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Discuss victim in civility lessons

Posted: October 25, 2008 8:49 p.m.
Updated: December 27, 2008 5:00 a.m.
A 14-year-old special-needs student with developmental issues commits suicide in his high school bathroom. This was a tragic story recently reported in the local newspapers, heard on the radio and whispered over lunch tables.

As the mother of a 12-year-old special-needs child, the words sicken me, making me nauseous and fearful for the future, as my own son prepares to face the potential bullies waiting for him in the hallways of his junior high next year and high school after that.

Well-meaning individuals will hear about bullying and say things like "Children can be so cruel" or "I remember being picked on in school!"

Sure. They can talk about it, because they can talk. My sixth-grader is still working out how to process the words "who," "what," "why," "when," "where" and "how."

Most people managed to overcome the bullying they encountered in school because they learned to navigate the murky waters of socialization, eventually seeking out their own simpatico island of friends. Oh, the neurologically typical. They are the lucky ones.

At the age of 4, my son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, which means that in addition to a host of neurological issues, he is developmentally delayed.

Right now, his neuro-typical peers are preoccupied with the onset of puberty and the fascinating world that entails. They listen to pop music on their iPods, talk to their friends on their cell phones and follow the constant media coverage of their idols, the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus. Young teens on the brink of adulthood.

My boy? He still watches Veggie Tales, Big Comfy Couch and Barney (yes, the big purple dinosaur who went into VHS extinction years ago).

Back in the third grade, my son's special-education teacher begged us to push him into "big boy"
activities and interests, but my little guy (both in stature and development) would have none of it.

With his mind and emotions still a solid four years behind everybody else's, it's difficult to force that square peg into a socially acceptable round hole.

Over the years, through various forms of therapy and training, we've pushed, prodded and pulled my son into the real world the best we could.

With tremendous effort we finally managed toileting, eating and rudimentary social skills (eye contact, pleasant verbal exchanges upon introduction and not throwing chairs at the people who upset you).

Despite our hard work to make him fit in, we know he never will. If history has shown us that neurologically typical kids have trouble negotiating the popular kids, the jocks and the smart kids, how in heaven's name do we expect the special-needs gang to do it?

Perhaps we work a little harder to teach our children the simple rules of civility and not just the virtues of friendship, hard work, honesty and responsibility (which are still vital to being a well-rounded and decent member of society).

But good old-fashioned civility. Remember that? Being kind to one another?

The Golden Rule, my grandpa Andy used to call it. Treating others as you would choose to be treated and the whole concept of what it is to walk a mile in another man's moccasins.

Everyone loves to send around the e-mail about the special-needs boy whose teammates cheered him on as he ran the bases to a home run, and it is a glorious moment when the real world allows these kids their chance at bat.

But in the everyday game of life, special-needs kids don't always have that golden moment to be seen as heroes. Sometimes they leave the public bathroom and forget to zip their pants, or maybe they have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe.

Someone needs to gently point out that the developmentally delayed need your help and kindness.
Sometimes a kid with awkward social skills will run up to a pretty girl and tell her he loves her or hug her.
It's not on purpose that he embarrasses her in front of her friends, making her feel all weird and uncomfortable.

But if somebody helpfully points out that next time he should just wave hello, or that it might be okay to ask permission for a hug, the situation could be avoided in the future.

Social skills classes are good, but practices put into effect in the real world make a lasting impression on special-needs children and the children they interact with.

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" there is a song called "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." It explains that hate and fear of people who are different are not necessarily inherent; they are things you learn.

By the same token, one needs to be taught the tenets of love and tolerance. Conversations with children around the dinner table or driving in a car (when I find I have my own children's rapt attention) should include lessons in the humane treatment of our fellow man, whether he looks like us, sounds like us or is differently-abled than us.

It is my wish that the loss of life of the young man who could not tolerate the bullying any longer is not in vain.

His story should serve as a lesson for us all: to teach our children well. The deep pain he felt, but could not express, should open our hearts and our mouths to carefully teach our children the practice of compassion, understanding and maybe even acceptance of he or she who is different.

Thresa Katz is a resident of Canyon Country. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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