Bananas, Autism and a Heavy-Handed Response

Stafford, Virginia brings us a ridiculous story of a fourteen-year-old boy with autism who was taken away in handcuffs after attempting to win the hearts of classmates by dressing up in a banana suit and running across the field during halftime of a football game. Later released to his mother without charges, his high school principal settled on a punishment of ten days suspension while backing off her initial impulse to expel him.

Students rallied around him by wearing “Free Banana Man” t-shirts, which the principal immediately banned. That’s when the ACLU stepped in over the violation of freedom of speech. A flood of negative press ensued and compelled the school to apologize for the infringement of students’ civil rights and lift the remaining five days of Bryan “Banana Man” Thompson’s suspension.

However, Bryan  is still on probation for the remaining five days and the principal has expressed concern that he will be a disruptive force at school since he has so many new friends and supporters. 

A socially isolated teen suddenly having new admirers? The horror!!

Bryan’s mother is rightfully nervous about him being under the microscope upon his return. 

The location of Stafford, Virginia rang a bell for me. It’s the town where Neli Latson, another teenager with Asperger’s, was racially profiled as he sat outside waiting for the public library to open.  Neli remains in jail for assaulting an officer who suddenly threw him over the hood of a squad car and tried to cuff him after he wouldn’t tell him his name. His mother is still working feverishly to secure his release from prison.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that both Neli and Bryan are African American, making for some unsettling coincidences in relation to unusually harsh punishments for minorities on the autism spectrum in Stafford.
Bryan’s mother suggested that Banana Man become the school mascot, as he brought so much joy to the crowd during his brief debut, but I doubt the principal will have the good sense or grace to allow it.

19 Responses to Bananas, Autism and a Heavy-Handed Response

  1. Nathaniel says:

    As someone who was at the football game, Thompson refused to leave the field when asked, knocked over an administrator, and cursed at a police officer when being escorted away. THAT was the reason for the suspension, NOT the banana hijinks. This whole story is ridiculous.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks for your perspective. It takes finesse and empathy to de-escalate a situation involving an individual with autism. I still believe the suspension to be unduly harsh.


  3. Justin says:

    The rumor that he knock over an administrator or cursed at a police officer cannot be proven and probably will not considering that in an interview, bryan suggested that the administrator he supposedly knocked over was bending the truth to the arresting deputy as he haled him away and the cursing was actually him trying to explain the real story to the deputy but he was shoved into the cruiser. The story is not ridiculous, the over-reaction by Colonial Forge administration is ridiculous.

  4. Susan says:

    I immediately believed the intentionality of knocking over an administrator to be in question. Cussing is not a hanging offense either. But even taking the account at face value it seemed to be an overreaction.

  5. Nathaniel says:

    The knocking over and cursing can be proven, actually, since it was done in front of hundreds of people, and there were dozens of witnesses by the cop car when the cursing took place.

    But siding with the decision to punish him is not in the media’s best interest when instead you can hang a stern but great principal for punishing an underdog kid in a banana costume.

  6. Bob says:

    So it looks like the antibellum mentality still survives in the old South. Or, maybe mental illness isn’t understood. Do we need a little retraining in the law enforcement and educational areas of Stafford County. I wonder how these public servants do with old people and sex bias. Unfortunately, with this ailing economy, it sounds like we really need big investigation.

  7. Susan says:

    Nathaniel, it’s kinda sad that you’re writing on an autism website, because you clearly don’t grasp the nature of autism, a neurological disorder with profound effects on a person’s perceptions and social awareness.

    Almost always when things go south involving a person with autism, they have been provoked by an authority figure who doesn’t know how to deal with them effectively. Calm, even voice, neutral in tone, appeal to logic to motivate them to do what you want them to (ie. “You were very funny and made people laugh, but it’s time for the players to start the second half. Take your seat so you don’t miss any of the game”, give them physical space (no chance of getting knocked over then), make no sudden moves, call in someone they trust…there’s lots of ways to defuse a situation.

    Heavy-handedness is gasoline poured on fire in these scenarios, which why a “stern” principal is exactly the wrong person to be meting out justice, and handcuffing and hauling away Banana Man was an inappropriate choice that deserved the adverse attention it got.


  8. tory says:

    @Susan, Nathaniel:

    As someone with aspergers, I would like to try to moderate between the two of you, because you both have valid points.

    Susan, while you have your facts right (yes the best way to interact with a rational person is a logical explanation of what needs to happen and why), I think you’re a little black and white on the subject of autism. LOTS of people of lots of different brain types have lots of different weird little triggers that will make them difficult to handle, but nobody ever complains about, say, a person triggering an alcoholic’s rage by taking his last shot of whiskey.

    I take it for granted that media outlets will inflate any story, make it as inflammatory as possible, because folks like us having conversations like these, when you get down to it, is how these entities make money. I don’t see how that can be questioned.

    Nathan, you also cannot deny that, while the principal might not have fully deserved the hanging he got, it was far from the best way to solve the problem at hand. Instead of ending a disturbance quickly and finally, he created a martyr.

  9. Susan says:

    While everyone on the spectrum is unique, there are established best practices for defusing situations in which the person is agitated and or overexcited. It’s not one size fits all, but general recommendations that can be individually modified. (One place you can find them is in pdf form linked to Tony Attwood’s site). I threw out some ideas, knowing that’s all they were.

    Police and autism is a hot spot as these interactions frequently have tragic results that could be averted with more information and training on the officer’s part.

  10. Gem says:

    10 days for disrupting a football game is excessive, autism or not. A classmate shot my son in the crotch and hand with an air-soft gun. Why? Because my son tried to mediate an argument to defuse it. The kid’s punishment for violating the district “zero tolerance” weapons policy? 3 days suspension.

  11. Carolyn Walsh says:

    My son who has Aspergers’ was expelled from school for making a prank phone call. Because he was imitating Al Pacino, it was initially taken as a terroristic threat. He, too, was arrested at school, handcuffed, and taken to jail for the night. He was thoroughly confused, mostly because everyone at his school knew him as an actor. In fact, he had just been voted Most Likely to Be Famous. School’s in the South need to catch up with autism.

  12. Susan says:

    Geez. What a horror story! These zero tolerance policies smack of hysteria.

  13. brenda says:

    I am a mother of a 14 year old who is autistic. I know first hand in a full blown melt down regarldess of why it got that far good kids sometimes do and say things out of the ordinary. OH my its half-time let him run across the field everyone get a laugh and be done with it. People may eventually learn ” don’t sweat the small things”. I will also say in some cases people in authority seem to hunt for reasons or ways to get kids and teens that are a challenge to them out of their hair one way or another. As a mom who has seen melt downs first hand. I also know something as simple as them coming at him probably scared him and he went from fun to gotta defend myself in seconds. People can say it can’t happen and thats fine but I have seen it happen to may times with my own teen. I’m sure otehrs can relate as to what I am saying and some may not but it’s ok. But there is a reason people with autism have to be handled a specific way.

  14. Susan says:

    So true, so true…

  15. Dustin says:

    I think the story that is being passed is bullshit just because every time you pass it he story changes. Those who believe that he did not knock the cop over and start cussing i am on your side. I dont think an autistic kid is goin to do anything like that and the more and more i read about this the stupider people get with this story.

  16. Dustin says:

    and i ment to say the not he

  17. Louie says:

    as a parent of a 18yrd old son with autism i find it very hard to hear about the cursing. in my experince with many kids with autism they do not react with bad language they will cry but not cuss back not saying its not possble but i have never seen it.

  18. Marcus BackMan says:

    Isn’t there supposed to be a hearing before a student with an IEP is suspended? Stafford County sounds like hell on earth.

  19. Susan says:

    Your question about the hearing was a good one. Here’s where I went for answers. It’s a little complex so follow the link:


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