“Parenting doesn’t come with a manual, especially when it comes to your child with special needs. So obviously no one can prepare you on how to handle your autistic child being bullied.
Benjamin was born almost 7 weeks premature. Emergency C-section, in the middle of the night. To say my wife and I were not mentally prepared for that is an understatement. He spent a week in an incubator, even though at 5 lbs. 7 oz. he looked massive among the other babies in the NICU. He was our first born, and he was perfect. The next couple years were filled with doctor’s visits due to digestive issues, food allergies, and sleep apnea. So any missed milestones were constantly chalked up to him being a preemie and his health issues.
When Ben began kindergarten, he was so excited. But excitement quickly turned to frustration, sadness, and anger. The first day he was sent to the principal’s office over not following instructions the way the teacher expected him to. To him, he was literally following directions… a little too literally. He was branded the trouble-maker. The attention seeker. The bad child. My wife and I couldn’t reconcile this with the child we knew. At home, he was calm and followed directions; he was a happy child. At school, he would be fine in the morning and come lunch time he became disruptive, wouldn’t pay attention, would fall asleep during class.
We relied on the public school for their guidance. We took him to his pediatrician for medical testing, nothing unusual. He struggled, we struggled, I struggled. What was I not doing as a father? I was present, caring, loving, affectionate; I set boundaries and consequences. What was I doing wrong? Why was my child not making it through a school day without causing issues. Was he a ‘spoiled brat,’ like the school was telling us? Was it an ‘only child issue?’ No. It had to be something I was doing wrong. What I didn’t know then was that it wasn’t about me.
Being singled out as the ‘problem child’ starting in kindergarten, the bullying started off with subtle things like not having anyone to play with during recess. Being kept in during recess to ‘think about his behavior’ made kids reluctant to share things with him like they would others. No one sat with him at lunch time. As school went on, the exclusion turned into teasing, laughing at him for mistakes he would make. Nothing ever ‘severe enough’ for the school to ever get involved. All my attempts to advocate for Ben to receive better support were met with shrugs and vague promises. And Ben became more and more frustrated.
We thought about homeschooling him, but it wasn’t an available option at the time. We toughed it out until we moved to Plattsburgh, NY. New state, new school, new start! This is where we would find our guardian angel. Mrs. K had spent just two days interacting with Ben when she asked us if he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism (the term is no longer used diagnostically).
I’m sorry, what did you call my son? I thought. Asperger? Autism? My wife and I weren’t familiar with the terms. We approached his new pediatrician, who referred us to a specialist. A year of testing would go by before he was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The more we researched and learned, the more all his past behavior issues made sense. The sensory overload, the stimming, the awkward social interactions. His school environment was simply not conducive to the way his brain works, and his struggles were the product of no accommodation for the real reasons behind his behavior.
How did we not notice it all? Why didn’t the school or the pediatrician pick up on it? I was angry, I was relieved. I was scared, I was sad. Was this my fault? Is this hereditary? Did I not read to him enough? Should I have researched more things when he was in kindergarten to prove he wasn’t a ‘bad’ child, but a child who could not communicate his true feelings? How could I not have known? But, I would come to realize: there was nothing wrong with him. I was the one that was wrong for thinking he was neurotypical.
And so, I became my child’s fiercest advocate. Every IEP meeting, I was prepared with what my child needed from sensory breaks to physical therapy and other accommodations to make his experience easier and boost his chances of success. But that didn’t stop the bullying. Kids still laughed at him when he stimmed. They still didn’t play with him because of his awkwardness. They still didn’t sit with him at lunch. There was nothing I could do to help him cope with those things, but most days he never really showed that it mattered. He would come home and escape the world in his Lego collection. Playing video games and drawing. So I thought, maybe fitting in was simply my desire for him and not his. Maybe I needed to start working on my expectations. My child wasn’t going to have the same childhood I did, but that didn’t matter to him. Working closely with Mrs. K and other teachers at Beekmantown elementary school, he fell into a routine. At home, he was a great big brother to his little sister and new baby brother. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction.
Until one day in 5th grade when Ben was given an assignment for poetry month, to write an ‘I am’ poem. The prompt was given to the entire class of 10-year-olds. This was supposed to be a simple introduction to poetry. Fill out the lines, complete the sentences based on their prompts. Most kids were direct, stating facts about themselves that others could see from outside. Not Ben. He put his pencil on his paper and when he was done, a masterpiece—which would become his debut picture book as a professional author—was born.
I am odd, I am new
I wonder if you are too?
I hear voices in the air
I see you don’t and that’s not fair.
I want to not feel blue
I am odd, I am new
I pretend that you are too
I feel like a boy in outer space
I touch the stars and feel out of place
I worry about what others think
I cry when people laugh it makes me shrink
I am odd, I am new
I understand now that you are too
I say I feel like a castaway
I dream of a day that that’s okay
I try to fit in
I hope that someday I do
I am odd, I am new
After reading this, I started crying. It was brilliant, powerful, and devastating. Here was my oldest child telling me he knows he’s different than the other kids, he notices what others do and say, and that it really affects him even though he would never show it. All these things I thought didn’t influence him were having a powerful impact on his mind and heart. How could I not have known he was so upset? Depressed, even. I was shaken. But his poem also brought forth the magic of Ben’s way of viewing the world. He not only understood and powerfully interacted with his own feelings of isolation, but also understood everyone is different. We all have our flaws and quirks and those are the things that make us unique; it is our strength. I was speechless with pride. He was, and is, a better person than I could ever be.
Ben was terrified to go to school knowing he would have to read his poem to his class. He didn’t want to be laughed at for admitting how he felt. He wasn’t swayed by our comments on how brilliant his poem was. So, we posted it online. The response to the poem was overwhelmingly positive, but we never could have expected the explosion of support that came next. People—complete strangers—reached out, telling Ben he shouldn’t change, he was perfect the way he was. That his words helped them describe just how they felt. And so, Ben found the courage to read his poem, and everything changed. Lots of his classmates didn’t realize their words or actions affected him as much as it had, and the bullying improved right away. His classmates shared with him that they too felt the way he felt. And now his poem is a children’s picture book; Ben is really proud of himself.
As for me, I’m learning to forgive myself for not figuring out he was autistic at a younger age, or that he needed far different accommodations than I was able to provide. As a parent, there’s so much you can do to protect your kids, to teach them right from wrong, how to be a kind, caring person, but you can’t teach them how to relate to their diagnosis. Only they can learn to do that, along with the love and help from their parents, siblings and teachers like Mrs. K.
I’m learning to accept that my hopes for Ben’s future are different than his hopes, and that his hopes are what matter. He gets up every morning reset from the previous day, ready to face the world. And, although he still faces struggles, he takes it a day at a time. He doesn’t worry about his future. He focuses on today, and that makes him happy. And in return, that makes me happy.
But in the end, as a parent, I still need your help. The help of everyone reading this. Teach your kids compassion, patience, and tolerance, toward my son Benjamin, and all the other kids who also feel like castaways. Let’s all hope for a day where no matter how odd they feel, or how new, they all are celebrated for the gifts they bring to the world, each in their own unique way.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Benjamin’s father, Sonny Giroux. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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