A Tennessee family claims their child is facing scrutiny for hugging and kissing classmates. But it’s his autism, the family says, that makes it difficult for the kindergartner to understand what is acceptable behavior. The school district disagrees with the family’s take.

Summery Putnam says she received a call late August from her son’s kindergarten teacher.

She says the teacher told her that Nathan, Putnam’s 5-year-old, was in need of a conversation about boundaries. He had hugged a child that day. When Nathan got home, Putnam told him that he couldn’t hug other children because the teacher didn’t allow it. Every explanation she gave to him, she said, was met with a “why.”

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Another call came the next day, after Nathan had allegedly kissed another child on the cheek. The teacher told Putnam that Nathan’s behavior was unacceptable, according to Putnam. They planned to meet to go over Nathan’s individualized education program.

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When they met, Nathan’s kindergarten teacher and a special-education teacher expressed concerns about his walking around during instruction and lunch times, according to Putnam. They all agreed that Nathan would be paired with a monitor for his safety.

“When I left the meeting and came home, my phone started ringing,” she said Friday in an interview. “It was a lady from child protective services.”

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The representative told Putnam that a report about Nathan had been received because he hugged children and kissed another student on the cheek. Putnam said she was also told that Nathan had been accused of looking under a teacher’s dress.

“I said I just left the meeting, that she told me about him hugging a child and kissing a child,” Putnam said. “She didn’t say anything about Nathan looking under her dress.”

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The school district denies allegations of wrongdoing and disagrees with how Nathan’s family has framed the issue.

Tim Hansley, communications officer for Hamilton County Schools, said the district is bound by privacy laws that don’t allow it to publicly discuss what happened in the classroom.

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“This family’s characterization of the incident with their child at East Ridge Elementary does not capture the full context of the concerns expressed to them by the school,” he said in a statement. “It was not a hug or kiss that prompted the school to contact the family.”

Hansley said that schools in the county report incidents to child services but that it’s up to that department whether to act on those reports.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is unable to comment on the matter because of child- and family-protection laws, said Jennifer Donnals, executive director of communications and legislation for the agency.

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“Under Tennessee Department of Children’s Services policy, the department does not normally substantiate children under the age of 12 as perpetrators of sexual abuse, except in extreme cases. Additionally, DCS policy states that in cases of alleged sexual abuse involving two or more children under 12 years old from different families, all of the children are treated as alleged child victims,” she said in a statement. “Tennessee law mandates any person suspecting child abuse or neglect must report it to DCS.”

Autism

Most children on the autism spectrum start showing signs between 1 year and 18 months of age, according to data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Nathan’s pediatrician diagnosed him as being on the spectrum several years ago, after Putnam, a nurse by trade, noticed he was showing signs. The same pediatrician explained autism to the Department of Children’s Services representative in an interview on Sept. 18, Putnam said.

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About 1 in 59 children in the country have been recognized as having autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

The CDC also reports that those on the spectrum are likely to be diagnosed with other neurological, developmental and psychiatric conditions.

Nathan also has phonological disorder, which causes children to not use some or all of the sounds of speech expected for their age group, according to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital’s definition.

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Putnam said that he’ll get really close to her when he wants to speak to her or gain her attention and that she has to remind him of personal space. It can also be challenging to understand Nathan as he tries to communicate his thoughts.

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Needs

Autism spectrum experts and researchers agree communicating boundaries can be more difficult when it involves a child who has autism and figuring out how to educate that child is an individualized process.

Hugging and kissing are actions that are part of development for 5-year-olds with or without autism, said Michael Kelley, executive director of the Scott Center for Autism Treatment at Florida Tech.

“It’s appropriate at that age to start to teach every child the conditions under which it is okay to touch everybody else,” he said. “Kids with autism will require some sort of teaching training beyond what other children without autism require.”

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It’s appropriate to assess whether a child like Nathan is actually making a sexual advance or whether he truly does not understand when someone does not want to be hugged. Having the correct fundamental framework can provide a clearer assessment of the root issue, which could be a lack of appropriate social skills, Kelley said.

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Nathan wants to make friends, but he just doesn’t understand how to go about doing that, Putnam said.

Understanding implicit social norms and behaviors in different settings can be confusing to a child on the autism scale, said Mandy Rispoli, professor of special education and co-director of the Purdue Autism Research Center.

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Applied behavior analysis for a child struggling to understand social cues can be beneficial for children with autism. It can give those explicit instructions, model desired behavior and offer feedback that many children on the spectrum might need, she said.

“Sometimes just verbally stating it isn’t enough,” she said, noting that it’s best practice.

Putnam said Nathan has been moved to another class where he can get the extra support that he needs. The teacher who reported him wasn’t a special-needs instructor, she said.

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“I’m still telling him. Like this morning, I said, ‘Nathan, have a good day. Remember, don’t hug anyone’ ” she said. “Sometimes he’ll say okay and sometimes he doesn’t say anything at all.”

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