Can We Blame Autistic Teacher for Teasing Fat Kid?

Jeanne Sager

autismIt's a nightmare come to life for parents of children on the autism spectrum. They send their special needs child to school, and he comes home in trouble with the administration. Only this time, double the agony.

Because a teacher at a Connecticut high school is in trouble for asking an overweight student if he ate his homework. It's sad, but this isn't an "overweight kids have it hard" story. It's the story of the teacher whose parents likely sat and dreamed of the day their autistic son would leave them and wondered: how would he do in regular society? Yes, the teacher, Robert Wollkind, has Asperger's.

That's what makes this story so tough. A teenager who had apparently been bullied for being overweight was treated badly by a teacher, someone who is supposed to help form the safe environment of a school. It's not fair, and the teenager deserves to be treated fairly.

But on the other side of this is the knowledge that Wollkind is on the spectrum. He didn't grow out of that simply because he grew into adulthood or because he's lucky enough to be on the higher functioning end, able to hold down a job. But it did put him in this pickle: classified by an inability to deal well in social situations, he made a social gaffe. If we're too hard on him, we have to think of all the kids who will come after him.

To be a parent today is to know an autistic child somehow -- whether in your own family or in your child's class at school. With about 1 in 110 kids in America falling somewhere on the spectrum, more and more kids with autism are coming of age every day. And there are plenty of them who have the ability to go out into the real world, live alone, and get jobs. There's a myth that autism means kids can never function in society -- and fortunately that only applies to a section of the population. There are many high functioning kids. 

But with more of these kids reaching adulthood every day means more adjustments society will have to make to prepare for them, to address their special needs without their parents there to advocate for them. This is a special needs kid's dream and their nightmare: to go off alone and join society only to have them get in trouble because of who they are underneath.

The story of Robert Wollkind isn't just an unfortunate happenstance. It's a sign of what's to come in America. It's a sticky situation with no clear-cut answer. He has more than a thousand parents on his side, signing petitions to protect him. Even as it's clear that a teacher should not bully a student, Wollkind's diagnosis makes it impossible not to feel for his side too.

It's easy to paint everything black and white, but this is a place where the shades of gray tell the story. I'd like to think in today's America we can find compassion for both sides. Think of the lesson that will send to the kids if we can give Wollkind a break.

Should this teacher be punished?


Image via BLW Photography/Flickr

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