Middle School Can Be Brutal, Especially For My Autistic Son

by Stacy Bernal
Originally Published: 
An autistic son leaning against blue lockers as middle is school is brutal to him
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty

Hallways lined with rows and rows of colorfully painted lockers. I never knew that something like this would strike such panic and anxiety in my Mama Bear heart.

When I was in middle school, those were some of the best years of my life. My biggest worries were how many Pound Puppies I could collect, or how big I could tease my bangs for my school pictures. I played clarinet in the band, ate French fries almost every day, and folded notes into tiny origami projects before passing them off to friends in the hallway between classes. I was smart, somewhat popular, and had a bunch of friends.

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This year my autistic son started junior high. I knew his experience would be nothing like mine. For months, I dreaded the first day of school. I had mini panic attacks, thinking how the hell he would navigate going class to class, bumping his way through the crowded halls of rowdy kids, having multiple teachers who needed to learn his idiosyncrasies. What if he got lost? Would anyone help him? What if he had a meltdown? Would kids make fun of him?

He was a bit of a celebrity at his old elementary school. Teachers loved him and he had a solid group of friends who shared his obsessive interest in Minecraft and Legos. At his sixth-grade graduation, my heart nearly exploded when I heard the cheers from his classmates when his name was announced. But heading into junior high, he no longer had one (loving) teacher for the entire day. And district boundary lines had all his bros headed to a different school.

Toward the end of summer, we had to register him at the new school. There was a sort of assembly line set-up: start in this classroom, go to the next, go to the next, etc. We hadn’t even made it out of the first room without him breaking into tears. He had to log in to his online profile with the school district. He tried accessing a Google drive from the prior school year and was heartbroken to find that he could not. He openly wailed in the room full of students and their parents, as they stared at us blankly, giving us “The Look.”

At twelve years old, my kid has eight pounds and two inches on me. He is a big kid with a big voice and thick, unruly hair. I realize how this must look to the un-autism-acclimated eye. I have gotten “The Look” for years — sometimes mixed with sympathy, maybe even an ounce of understanding. But it is “The Look” nonetheless.

The week before classes started, we had a back-to-school night where we met all the teachers. I stood by nervously as each one introduced themselves to my son. Did they know he was autistic? Was I supposed to tell them? Could they tell on their own? We also got the combination to the locker assigned to him. I knew there was no way in hell he would be able to work the lock. I had him attempt it anyway, hoping maybe I was wrong and he wouldn’t have any problem. The school had a “No Backpack” policy, so it was crucial that we figure out the locker.

He turned the dial to each number, then tried to lift the latch. Nothing. I tried once. Then again. Still couldn’t get the damn thing to budge. If I couldn’t get the locker open, he definitely wouldn’t be able to do it. He was quickly becoming frustrated. To diffuse the outburst I could see bubbling up, I told him we’d just have to figure out something else. The school may not allow backpacks, but there’s no rule against a giant binder… with a strap. Besides, give him a break. He’s autistic.

Halfway through the school year, and he still hasn’t made any good friends. Kids “use inappropriate language” and “they say Minecraft is overrated, which is dumb because their graphics have had a major overhaul.”

Ironically, the only class he struggles in is his social skills class — a class with other autistic kids. His teacher explained that there were two boys who clashed with our son. They were like water and oil, to which our son replied, “And I’m the oil because I’m highly flammable.” Seriously. He said this. And it was hilarious. I’m certainly not clever enough to make this up.

One day at lunch, he dropped his sugar cookie on the floor. He asked the lunch ladies for a new one and they refused (don’t even get me started on this assholery). In a disappointed rage, he dumped his lunch in the trash, sat down against a wall, and cried. Could no one have given him a damn cookie??

I’ve been inside the school on a few other occasions. And each time, those lockers taunt me, mocking me for the “limitations” of my son. A seventh grader who reads on an eleventh-grade level; a kid whose mind is so beautiful, but no one will know because no one will try. A kid who tries so hard to make the numbers work, and just can’t get the locker door to open.

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