Mom Says Her 10-Year-Old's 'Friends' Set Him on Fire -- Because He's Different

It's a story that will tear at the heart of every mother -- indeed, at the heart of anyone with a heart. While our children are sitting in school or playing with their friends today, 10-year-old Kayden Culp is lying in the hospital, wrapped in dressings and hooked up to tubes, fighting for his life. On Sunday, the young Texas boy suffered first-, second-, and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, from his lower face down to his stomach. And the worst part?






The truly horrible part of this story is that Kayden was reportedly hurt at the hands of boys he thought were his friends -- and, his family believes, for the most inexcusable of reasons.

The picture of Kayden released by his family shows a sweet-faced child who couldn't have an enemy in the world. But Kayden is one of millions of children who has special needs: According to his family, he has hearing and speech impairments, as well as "autistic tendencies" that haven't yet been medically diagnosed. These made him a susceptible target: StopBullying.Gov cites a study finding that tweens and teens with autism spectrum disorder are more than three times as likely to be bullied as their neurotypical peers.

Kayden's aunt, Tanya Kasper, told that the family knew Kayden's differences would affect his ability to socialize. "It was hard for us to allow him to go play," she explains. "He wasn't a regular 10-year-old; you didn't know who really had good intentions for him."

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It's a concern that parents of children with differing abilities face every day: How can I help my child make friends? And how can I be sure that these friends genuinely care about my child?  

And it's something that every parent should think about.

Kayden's family explains that the active, fun-loving boy often visited a local park where he met up with other boys his age. "He considered these guys his friends, but they would make fun of him and pick on him and tease him," his mom, Tristyn Hatchett, told the San Antonio Express-News. "He was usually the brunt of that kind of joke, but he kept playing with them."

We don't know whether she tried to keep her son from playing with these bullying "friends." Even if she did, Kayden may not have listened. When you're 10, you'll put up with just about anything if it means having someone to play with on an autumn afternoon.

What happened on Sunday is still under investigation. Kayden reportedly accompanied three of these neighborhood boys, ages 9 to 11, to a shed in a vacant lot. There, they started a fire -- and the details get murky. Although police say that the boy may have accidentally splashed flaming gas on Kayden while trying to throw away the can, Kayden's family reports hearing other kids say that this was a deliberate plan to set him on fire. Hatchett also says that while Kayden was being loaded into an ambulance, he hugged her and said that the boy with the gas can "needs to go to jail."

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The unidentified boy is being charged with first-degree arson, but Kayden's family thinks he should face attempted murder charges, and that the other boys should face jail time as well. Kasper claims the ringleader had a reputation for being "destructive and disruptive," implying that his parents should have been alert to the signs that he might harm someone like Kayden.

There are so many questions, and not a single easy answer for any of them. Didn't any of the boys' parents know that their sons were bullying a child with disabilities -- and if so, why didn't they stop them? Did they project their own discomfort toward "different" people onto their children? Or did they write off the behavior as "harmless teasing," without stopping to think that harmless teasing can lead to harmful bullying? Let's not even get into the SMH issue of how 10-year-old kids were able to get their hands on a gasoline can.

Then there are the questions that no one has asked yet -- but that every single mom reading this should ask: Why was there no one to stand up for Kayden all those times at the park when his "buddies" were making fun of him?

Were there no neighborhood parents or teachers who could have encouraged other children to reach out to Kayden -- to get to know the boy who loved football, animals, and bike riding?

Were there any junior sports teams or clubs he could have joined? Were there any local autism support groups that his parents could have used to network and connect with other families?

Why did Kayden Culp have no other choice but to hang out with a group of so-called "friends" who thought it was funny to torment him for being himself?

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As of late Monday, Kayden was still holding his own in the hospital. He's in an induced coma, fighting pneumonia from fire-related lung damage and infection from his burns. He'll need skin grafts and heaven only knows what other kinds of surgeries before this ordeal is through. His family also needs plenty of support, both emotional and financial; Kayden's parents have three other children and are on leave from work so they can stay by his side. (You can make a donation via this YouCaring page.)

Once Kayden comes home again -- and let's pray he does -- he'll need friends more than ever. Real ones. Ones who see him not as the "boy with a lisp" or the "boy with autism," but as wonderful Kayden.

There are so many kids like Kayden -- kids who struggle to fit in, for whatever reason. We can only hope that he finds the friends he truly deserves. And for our part, we can all make sure that we're doing our best, as moms raising kids today, that we are part of the solution. 


Images via Tristyn Hatchett/

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