The Abusive Dinner Lady

As I saw my son come out of school, I knew something was wrong. He ran to me, threw his arms around me and started crying uncontrollably. I asked his teacher what had happened and all they could tell me was that he had been unsettled since lunch time because the dinner lady had told him off for not lining up. I took him home.

For the rest of the afternoon he was on edge, every little thing upset him to an extreme. He was cross one minute and crying the next. I used his sensory room, paper ripping, cuddles and screens until he was calm enough to talk to me, but I wasn’t expecting what he said at all.

I was given a shocking and detailed account of how a dinner lady had pushed him over at lunch time that day, and also how much he hated her. From working in childcare I knew not to put words in his mouth. I listened to everything he had to say, I asked him to show me what he meant at one point because his description confused me and I wrote everything down, word for word.

He had his hood up that day. His hair had been cut the day before and he hated haircuts, he wouldn’t take his hood or a hat off for at least two days after every haircut incase anyone noticed and asked if he had, had it cut. I’d spoken to his teacher in the morning and the only way he had gone into school was with their permission to keep his jumper hood on all day.

What he told me had happened was that at the end of dinner time all the children were called to line up as they normally do. He had not lined up when he was told to. Partly because he was in his own world drawing on the playground floor with a stone and he had not finished, so he couldn’t move on to the next task. Partly because he was overwhelmed at having been outside for so long in a busy playground and partly because he hates lining up. Being in the middle of a crowd of people isn’t fun for him, especially in a “queue” to go inside to a stressful classroom.

The dinner lady asked him to line up and he carried on drawing on the floor. She shouted at him and told him to line up. This particular dinner lady is very loud and my son has hyperacusis so shouting physically hurts him. He looked at her that time but did not process what she was saying because she was shouting. She then marched over to him and pulled his hood off his head. I have no idea why she would do that, but for my overwhelmed 9 year old who didn’t want anyone to see his hair, to have his hood pulled off in front of the whole school, whilst being shouted at was just too much. He exploded. He tried to get her away from him and he hit her. His admittance to hitting a teacher is one of the reasons I believed what he was saying. The level of detail and his ability to re-enact the next part is another, as he struggled with communication and also making up imaginary stories was very hard for him.

His explanation at this point was a little confusing because he said he had hit her and then she had grabbed him and pushed him, then he had fallen forwards and banged his knee on the floor. I asked him to show me how she pushed him and he walked behind me and pushed my back. I asked why the dinner lady was behind him and he said because he was going to run away. He did often run in situations when he was overwhelmed and upset and this was definitely one of those situations.
If she grabbed him when he tried to run away and then pushed him to the floor, I knew this could be my sons interpretation of her grabbing him and him breaking free and falling. Either way, a dinner lady, with no training in handling children, should not have: 1. Pulled my child’s hood off, humiliating him in front of the whole school, especially when he had been allowed to wear it for special reasons. 2. Shouted loudly at my child, especially because he has hyperacusis. 3. Grabbed him and either forcibly tried to make him line up or pushed him.

He then said something to me which confirmed that his version of events must be right. He said he had told his teacher who didn’t believe him and told him not to make things up. When he insisted he wasn’t she had informed him there was CCTV cameras that could see the playground and if they checked them, they would be able to tell if he was lying. My son said to me “its ok mum because when they see the CCTV, they will know I’m telling the truth”.

I was fuming, although I didn’t let it show as I told my son he had been so brave and did the right thing telling me. This was a dinner lady that I had put in a complaint about two years previously. I had seen her shouting in a nursery child’s face “if I ever see you doing that again I will batter you” so I knew she had it in her. I was also upset that when my son had tried to tell his teacher, they had automatically assumed he was lying.

I rang the council safeguarding team that night to check what I should do and they advised me to write everything down to show the school and then arrange a meeting with the Headteacher to find out what they were going to do about it.

So the following morning I copied everything into my sons book that went between me and his teacher each day. I asked to see the Headteacher too and was told she would see me the next day after investigating. At this point I fully expected the school to investigate and do something about it, possibly letting the dinner lady go.

That evening my son came out of school with a new book. He said his teacher said the old one had run out. It hadn’t, it was half way through. I never saw that book again. I went straight in to see the Headteacher there and then. She was the kind of person that doesn’t ever listen and just talks over everything you say. She told me she had spoken to the dinner lady in question who denied everything and told her my son had made it all up. She also said that she personally had watched the CCTV and couldn’t see anything. My son had fabricated the whole thing and that was that. I said I wanted to watch the CCTV too and she told me that was not possible because it had now been deleted. I asked where his home to school book had gone and she said it was finished so they had thrown it away and given him a new one.

All evidence was gone. It was the words of an autistic nine year old who struggled to communicate and was known for being “naughty”, against the words of a dinner lady and a long standing Headteacher who was friends with all the school governors. I was left unable to do anything but cry for my baby and tell him that I 100 per cent believed him and he was right to tell me what happened.

I collected him and took him home for lunch every day from then on until she was no longer his dinner lady. If they weren’t going to protect him, then I would.

I will never have the truth about that day, although I will say this. This morning when I mentioned the dinner lady’s name to my son, now 12, he said “oh, that horrible teacher that pushed me over, I didn’t like her”.

Autistic children, especially if they are non verbal, but also if they aren’t, often really struggle with communicating what is wrong. They aren’t always believed and they aren’t always listened to. Unfortunately this puts them more at risk of abusive situations, especially as
an adults version of events is often taken as factual, even if it conflicts with the childs.

We need to be so much more careful to safeguard Autistic children from harm.


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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Sophie says:

    That’s terrible. Whatever happened (and I’m not saying this didn’t happen) should have been investigated fairly and this was handled appallingly by a very incapable Headteacher by the sounds of it! How awful for your son! If any of the staff had worked with ASD children in the past, they would have known that your son would not necessarily line up straight away. They would also have know that this wasn’t because he was being naughty! They should have known about why he had his hood up…in fact, his teacher should have told everyone, including the dinner lady about this. I have no words except I’m sorry this happened to your boy……

    1. Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits says:

      Thank you, every thing you said here is true!

  2. Claudia says:

    I am glad you were able to take him for lunch then on. You are a wonderful mum. It so said how little faith/ value they attached to your son”s account and quite often as you said generally to children diagnosed with ASD-but most shocking I find that the communication book was binned and the CCTV was deleted. Doesn’t look good did the safeguarding team have anything to say about this?

    1. Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits says:

      Claudia, nobody could do anything. The head said it was fine, the governors were her friends, at the time I didnt feel like there was anything I could do. Maybe I should have taken it further but I didnt want to make things worse for my son so I chose the route of bringing him home for lunch x

  3. FireBrightStarSoul says:

    My God. I would be ready to go ballistic on them! I photograph everything, and have a scanner app on my phone for this exact reason! It’s come in handy more than a few times.

    We Autists do not like to revisit any pain because it triggers a physical remembrance almost as if we were right there enduring it all over again. Flashbacks are horrible. I hope he is better now. ❤️

    1. Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits says:

      Thank you, he is in a new and much better school now and time and understanding are healing.
      That is so interesting about revisiting pain because my son can get very upset and says he has flashbacks, thank you for commenting!

  4. Julie Harper says:

    ASD children do not lie as they always want to follow the rules. If anything ever happens like this again then make sure that you go into school and ask to see head straight away. CCTV should be viewed with you present. All written evidence is legally supposed to be kept on file. If it isn’t there then the head has broken the law. You are entitled to see any written files on your son. This is a huge safeguarding issue and the team should be investigating. I hope your son is ok xx

    1. Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits says:

      Thank you Julie, he wasnt at the time but he left that school last July and is in a much better school now. He is so much happier. You are right though, I should have been there to view CCTV. I might still ask for written files as Im sure they have to keep them for a certain amount of time and Id be interested to see what was in there.

  5. Laura Vertigan says:

    Thankyou for sharing this. What a horrible thing to happen, you always want to be able to protect them! I think a lesson here is to never assume that the school will do the right thing, especially by a challenging student. At least having read this, I’ll know that if something similar happens to my kid in the future to go and demand to see the CCTV myself straight away!

  6. Mary says:

    This sounds so familiar. Just before half term one of the TAs at my son’s school found him on the floor of the dinner hall trying not to melt down. Instead of letting him be or helping, she shouted at him enough that some of his (year 5) classmates began to cry, and she called him a baby. I heard this story from his anti-bullying ambassador best friend that afternoon because my son was still too upset to talk about it.
    Unlike your school, though, the headmaster was very interested in getting to the bottom of the issue. He talked to the TA and other pupils present and the TA has handed in her resignation. I’m sorry that your situation was not handled as professionally or appropriately.
    (I have left out the bits of the story where my husband and I stomped into the school armed with legal information and definitions of bullying and hate crime against disabled students of course…)

    1. Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits says:

      I am sorry your son went through that! I am really pleased though that it was dealt with correctly!

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