Gareth Oates was 18 years old when he killed himself by standing in front of a train in West Yorkshire on March 2, 2010. At an investigation, his mother, Glenys Oates, told a coroner that her autistic son had been “routinely bullied” and called “suicide boy” by some of his fellow students for years, says the Independent. Gareth was also bullied in public in what his mother called “bullying of a disabled person – deliberate targeting.” Police in Suffolk in the U.K. where the family lives had even apologized to her for not dealing “more robustly” with the attacks that Gareth suffered.
Oates especially noted that a “gap in care services for autistic teenagers could allow further tragedies to occur.” She described how difficult it had been to get local social and medical services to recognize her serious her son’s suicidal tendencies were. Since the summer before his death, Gareth had become obsessed with a 1985 action film, The Runaway Train, in which a character kills himself by standing in front of a train at the movie’s end.
Oates also testified that she believed that something a health worker said to Gareth the day before he died was connected to his suicide:
She told the coroner she believed he had taken literally a comment made to him by the link-worker that “he’d be better off dead than in college education.”
She said taking language literally was a characteristic of his autism.
Sessions of cognitive behavior therapy helped Gareth, his mother said, but she had not been able to get him more support and she too had become “increasingly desperate.”
The early results from a survey by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) reveal that 63 percent of children on the autism spectrum have been bullied at some point, at three times the rate as their siblings who are not autistic. About 1,200 children were included in the survey. The IAN’s community science liaison, Dr. Connie Anderson, noted in Education Week’s On Special Education blog that children with Asperger’s are the “most vulnerable,” possibly because they are more likely to be in typical classrooms in public schools, the very setting “associated with more bullying than other school settings,” according to the IAN survey.
Some families have attempted to end bullying towards a child with Asperger’s through homeschooling. One mother in the survey noted that her son, who had been diagnosed with depression in the third grade, is now “doing much, much better without the constant name calling and being singled out for his ‘weird’ behaviors!” But the survey itself found that autistic children who were homeschooled were bullied at the same rate as children in public school settings.
As April is Autism Awareness / Acceptance Month, the IAN survey’s results and the testimony of Glenys Oates about her son Gareth make it all too clear that bullying of autistic children is a serious problem which, if ignored, can lead to tragic results.
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