When Jo Ashline suspected her son, who has autism, was being abused at school, her heart broke. "He couldn't tell me what happened," she says. She kept the details of her son's alleged abuse to herself for weeks while her family's legal team built its case.
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Jo says after her son's school district refused to acknowledge misconduct, she and her husband realized legal action was a necessary next step, in the name of accountability.

It has been a difficult, emotional journey from when hints that something was wrong first emerged.

First hints emerge

The 2012 school year had begun, and Andrew Ashline wasn't himself. The 11-year-old fifth grader used to love school, and now just putting him on the school bus "was like trying to get a cat into a bathtub filled with water each day," remembers his mom, Jo.

His parents say because he couldn't describe the abuse a school aide later would relay to the Ashlines, his behavior changed dramatically.

But Andrew couldn't tell his parents what bothered him. Diagnosed with autism and nonverbal, he uses an iPad to communicate — a device his parents allege was taken from him as punishment at school, as well.

"He stopped toileting. He began to self-mutilate, picking and scratching his face. He exhibited a level of anxiety we had never seen before and of course, now we know why," Jo says.

"It's heartbreaking to think that everything Andrew was doing was an attempt to tell us in his own way what was going on, what he was experiencing and the fear and anger and helplessness he was feeling," Jo shares.

Behavior as communication

Every day, children who rely on behavior to communicate are misunderstood and, too often, mistreated by adults who don't understand or are unwilling to try to understand what the child is trying to tell them.

"Children with disabilities are sometimes left open to potential abuse when those who are charged with their care do not understand the difference between 'bad behavior' and 'behavior as communication,'" reports world-renowned disability resource Wrightslaw.com.

Pete and Pam Wright created Wrightslaw.com in 1998, a site they say parents, educators, advocates and attorneys visit "for accurate, reliable information about special education law, education law and advocacy for children with disabilities."

"The term 'behavior as communication' refers to a child's effort to communicate dislikes, needs [and] desires" when speaking is impossible, the Wrights explain.

Training is vital

Sometimes happiness can look the same as sadness, anger the same as excitement... emotions can be very hard to distinguish.

"Sometimes happiness can look the same as sadness, anger the same as excitement... emotions can be very hard to distinguish," the Wrights explain. "When a child's 'behavior' is seen merely as bad behavior and not as an effort to communicate, the child can become even more frustrated thus causing escalation."

"Adults who are not properly trained to distinguish these 'behaviors' or to decipher the 'communication' attempts can sometimes escalate the child to a critical point when the use of physical and/or mechanical restraint comes into play."

"No evidence of misconduct"

For the Ashlines, such a nightmarish scenario came to life during the 2012-2013 school year. "You never think for a moment it will happen to you or someone you love. So when it does, there's no handbook," Jo, who blogs about her family, tells allParenting. In February 2014, the Ashlines filed a lawsuit against the Orange Unified School District on allegations of physical and psychological abuse. The lawsuit alleges Andrew was "taken down," or restrained by a teacher at Palmyra Elementary School for crying.

In a statement, the school district said its investigation into the Ashlines' allegations "found no evidence of teacher misconduct." The Ashlines now seek accountability in civil court.

While it may be impossible to anticipate abuse, the Ashlines and Wrightslaw say parents' response to suspected mistreatment can make a difference.

Dos and don'ts if you suspect abuse

Do:

  • Remember that "behavior is language," Jo says. "Don't let someone blame your child's behavior simply on his or her diagnosis."
  • Remain "as calm and respectful as possible," Jo advises. "I say that knowing the incredible emotions that come with finding out your child was being allegedly abused and mistreated by the people you entrusted him to."
  • Trust your instincts. "No one knows [your child] better than you," Jo says, "no matter what kind of degree or credential they hold."
  • Take a step back. "If you are dealing with a school problem, it is difficult to step back and get a fresh perspective on the problems and possible solutions," Wrightslaw.com acknowledges. "Yet this is what you need to do. Many parents say that after they read the articles on the site, read our books and organized their child's file, they were able to identify the important issues and knew what to do. They did not need an attorney — they needed a plan."

Don't:

  • "Bully or scream yourself to the truth," Jo emphasizes. "That ends up taking away from the healing process for your child. If you suspect abuse, don't keep those feelings to yourself. Speak to someone you trust."

^ Next steps

For the Ashlines, "moving forward means educating and supporting others who may find themselves in a similarly devastating position," Andrew's mom, Jo says. "I've always said it takes a village to raise Andrew, and it's indescribable, what you feel as a parent, when you learn that some of the very people you trusted and relied on hurt your child."

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