From the moment I read the first line of my friend's email (“This is horrific. Have you seen?”), I knew what I was about to encounter. A space in my stomach seemed to bottom out as I scrolled through the message. Embedded was the Youtube video filmed by Stuart Chaifetz, in which he shares the story of how Aikan, his son on the spectrum, was bullied by his special needs classroom teachers and aides. The audio clips—captured because Chaifetz put a wire on Aikan, hoping to solve the mystery of Aikan's “problem behavior” at school—are replete with taunts, name-calling, and verbal abuse.
Despite the fact that I'm knee-deep in the special needs world, I hadn't watched this video. Of course, it's because I'm so much a part of the autism community—because I know and love people with disabilities—that I hadn't seen it for myself. And so, fear fluttering through my fingers, I type a reply to my friend: “Have heard tell of it, but haven't watched ... just from knowing I would find it, as you say, horrific.” My friend, though, didn't let me off so easy. (True friends are tough like that.) When I read between the lines of her quick reply, I could hear what she was saying: "Girl, you need to summon up your strength and watch this."
And so I pressed play, because my friend is a brave advocate for the disenfranchised in our society, and because I don't want to be ruled by fear. It took courage for Stuart Chaifetz to film and share this video, to stand against bullying and injustice. It certainly took courage for Aikan to go into his classroom each day, knowing the kind of prejudice and verbal abuse that he would face there.
Aikan's courage called to mind that of another individual on the spectrum. When I spoke with singer, X-Factor star, and autism advocate Scott James this year, I was moved by his accounts of being bullied at school. In fact, the bullying he faced from other students was so severe that he became a virtual recluse, staying in his home for years on end. Scott counseled, “If you're being bullied, tell someone.” Yet I can't help but wonder why teachers didn't intervene when he was being bullied at school. Did they turn a blind eye to the problem? Were the bullies truly cunning enough to escape detection, or (more likely), were they simply not held accountable for their hurtful words and actions?
I was afraid to watch this video because it hits too close to home. (Literally—Aikan goes to school in northern New Jersey, where my family lives and where I grew up.) And at the same time, my fear gave me a clear direction; it directed me toward exactly what was most important for me to see. I watched the video because it's a representation of the kind of hurtful behavior that many people with autism face every single day. This instance of bullying isn't an isolated one; even in this age, many people don't know (or don't care to know) how to interact with people with special needs respectfully. And I realize: If I am to know and love individuals with autism, I need to enter into their life experience, however difficult it might be.
As the video ends, I'm not reduced to a puddle of tears. Instead, I am fired up. I am ready to get out there and do my part to create change in this world, one story, one act of courage at a time. Courage builds on courage. It's a gift given once you use it, and this writing is my way of both giving and receiving. If I could say anything to Aikan, and to the many others who have endured cruel taunts because of having autism, my words would echo Stuart's: “I am so sorry you went through all of this. You didn't deserve it. You are a wonderful human being, and I love you with all of my heart.” And you possess tremendous courage, too … the kind of courage that inspires us all.