As the mom of an autistic son, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of his 14 years feeling angry on his behalf and often fighting his battles for him. The moms of special needs kids will tell you there are always disagreements with the school district for things like more inclusion and speech therapy, arguments with relatives about why you are not, in fact, trying fad treatment A, but maybe looking into fad treatment B, and constant snarky remarks from strangers in grocery stores and doctor's offices about your out of control child.
Teasing is nothing new for us either and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gently pointed out to other children, “That isn’t very nice,” or wish I had before I became more assertive. My son, Matthew, is a tall skinny kid who talks like he’s in a 1950’s sitcom. He is so earnest and good natured it makes him seem like an easy target. It also doesn’t help that he spends a lot of time with his younger sister pursuing activities teenage boys usually eschew, like baking and foraging.
Recently, he was playing in our backyard, twirling the jump rope with my 12-year-old daughter so their 5-year-old sister could jump for a few minutes while I finished preparing dinner. I was just about to call them when I heard several loud male voices coming from outside. I looked out the kitchen window to see several boys from the neighborhood standing in the alley talking loudly at my kids.
Whatthehell?! Whatthehell?! What is going on?! It actually took my brain a few seconds to process if these guys were trying to start a fight or not. My son was smiling, but my older daughter was pulling the little one closer to her.
Then one of the bigger kids marched into my yard and shoved my autistic son into the side of the house. My son was still smiling, happy to be getting attention from another kid in the neighborhood. I fucking lost it. I screamed through the window. “What the hell are you doing?! Why the hell are you in my yard?!”
Everyone froze. “Oh, is this your yard?” I heard one of the kids ask as I ran to the backyard.
“Is there a problem?! What are you doing?!” Why are you touching my kid?! What the hell is going on!?” Mouths dropped open. The gang of kids in the alley started to slouch away and the punk that shoved my son started backing up.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Do I need to take you home to your mother?” I chided, as if I knew his mother.
“No,” he answered and walked off after his friends.
"How dare that piece of shit touch you," I continued yelling, infuriated, wanting him to hear me as he walked home. I continued like this for a minute or two, fists clenched, spewing obscenities. I was on a roll. In that moment, I wanted those kids to feel like crap.
I didn’t want the my kids to come in right away. I didn’t want them to feel afraid or embarrassed because of my bad behavior. Yes, it was already setting in. My behavior was bad.
When the kids came in, we talked about it. I asked my older daughter how it started. She told me the boys in the alley were asking if my kids were Japanese or Mexican and making fun of their eyes. Then, of course, they proceeded to make fun of my son for twirling the jump rope.
I really wanted to know how my kids felt about what happened and how I handled it. My son said he hadn’t been afraid, but the girls were and were relieved I came out, but I still felt bad about the whole situation.
In fact, the whole thing left me feeling like crap. I was not the hero here. I was a bully.
I felt embarrassed. I had just cursed out a bunch of kids in front of the entire neighborhood. We’ve only been living here since November. Most of the neighbors don’t know us yet. This will be their first impression. I sounded like an asshole.
I felt guilty. I should have been a better example for those kids. My first instinct was to protect my kids, but for these children to stop at someone else’s yard, assume no adult would be there to offer protection, bully other children, and then try to start a physical fight, suggests some pretty serious problems. I should have handled it in a way which modeled the right behavior.
Instead, I reinforced the idea that big powerful people have all the power. Not cool. Not okay.
I felt sad. The next morning when they were sleeping, I cried a good long time about it. My son is really going to need someone to watch out for him forever. I am 37 now and I still feel like I could take on the whole world for him but I won't be around forever. How can he ever live alone if he doesn't even realize when another guy wants to beat him up?
Finally, I felt shame. My kids didn’t learn the right way to deal with bullies either. I won’t always be around to lose my shit and come barreling out of the house when other kids start trouble. I don’t want them to learn to depend on other people to fight their battles, but I also don’t want them to think they have to be an aggressive jerk to deal with the bullies of the world. My kids have learned the method of ignoring bullies throwing lame insults their way. Unfortunately, this only works when there are teachers or parents around to intervene if it turns physical.
Now they have witnessed a different way of dealing with bullies that isn’t right either. There has to be a better method somewhere in between, one that will make them feel empowered, keep them safe, and keep them the nice guys I want them to be.