When I was younger, I attended intermediate school 131, or I.S. 131 in the Bronx, New York. This was long ago, prior to my diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder level 2, or ASD 2, along with comorbidities of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Social Anxiety.
I had gained a reputation as a problem child who cried often, threw tantrums, and often ended up in fights. I was labeled as someone difficult and who could very rarely work with teachers and peers.
Even as I write this, I recall one homeroom teacher saying, “Before you became my student for homeroom, teachers would warn me about you like you were some kind of demon, and would make the sign of the cross.” It was a statement which, of course, reinforced the need to self isolate that came from being an undiagnosed— and therefore, misunderstood— child in a very flawed education system.
In this system, every child who can not fit the mold must be broken again and again until they fit.
Being labeled a “difficult child” is a psychological punishment in itself; of course, it was not completely without warrant. At least not on the surface…
I would be bullied, meltdown, attempt to defend myself, and when I would stand up for myself, I was labeled a distraction to the rest of the class and thus was often removed. I was not as sneaky as the bullies.
That’s right. I was removed from class, and like many students, secluded and isolated in another area of the school.
Where did they take me?
Anywhere they could, anywhere they felt I would be silent. First they’d put me in rooms where students and staff were on break. They would only communicate with me when it was to bring up whatever situation triggered the removal, and then enact the punishment for the removal.
One such example was when I was moved to an empty classroom as a form of in-school detention. I had gotten into a fight with another student who’s ongoing bullying had caused frequent meltdowns from the constant insults, physical attacks, and other forms of unnecessary cruelty.
The fight, as I remember it, was because a bully had stolen my drawing. Drawing soothes me and is something that in the present I realize was a form of stimming. At the time, it brought me peace.
My punishment was to have my drawing of an anime-esque character confiscated and then for me to be physically moved to another room, one with multiple members of staff and teachers who appeared to be on some kind of break. There, I was chastised to the point of tears as I was told the drawing “wasn’t even that good,” while simultaneously having my struggles with my bully completely invalidated.
While in this room, I missed class and had no chance to learn amongst the few friends I did make. I had never felt such shame and degradation. I could understand that adults were “in control,” and that because I had dared to cry and meltdown in school, this was my punishment.
However, I couldn’t understand why it was okay for adults to keep me in this room, make me miss my education, and insult the drawing of a student.
As my experience at the school worsened, the places of my seclusion changed. One of which backfired in a way that the school couldn’t imagine; not that the school cared.
The administration’s latest idea was to put me in the library whenever I became too much to handle, or whenever I was in the process of recovering from a meltdown caused by yet more bullying.
The library became a refuge. I taught myself to research my special interests. The librarian was one of the few people to see me as a human being. She would help me look into books pertaining to my special interests which varied greatly between subjects. I learned about everything from letter writing and history to marine biology and even the occult.
The librarian didn’t care what I was reading as long as I was reading and learning. This suited me just fine because I actually loved to learn. Soon, the horrors of other times in which I was taken from my class and treated like a prisoner began to fade.
I began to crave the library where the books became like close friends and the librarian a figure of safety. At least, that was the case until the bullying became so horrific I would come to transfer out of that school.
To this day, I wonder if it was the right decision and still judge myself harshly because of my experiences at Intermediate School 131.
I share my experiences to highlight that Autistic seclusion is a real problem. Most of the time, the stories of autistic children and the hardships they faced don’t contain the small bit of hope that mine did. The act of secluding a child to another location away from the classroom and isolating them from their peers is orchestrated cruelty.
Seclusion will leave a child with permanent psychological damage because it reinforces the idea that we are somehow bad or unworthy of an education. That social messaging becomes ingrained in our consciousness.
During my time in schools like I.S. 131, I, like many young human beings at the time, learned that adults could not be trusted and that my tears would be met with a form of persecution that no child deserves.
It has taken me years to realize that I was more than a distraction from the students the teachers actually wanted in their classrooms, that I was capable of learning and achieving, and that I wasn’t some kind of beast or demon meant to be kept from my peers.
In other schools, meltdowns were met with isolation to far emptier classrooms. Schools that were worse wanted me to know that I was not welcomed, and that their misunderstanding of a then-undiagnosed me in the early 2000s was the reason to punish me.
No amount of tears or explanation that I was being bullied could stop individuals whom parents trusted with their children from locking me in empty rooms, making it so I knew that I was wrong for reacting to mistreatment, to beatings and being spit on by bullies, and therein lay the problem.
Seclusion— or isolation as I prefer to call it— is something that destroys children. It is the result of allowing untrained and apathetic staff within a flawed education system to manhandle, restrain, and mentally torture children in ways that they would likely never torture their own children (hopefully) behind closed doors.
These students, children like me, often develop deficits in subjects such as writing, history, and math. My ability to understand math suffered greatly, or for better lack of words, I simply couldn’t learn it. I spent more time out of the classroom than in it! Over time, I learned that this is all there was to school.
Bullying, punishment for acting differently from most because of the bullying, and no where to run when adults made little effort to truly understand me.
At the age of 26, I am still recovering as I write this, and sadly all across America and the world abroad, students are still being secluded, isolated, and excluded. Students are being restrained, mistreated, and taught that they are inherently worth less because of their disabilities.
Not only is the seclusion victim’s chance at a free and appropriate education being taken from them, but their mental states are suffering from the constant onslaught of apathy and ableism they face each day.
I plead with politicians, these arbiters of our education system, to please help us advocates, bloggers, journalists, and parents create a better system wherein we don’t punish students with disabilities for their struggles.
I ask that we not continue to other and shame children in a way that scars them for life because they reacted to cruelty directed at them in their vulnerability.
Wherever there exists a school, there stands a bastion of ableism. It is so entrenched in our society that it’s nearly unavoidable. Therein are students who are kept from their education each day for being victims of an insidious cycle.
This is a cruel reality, and one we must strive to change by any means necessary.