One family's battle to rescue their autistic son from the pit of despair

By the age of six, Brandon* had been bullied so cruelly in the playground that he told his parents he wanted to die. 

His distraught parents, Travis and Samantha, battled the Education Department for years for support for their traumatised autistic son, and even submitted a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. But finally, with help from the right school, his parents have turned their son's life around. 

Travis and Samantha want to speak out about their son's case to warn that his battle with mental health issues is not unique.

Recent research has found that 75 per cent of children and teenagers on the autistic spectrum have depression or anxiety, and that children with autism are 28 times more likely to contemplate or try to take their own lives.

According to Brandon's parents, he was both bullied and harshly disciplined for behaviours he found hard to control: screaming, kicking, crying. 

Instead of supporting Brandon – who also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, depression and anxiety – his former school repeatedly suspended and expelled him. 

"The teachers couldn't handle him emotionally," said Travis. 

Brandon often reacted to the taunting with violence and aggression. He was suspended four times and had 12 behaviour notices sent home within a single year.

For months, he did not have an integration aide to help him control his behaviour.

But even when Brandon told a teacher that he "wanted to die", he was not offered any counselling or emotional support, said Samantha.

"I cried every day last year. The school never addressed it apart from using it against him in his expulsion papers," she said.

"They seemed to forget that at the end of the day Brandon is a little boy; a little boy who, just like every other little boy and girl, wants to be liked, wants to feel safe and wants to feel like they belong and are wanted in their school."

Samantha and Travis did everything that they could to save their son from himself.

"It seemed unimaginable ... we were a mess," said Travis. 

Brandon's former schools declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.

The Age, News.8 year old Cooper Young with father Travis and mum Sam. for story on Autism. Pic Simon Schluter 9 June 2016.

Eight-year-old Brandon* with father Travis and mother Samantha. Photo: Simon Schluter

"The number-one mistake of schools is underestimating the impact of social rejection and teasing from other kids," said clinical psychologist Professor Tony Attwood. "Teachers assume these kids are robust and that they can cope with it, but if this is a daily event, the long-term consequences will promote depression."

Autism expert Richard Eisenmajer said students with autism acted out when they felt anxious, and responding to those behaviours with severe punishment only exacerbated the issue.

"The problem is that non-compliance is viewed as the child manipulating the system, when really it is about anxiety," said Professor Eisenmajer. "As a start, we need to try to find what are the early signs of anxiety and what leads to the outbursts to unpack that and better manage it next time."

Julie Phillips, a disability advocate supporting Brandon, said the Education Department needed to do more to support students with disabilities and it was disturbing that the student had enrolled in four schools by the age of eight.

But things have finally turned out well for Brandon, who is now at Ringwood North Primary School. 

The school adopted a positive, incentive-based approach to his behaviour, and he is much happier.

For instance, the teacher runs activities in which the entire class is rewarded with extra playtime if Brandon performs well in a task.

He also has an aide, said Travis. "He thrives on that … he's much more positive; he's a totally different kid."

The department would not comment on the case. A spokesman said it took mental health issues seriously.

*Brandon's first name has been changed

Support is available from:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Mensline 1300 789 978

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