish you for it.

I know that "hitting" is not a good first response, and it's not the correct go to in anger, but the fact remains if my child is in fear or they think they're in danger they have blanket permission to do ANYTHING to change their situation.

Now in your circumstance, I would reassure your daughter that she did the right thing, by first using her words. Then tell her it's ok that she hit (or pushed or whatever), but ask her if there was anything else she could have tried first. Of course, focusing on getting the teachers attention. Keep in mind that responding physically when scared or in danger (keep in mind that's a perspective) is 100% ok.

Then I would not add any punishments at home, and instead have a conversation about how even though she was doing the right thing by using her words, then hitting, that there is still a price for that. Because she used her hands instead of her words she can't go back to camp. That she can still be right and have to "pay a price". That fault and responsibility are not the same things. It's not her fault, but she still has the responsibility. That can be tricky, but it's an important lesson and in my opinion much better than teaching your child that hitting is always 100% wrong.

Dealing with the teachers is going to be a bit odd.

First address their concerns, then state yours. Make sure to use your I feel statements. Always keep in mind that the other child and their parents have concerns as well.

I would do something like:

I know you are concerned with the safety of all the children in your care, but I feel this is unfairly impacting my daughter. She did use her words before she acted physically. Yes, she could have acted better and made a different choice, but I feel that as providers you could have been more aware of her situation when she was using her words to ask for help. In my opinion, she was scared and reacted as any scared person would. We are working with her to make sure she is less tense in these types of situations, and I would appreciate it if you were more aware of her limitations in this area.

  • You listed their concerns,
  • you stated yours,
  • you clearly listed what you expect them to do in the future, but without accusing them of doing anything wrong, at least not directly.
  • You also stated what you are doing to correct the "problem" on your daughter's side.

That's really all you can do.

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    How would you feel if the child your daughter struck hit back? Would you feel that that child, being scared by being hit by a larger child, was also "correct"? – DaveG Jul 6 '18 at 20:13
  • Yes, I would. In fact, I would use that as a teachable moment its self. "Why do you think Suzie hit you? Was it because she was scared? What are some things you think you could have done to make yourself less scared without scaring her?" I strongly believe that any child that thinks they are in danger has the rite do ANYTHING to get themselves out of that danger. After the fact, you can examine the situation and come up with better ways to handle the situation, but at the moment, get out of danger first. Obviously, the issue here is that the OP's daughter is afraid, in a quasi-normal situation – coteyr Jul 6 '18 at 20:24
  • But that doesn't change the fact that she felt scared. It also doesn't negate the fact that the OP's daughter did a good step first (used her words). It's why when you came home with a black eye, your parents looked at you and said "What did you do to make him hit you!" What I am getting at is that the OP daughter didn't do bad by acting out of fear. That's normal and a good response. The problem is her being in fear in the first place, and that falls back to the providers to step in sooner in the interaction. – coteyr Jul 6 '18 at 20:27

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