Autistic 5-Year-Old Punished for Hugging Classmate in Tennessee School: Family

September 25, 2019 Updated: September 26, 2019

The family of an autistic 5-year-old boy has spoken out after East Ridge Elementary punished him for hugging classmates.

The school principal said the staff had already talked to Nathan several times, WTVC reported.

Summery Putnam, Nathan’s guardian, said the school filed a report to state authorities.

A teacher called Putnam over Nathan’s “boundaries.”

Photo of 5-year-old Nathan.
Photo of 5-year-old Nathan. (Courtesy of Summery Putnam)

“I was sick to my stomach,” Putnam told WTVC. “The teacher called me and she said, ‘You need to have a talk with Nathan about boundaries.'”

She said the teacher accused Nathan of sexual behavior after he hugged a classmate and kissed another classmate on the cheek.

Putnam added that the 5-year-old’s behavior is misunderstood due to his autism.

“If you don’t understand how autism works, you’ll think he’s acting out or being difficult,” Putnam said, according to WTVC. “But, that’s not the situation.”

The guardian said being unable to read social cues can be difficult for Nathan due to the developmental disorder.

After being asked how Nathan is going, Putnam told The Epoch Times on Sept. 25 that “Nathan is doing ok.”

“We don’t talk about it around Nathan,” she told The Epoch Times. “He doesn’t understand a lot of it and The [sic] big issue is this will stay on his record permanently. I have to be his voice because he doesn’t have one.”

Debi Amick, Nathan’s grandmother, reportedly made a private post on Facebook regarding the incident.

“Who do you turn to for help when the school will not even listen to the child’s doctor when he explains the child’s difficulties in his comprehension of simple things such as boundaries,” she wrote, according to Fox 45.

Tim Hensley, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County Department of Education, responded with a statement.

“School personnel are required to concerns regarding children to the Department of Child Services (DCS). It’s up to DCS to determine if those reports are acted on by DCS and what form those actions may take.”

Nathan is now enrolled in special education services with different teachers and classmates.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that may cause people to communicate, interact, and behave in ways that are different from most people.

There are behaviors that they will repeat and daily activities they are unwilling to change.

Learning, thinking, and solving abilities can range from gifted to severely impaired.

There is currently no cure for autism, but there are treatment services that can help autistic children gain developmental skills.

Early intervention treatment services help newborns to 36-month-old children to talk, walk, and interact with others.

Signs and Symptoms

Children or adults with ASD might:

  • not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over)
  • not look at objects when another person points at them
  • have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
  • appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds
  • be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language
  • have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll)
  • repeat actions over and over again
  • have trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
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