MEMBERS ONLY: Why I Almost Punched my Autistic Son’s Teacher in the Face

by Justin Rosario

We knew that 4th grade would be difficult for Jordan. We’ve known for years that while Kindergarten through 3rd would be a challenge for our autistic child, 4th grade is where the transition to a more traditional academic setting occurred and that it would be incredibly difficult for him. We were prepared (as best we could be) for that.

We were not prepared for his teacher to forget he existed and how deeply this hurt us above and beyond the obvious reasons.

Let’s rewind a bit and get some context here.

When Jordan was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (because he was too young to pin down for autism). We wallowed in self-pity for a few days and immediately enrolled him in every government service we could find. ABA, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. New York City has an amazing early intervention program because they figured out that putting in a massive amount of effort as soon as possible can mean the difference between a child that can sit in a classroom with neurotypical students and one that will face almost insurmountable odds to integration.

Because of this, Jordan has literally been going to school since he was 2 years old and I can’t imagine we would have been able to enroll him in Kindergarten in a standard public school without it.

That being said, there were a few bumps along the way that taught us the hard lesson that we were going to have to be an ever present advocate for Jordan’s education. When he was 4, he was attending a school for autistic children and his occupational therapist (who worked on fine motor skills like holding a pencil or crayon) assured us repeatedly that he was making great progress all year long. We didn’t see it and we kept asking if everything was OK. We were told over and over again that Jordan was doing fine and we didn’t push the matter because we trusted that she had Jordan’s best interest at heart. We got to the third quarter and his occupational therapist, the same woman who had told us not to worry time and again, informed us that Jordan had made almost no progress all year. She had lied to us.

When we complained to the principal, she tried to bury us in educational jargon and Debbie went ballistic. She’d been reading all the literature so she knew all the terminology (I didn’t and still don’t) and knew we were being bullshitted. Realizing she wasn’t dealing with uninformed parents, she tried talking over Debbie which might have worked because Debbie is not used to confrontation. I, on the other hand, come from a retail background and dealing with obnoxious people is second nature to me. I loudly cleared my throat and politely asked/ordered the principal to allow my wife to finish speaking.

Apologies were plentiful after Debbie was done but the trust was broken and we pulled Jordan out of that school and moved him elsewhere.

As Jordan neared the end of Early Intervention and it was time to transition into the regular NYC public education system, we started to get nervous. We knew from first hand experience how large New York City schools are and how easily students can slip through the cracks. The NYC system is enormous with over 1.1 million students in it. By way of comparison, if the student body of the NYC school system were to declare itself a state, it would be the 43rd largest state in the union with a population larger than Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, both Dakotas, and Alaska. It’s almost larger than Vermont and Wyoming combined. It is the largest single school system in the world.

In a system that large, we knew the chances of Jordan being put in a corner and ignored would be unacceptably high. At the same time, as we were getting ready to transition into Kindergarten, the city wanted to cut Jordan’s services drastically. Part of Jordan’s autism is that he had an enormous amount of difficultly speaking. Not just difficultly engaging in conversation but literally speaking. He suffers from speech apraxia which is like having a stroke where you cannot consciously control what your mouth does but without the brain damage. And that was on top of his run of the mill autism which makes it difficult for him to engage in conversation to begin with. They told us they wanted to cut speech therapy for our almost entirely nonverbal son and we knew it was time to get out. So when Debbie had a chance at a job in Northern Virginia, we took it and landed in the much smaller Alexandria City Public School system.

There was no arguing about getting Jordan the full range of services he required and he’s been making wonderful progress in his speech, gross and fine motor skills, and even basic socialization skills. Still, we knew that even in a smaller school district, there was always the chance Jordan would get lost in the cracks so we started volunteering in the school as much as possible. We chaperone every field trip we can. We volunteer at the school’s monthly food bank. We help run school events. We joined the PTA, took it over and turned it into the most engaged PTA the school’s had in the past 20 years (or so we’ve been told). We’re there so often, almost all of the students know who we are and who our children are. The teachers certainly do and that was the point. It’s hard to forget about the kid whose parents are constantly in the school volunteering their time on your behalf.

It was never about getting special treatment, but we made ourselves as visible as possible to make sure Jordan didn’t become invisible. We didn’t have to worry about our neurotypical daughter Anastasia, she couldn’t become invisible if she tried, but for a teacher who had never dealt with an autistic student like Jordan before? It would be so easy to not bother.

And that brings us to the planetarium field trip and Jordan’s homeroom teacher.

Jordan had been talking about this trip for over a week. Not only was he really excited to go, but he was just as excited for me to go with him. He always likes when I go on trips with him (what kid doesn’t?) but this year, he’s been super jazzed up about it and the planetarium? Oh boy! We were going to outer space!

I popped my head into Jordan’s homeroom at a quarter to nine to confirm that we were leaving at 9 am. I talked to his teacher for a few minutes about other stuff but I told him that I was definitely going on the trip and that Jordan was super excited about it. Jordan wasn’t in the class at that particular moment because he’s not ready for a full mainstream class. He splits his time between his homeroom, his special education room, and, new for this year, a science classroom. He essentially has three teachers and we’d already been up to the school to have a meeting because the two fourth grade teachers, neither of whom have had an autistic student before somehow, were not communicating enough with Jordan’s special education teacher.

We’ve already been a squeaky wheel which made what happened next even worse.

I told his homeroom teacher I would be downstairs waiting and fifteen minutes later, he brought the class down and lined them up on the stairs. I walked over to stand next to Jordan’s teacher, said hello and looked around for Jordan.

He wasn’t there.

I waited for a few seconds while his teacher looked at me, expecting him to say…something, anything, about my son. When that didn’t happen, I said, “Ummmmmm…no Jordan?” He looked around, realized he was missing a student and said, “Oh.” And that’s when I knew that my son’s teacher didn’t give a flying fuck about him.

In the span of 15 minutes, Jordan’s teacher forgot that he was supposed to go on the field trip and that he should have sent for him. With me standing right in front of him. If one had occurred without the other, it would not have looked good, but both? This motherfucker put my son in a mental corner and just forgot about him. How fucking dare he?!

Fortunately for him, we were in the middle of a school with a bunch of kids standing in front of us or it would have gotten very ugly, very quickly. It takes a lot to offend me but treating my son like an afterthought is very high up on my list of “Thing You Do Not Do To Jordan”. 

That is a level of indifference that did not just spontaneously occur. This is a systemic problem and it makes us wonder just how neglected Jordan’s been in his homeroom. This is literally what we left New York to avoid. This is literally why we spend so much time volunteering in the school; so every teacher would know us and, by extension, our kids, and never ignore them. Jordan’s homeroom teacher has been there longer than we have and he’s seen us in the school constantly for the last 4 years. It is impossible for him to not know who we are and it should have been flat out impossible for him to forget Jordan but he fucking did it anyway.

The only upside to this entire episode is Jordan’s homeroom teacher is not directly responsible for any of his academics. His reading, math, and social studies are covered by his special ed. teacher and his science is covered by his third teacher who, after we raised a stink, has made every effort to accommodate Jordan’s autism. Even if Jordan still fails science, at least he was given a real chance and that’s all we ever asked for. 

His homeroom teacher is responsible for getting him to his Encore classes (art, music, P.E., etc.), lunch and recess. He spends about half the day with his general education class and even though his homeroom teacher doesn’t “teach” him per se, his attitude towards Jordan sets the tone for the rest of the class. Fortunately, most of Jordan’s classmates have known him for the last four years whether they’ve been in the same class as him or not and he has a small group of girls that have kind of adopted him so he’s safe from bullying.

None of this excuses or lessens the impact of Jordan’s homeroom teacher literally forgetting Jordan existed. If I hadn’t been there to chaperone, Jordan would not have gone on the trip and he would have been crushed. They would have blamed it on a miscommunication, we would have been angry, and we wouldn’t have know how deep the problem ran.

But I was there and I saw the indifference on his teacher’s face. He apologized later but that doesn’t mean a fucking thing to us. He’s sorry because I saw it, not because he forgot. We’ve already spoken to the assistant principal in charge of the 4th grade and we told her we’re no longer comfortable having Jordan is that classroom. We haven’t heard back from the principal yet and we’re debating if we want to take the matter to the home office which, surprise, we’ve also built up a good relationship with over the years.

Jordan deserves better than to be forgotten because he has autism and we’ll be goddamned if we let his teachers put him out of their minds because that’s easier than putting in the work. No student should be ignored and while we can’t ask every parent to be as involved as we are, we can warn them to never assume their child’s needs are being met. We’re not saying not to trust your teacher but don’t trust them blindly, either. Your child’s education is too important to leave to chance.

As for Jordan’s homeroom teacher? Fuck that guy.