For ten years I was a special education teacher. Among my student populations were severely autistic children and adults. I cherished that experience as my students spanned the autism spectrum, and I learned more about not only their psychology, but psychology in general, than I can begin to express in a single article.
I worked with students who would have been better placed in institutions, and others, save for one, who made the most of their mainstream experience.
It was from within this latter group I met Philip (name changed to maintain anonymity), when I taught in a Los Angeles-based non-public school for at-risk students.
Philip was the only autistic individual in this particular classroom, designed as a ninth-grade program adapted from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD’s) high school curricula. He was considered high-functioning with a violent streak, yet amiable upon early encounters. Philip’s intellect and IQ score was substantial. He was considered a savant, yet he was placed in the class due to a history of assault, and had been institutionalized on more than one occasion.
At first observation, one would likely be unable to identify Philip’s affliction. The only giveaway was that he often stood alone, away from other students. There was hope from school administrators that if he entered the right classroom environment, Philip would be able to not only make friends but learn to socialize to a degree where he could begin working on independent living skills.
Alas, those hopes would soon crash.
“My Name is Philip, and I’m Autistic”
This is how Philip introduced himself to me during the first day of school. I had spent a few minutes with customary classroom introductions, over a general student sense of apathy and eye-rolling. Philip stood up when called upon and delivered the words above. He eagerly followed his disarming comment with: “And I am a fan of professional wrestling.”
I found that fascinating, as in my early days of paying my dues as a writer I was a columnist for a series of pro wrestling-based newsstand magazines, and was considered something of an “insider” in that secretive business. Truth was, I had started watching when I was six and I never stopped. I asked Philip two related questions in an attempt to bond with him, being careful not to allude to any performed violence from that brand of entertainment:
“Who do you prefer in interviews, Stone Cold or The Rock?”
He said he preferred Stone Cold Steve Austin, and his eyes widened in surprise. ”I have a question, though,” he asked.
”Is it appropriate for a teacher to like professional wrestling?”
”If you understand it’s a performance, it’s fine.” I took a chance, there, but Philip appreciate my answer. He said he knew as much, and appeared all the more impressed.
My second question was equally innocuous: “Who’s your least-favorite bad guy?”
”The Rock,” he said, who at the time was a heel in wrestling parlance. “He cheats too much.”
The class took to Philip immediately, and he became an object of their protection. Another student said if anyone teased him, they would report that person immediately to me.
I informed the school psychologist of the brief wrestling conversation, cautious upon consideration that I was risking a provocation of violence. “Not at all,” she said. “He’s bonding with you. Just keep him within boundaries. You’re doing fine and besides, he already told me. He thinks you’re cool.”
The school year played out. Philip made friends, he excelled in the class, and his violent incidents completely ceased. On Tuesdays, we returned to quick wrestling conversations based on the prior evening’s broadcast of “Monday Night Raw.” His classmates were proud of his turn to becoming an extrovert, and many of them did well by following his example.
And then the year came to an end.
Separation and Anxiety
Philip’s mother informed me he was again beginning to show signs of violence at home, threatening her and her mother — Philip’s grandmother — with bodily harm. She explained to me Philip was having difficulty with the prospect of entering a new class in September with a different teacher. She asked me if I could speak to him, and assure him everything would be okay as I’d be remaining in the same school and he could confide in me if necessary.
I told her I didn’t see an issue, but I would need to speak to the school psychologist first.
“Within reason,” the psychologist told me. “He needs to learn separation and continue his progress, but as he’ll see you in school I’d certainly encourage brief interaction. Kind of like checking up on him if you see him, so he knows you didn’t abandon him.”
He would avoid me, though, when he saw me. He would make shy eye contact, and angrily turn and walk away.
His grades dropped. He was starting to get into trouble in school, and ultimately had to take two leaves of absence for institutionalization. He had aggressed against his mother, who both times was sent to the hospital with broken teeth.
My Leave, and Aftermath
I had resigned from the program at the end of the school year to take a writing-related job. I had long wanted to be a writer, and I could not turn down the opportunity.
During this period, however, Philip attained my home phone number.
For months he would call at all hours of the night, making anti-Semitic remarks related to my abandoning him, followed by inappropriate comments about my family. Eventually my wife and I disconnected our landline, in favor of using our cell phones.
The calls stopped, but then harassment began on social media. From Facebook to Twitter, he would comment on various posts and I would block him. It became a game. Shortly after he was blocked and reported, he would form new accounts and repeat the routine. He got hold of my personal email, and sent threatening messages.
When I went to the cops, more than once, the response was the same: “He’s threatening you by making jokes. He’s not directly threatening bodily harm. Until he does that, there’s nothing we can do.” I tried explaining his history to little avail. Finally, one officer advised me to take out a restraining order, which I did.
Still, the emails and social media harassment continued, until about two years ago.
I did not take further action as I had been advised not to by law enforcement, who I contacted prior to writing this article. I understand there are presently several reports in police possession about my former student and his personal harassment, but more importantly his physical abuse of his own family members. I have been informed he lives a few hundred miles from me, does not drive, and is presently under 24-7 care. The authorities have informed me that as he is within the system and now an adult, he continues to be monitored by law enforcement.
I wrote this article for a specific reason, targeting it to parents, educators, and friends and family of at-risk youth. I ask that you learn from my experience. The field may be immensely rewarding for many of us, but understand the concept of abandonment is a very real issue, as is lashing out in anger based on the perceived loss of an authority figure whom one trusted.
One needs to remain cognizant of that fact at all times with this population.
There are many ways to help at-risk students. Be there for them when working directly with them, and be sure to set and maintain boundaries early. You would also be well-advised to leave future professional considerations to other trained associates once your tenure has been completed.
I hope you have found this article of value.
Thank you for reading.