Among the many autism-related stories I have read, written and edited over the years, there are some that have left a profound and lasting impact on me. Stories involving wandering-related deaths involving children with autism are always heartbreaking, as are stories involving injustice suffered by those with autism and their families — of which, Ayn Van Dyk, Neli Latson and Aislinn Wendrow all come to mind. However, there is one story in particular that has been extremely troubling, not only because of the initial events, but also the aftermath and lack of closure that followed.
In August of 2009, a 20-second YouTube video (posted below) was released and showed a Pittsburgh-area teacher slapping and verbally abusing a student with autism. The incident, which occurred in March of 2008, revealed every autism parent’s worst nightmare: a physical assault at the hands of someone who’s job it is to care for and educate a special needs child.
In the video, a student named J.R. is violently slapped by his teacher, at which point she screams, “Stop moving your chair back. Move it! And you stay back there! I’ve had it with you!” The video was secretly recorded by a student aid, who claimed to have witnessed the same teacher physically assaulting the non-verbal youngster on previous occasions.
I spoke to J.R.’s mother about a year ago and at the time, little had taken place in the way of closure. In fact, the YouTube user who originally uploaded the video, a family friend, wrote the following last year:
"Update: This teacher was let go from her job, but no charges have been filed against her or the school district. The cameras that were supposed to be installed in all of the class rooms (sic) at this school…it has not happened."This story is a sobering reminder of the constant vigilance that is needed when dealing with schools, teachers and caregivers that are involved in the lives of children with autism and other special needs. Hopefully, J.R. is doing well now and his family has been able to move on from this. Reopening old wounds is not the intention here, but this story should be a constant reminder of how vulnerable our children can be and how important it is to know exactly who we are entrusting them with.