“We were blindsided. We just weren’t expecting it,” Rick Castejon, father to the 11-year-old, told his local paper. Castejon said no principal or teacher should let that happen to any student.
Castejon, who was not available to comment to The Washington Post, said he attempted to leave the award behind on a table but the teacher, who has not been identified, reminded him not to forget it.
The incident caused Castejon to reflect on the calls from his son’s school he received throughout the year, expressing concerns on how to handle the fifth-grader’s behavior, according to the report. Castejon told the Indiana paper that his son is nonverbal, is easily emotional and occasionally rocks back and forth.
“It’s clear the school sees this child in a certain light,” said Mandi Silverman, senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute. “I would be concerned that his needs are not acknowledged in a way that is supportive. The school sees the behaviors as something that should be stopped, rather than supported.”
A request to speak with Bailly Preparatory Academy principal Carlita Royal was routed to the school district. The Gary Community School Corporation could not be reached for comment, either, but its emergency manager Peter Morikis said in a statement that the teacher was facing disciplinary action.
“The Gary Community School Corporation does not condone this type of behavior and will continue to put the safety and well-being of our students first,” Morikis said in his statement to the Times of Northwest Indiana. “We extend our deepest apologies to the impacted student, the family and anyone else who take offense to this unfortunate occurrence.”
The word “annoying” is negative and speaks to the social difficulties children with autism can face, according to Silverman. “Children with autism struggle with fitting in,” she said. “They may want to fit in more, they may want a friend group and to be accepted into the fabric of where they are.”
The incident in Indiana is not the only example of superlatives gone wrong.
A charter school in Arizona was the focus of outrage in 2018 when the school let students pick their own yearbook superlatives. One student named himself “Most Likely to Bomb the U.S.” and another titled herself “Most Likely to Steal Gang People’s Food,” according to Newsweek’s original report.
Complaints spread to the high school and local media when parents, assuming students voted on the awards as a whole class, started to complain. In a statement at the time, the school’s principal, Deb Hofmeier, said, “We deeply regret this incident and are investigating how it occurred so that this does not happen again.”
In Illinois, Eisenhower High School printed yearbooks in 2018 with a superlative naming a student — who uses a wheelchair — the “most accident prone,” according to NBC5 Chicago’s story. The student, who was partially paralyzed in a car accident, told the news station he was unaware of the title until students began teasing him, and he wished the yearbook had chosen to highlight his accomplishments and not his disability.
Choosing to highlight strengths and admirable traits over perceived weaknesses is important in situations like this, according to Silverman.
“I’m certain there are things to be admired in this child,” Silverman said. “And that opportunity was missed.”
Correction: We’ve updated the story to reflect that the school’s name was misspelled on the award.