Dear (People in Charge),
I would like to make you aware of an unfortunate occurrence at (your community center) last week involving my seven year-old son, Adam. Although I spoke at length with Carol (your director of services) just after it happened, and was very appreciative of her time and compassion, I left that meeting feeling that I needed to do more.
My son Adam has autism and it isn’t always possible for him to participate in the activities that his typical peers enjoy. I was therefore thrilled when I first approached Carol and Steve, the coach of the Veteran’s Day Basketball clinic and they assured me that Adam would feel welcome and would be well cared for over the course of the day. They were open to my presence at the clinic and made it clear that they understood Adam’s social challenges. In light of the center’s reputation for welcoming children with special needs, I felt comfortable with their assurances.
As intended, I stayed on the center’s campus throughout the day and periodically looked in on the clinic. I was therefore observing the gym when the following incident occurred.
Coach Steve and his assistant led the kids through an elimination game. The kids were eliminated one by one until ultimately, the competition came down to Adam and another child for the win. At this point, I watched as the kids were told to move themselves to the side of the boy that they wanted to win the game. I then watched in horror as all eighteen boys – every single one of them – marched to the other boy’s side, leaving Adam standing completely alone.
As you can imagine, this would be upsetting for any child. To a child with autism – a social disability that by definition makes making and keeping friends desperately challenging – it was devastating.
Worse yet, there couldn’t have been any question about how the children’s loyalty would be divided. When Carol, Steve and I had spoken, I had discussed at length the fact that Adam did not know anyone coming into the clinic. A child who struggles with the simplest social pragmatics is not likely to win friends over the course of an afternoon. Sadly, the outcome – and Adam’s subsequent humiliation – was inevitable.
We are still dealing with the ramifications of that day. Adam continues to perseverate on the event, asking why none of the boys liked him and wondering aloud what he might have done to have made them all root for the other child. It is obvious that this is not something that he will quickly move past. As a mother, it is heartbreaking.
Additionally, there was a completely inconsistent award system that left Adam confused and further dejected. Coach Steve explained to me that he had given coins to some of the boys who had won games to spend as they saw fit in the vending machine, ‘but not to others’. Adam, after winning his game, walked away baffled by why he did not get a prize like the other boys.
No other mother – whether of a special needs child or not – should have to watch her child suffer such avoidable humiliation. Coach Steve’s actions that day were, quite simply, unacceptable. They flew in the face of everything that the community center stands for and they cannot be – overtly nor tacitly – endorsed.
Going forward, it is vital that anyone who the community center hires to work with children has an understanding of – and a sensitivity to – the needs of ALL children. It is the center’s responsibility to safeguard the children in its care, and to ensure that they are not subjected to physical or emotional abuse.
We are very lucky to live in a place that is chock full of resources. I have no doubt that the center will be able to find or design a training class for its employees and independent contractors. I am sure that the cost of executing mandatory sensitivity training will be far smaller than the cost that would be incurred if children – with or without special needs – were to continue to be humiliated.
I look forward to hearing back from you. I am eager to hear your plans to address this issue and to ensure that no other mother has to write a letter like this one.
(Any one of us)
ed notes: I helped my friend, C draft this letter yesterday. She was – in her own words – too emotional to make any sense. Once we had the words on paper, she was eager to share them, hopeful that something positive could come from the experience.
Please feel free to leave her a note in the comments. I’m sure that some support would be much appreciated. If your comments are anything other than supportive, please direct them at me.
As always, all names have been changed. Even Steve’s, though I’ll admit I was tempted.