By Joel Lashley

When he was four years old, the Rodríguezes’ son Manny was diagnosed with autism.  Although that was difficult to hear, Mrs. Rodríguez felt relief when a diagnostician finally put a label on what appeared to be causing some Manny’s puzzling behaviors.  One of those behaviors was perseveration, something Manny’s therapist described as “insistence on sameness.”

All children have likes and dislikes, but Manny had extreme emotional and behavioral reactions to things that others might view as trivial.  As a result, he sometimes had severe tantrums when some of his personal preferences or “perseverations” were challenged. One of these perseverations was an insistence that all his possessions were green.

If a toy wasn’t green, Manny wouldn’t play with it. If a shirt wasn’t green, Manny didn’t want to wear it. As is with most parents, their child’s happiness was their number one priority, so Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez accommodated their son’s preference.  Mr. Rodríguez wouldn’t buy Manny a toy, unless it was green.  When he repainted Manny’s room, he painted it green. When it was time to replace the family car, Mr. and Mrs. Rodríguez searched for a green one, just to please their son.    Before long, everything in Manny’s life was green from his toothbrush to the sheets on his bed and Manny seemed to love it. Part of Manny’s autism was he wasn’t verbally expressive about his feelings and didn’t initiate physical affection. Yet even though he didn’t express it in obvious ways, he appeared to be happy.

When Manny was due to start the second grade, Mrs. Rodríguez tried to introduce a little variety into his wardrobe. But by now, Manny’s perseveration on green was rock solid.  He simply insisted that every scrap of clothing he owned be green from his baseball cap and socks to his jacket and shoes.

When his parents bought him a pair of blue jeans, Manny refused to wear them.  No manner of reward or punishment would move Manny away from this insistence that all his clothes, including his pants, be green.  He would simply fight all measures they took to get him to wear another color.  Eventually, they gave up and sent him off to school in his familiar green uniform.  They decided it would be easier to let him dress all in green than to work on changing this behavior.  All in all, it seemed like the lesser of two evils.

They decided to take the path of least resistance and pick their battles wisely, a type of compromise parents of children with autism are often forced to make. However, these are the sorts of compromises that often lead to failure, and as a parent of a child with autism, I have made many compromises when faced with my son’s perseverations.

As the years passed, Manny never did grow out of his perseveration regarding the color green.  As you might expect during his school years, he was bullied about it.  Children with disabilities or delays tend to experience more than others and Manny was no exception.

Manny picked up a lot of nicknames over his years in school, like The Hulk, Elf Boy,
Lucky Leprechaun, and Kermit. But the nickname that followed him into high school was Green Bean. That nickname was started by a teacher as a term of affection, and Manny didn’t seem to mind it.

During his sophomore year in high school, Manny was actively being bullied by four boys in his art class while the art teacher appeared almost oblivious to the problem.  Manny didn’t complain or cry when other children would taunt him or call him names much worse than Green Bean. Again, Manny didn’t tend to display a lot of emotion, but that would change when it would build up in him to a tantrum stage and then he would explode.

Finally, the art teacher was fed up with his outbursts. “You’ve got to do something about Green Bean’s tantrums!” she insisted.

The principal met with Manny and the four other boys and determined that Manny was acting out as a result of bullying during class, and he came up with an expedient solution. He pulled Manny from the art class and found something else for him to do during that hour.  It certainly must have been easier to make a phone call to one set of parents to defend that decision, then to make a call to four sets of parents to justify any actions he might have taken against the bullies instead.  Afterall, it was the path of least resistance.

“What are we going to do with Green Bean during that hour?” asked the assistant principal.

“We’ll find something,” the principal replied.

They decided that Manny could spend his time making copies in the office and performing other errands around the school.  They even showed him how to make coffee.  That seemed to work for a week or two, but soon the staff was challenged with finding enough to keep Manny busy for three hours every week.

They started giving him a hall pass and sending him to the history department, Manny’s favorite subject, to see if the history teachers needed anything.  The history teachers would have lively discussions with Manny at first, but they had work to do between classes and soon his visits became an annoyance.   If there was nothing for him to do there, they would send him to the gym to see if the coaches needed anything, but soon they ran out of things to keep him occupied as well.  After a few weeks of bouncing around, Manny spent a lot of time walking the halls of his high school—three hours a week—looking for something to do.

One day, while walking the halls with his hall pass, Manny stepped into the seldom used stairwell that led to the history department.  The two other teenagers there didn’t notice Manny.  They were a boy and a girl doing what teenagers will sometimes do given a little privacy; they were making out. Manny watched the goings on with much interest.  He saw a lot of kissing and touching that might be inappropriate in school, but he wasn’t sure.  Nevertheless, he was fascinated by what he saw.

Manny thought to himself, “How do I get to do that?” and “That looks like fun.” Manny had sexual desires and romantic fantasies like most other teenagers, and like all teenagers he was trying to understand his sexual urges.  Within a moment or two, one of the history teachers came down the stairs and saw the three of them.

“Now, you two knock that off!”, the teacher exclaimed.   “Get your butts to class now!  You too, Green Bean, find someplace else to go!”

With that, the young couple scurried off while Manny stared at the teacher blankly. The teacher just shook his head and smiled, “Ah, the good old days.”

Manny wondered to himself, “Was what they were doing good or bad? Was the teacher angry or glad?” The emotions he was experiencing along with the mixed messages displayed by the teacher didn’t seem to align in Manny’s thinking.  Manny then wandered off looking for something to do.

Two days later, Manny was walking the halls again during his normally scheduled art class.  Suddenly, he saw the girl from the stairwell walking towards him with a hall pass. She walked right up to Manny and faced him.

“Hi, Green Bean,” she said warmly. “Remember me?  We were in fifth grade together.”

Manny processed what she said. “She likes me.  She knows me,” he thought.  In an instant, he wrapped his arms around her, kissed her forcefully, and otherwise touched her inappropriately. The same thing he saw the other boy do in the stairwell.  Needless to say, that encounter did not end well. Both sets of parents were called, the police were called, and Manny was taken out of school.

What’s the solution to this tragic story? Should we just tell the girl that its ok that Manny forced himself on her because he has autism?  Should they charge Manny for assault?  It’s not an easy dilemma to solve.  Perhaps it would be easier if we assign blame.

Was the principal at fault for taking the path of least resistance; thereby, failing to provide a safe environment and structure for Manny during the hour of his art class?  That’s a point that was brought up during the investigation.  Some felt that the principal created the situation by failing to deal with the bullies in the first place and choosing to place the burden on their victim, namely Manny.

Perhaps the Rodríguezes themselves were at fault for failing to have frequent and protracted discussions with Manny about the mysterious rituals of flirting and sexuality.  After all, sexuality is a mystery to all teenagers, but especially if they have challenges with nonverbal communication and such. Perhaps they were also at fault for not setting limits on Manny’s behavior regarding proper “time and place” for flirting and sexual expression.

Perhaps it was his therapist’s fault for not preparing Manny and his parents for situations such as these.  Maybe it was the school’s fault for failing to provide tailored sex education for students with developmental and cognitive challenges. All those theories were brought forth as the authorities tried to determine a course forward for Manny and the girl.

There is probably enough blame to go around for everyone, but its time to ask if there is anything that could have been done to prevent what happened at school on that particular day?  Could there have been a different outcome if the teacher had handled the situation differently?

Suppose when the teacher saw the children in the stairwell, he responded in a trained fashion, instead of reacting the way he did.  Below is an example of Vistelar’s Universal Greeting, used to reinforce a defined social contract.

“Hello kids, I don’t believe all of us have met. I’m Mr. Johnson, a history teacher here at the school. I’m talking to you because that behavior is not allowed in school.  That was made clear in orientation. In accordance with school policy, we are required to go to the principal’s office, call your parents, and discuss what just happened.  Manny, you should come with us too. Someone at the office is going to talk to you about what you saw.”

The question then is, if the teacher had responded that way, could the ensuing tragedy have been prevented?  If you think yes, was it the teacher’s fault? Or was it the school’s fault for failing to provide adequate training, policies, and procedures for teachers regarding public displays of affection and sexuality in school?  One thing is clear, the environment in which these children were placed was compatible with bullying and sexual misconduct, and the only way to change the social contract of any environment is through applied training and expectation contracting.

If you want to create educational environments that are incompatible with bullying and other misconduct, contact Vistelar’s expert trainers for solutions.