5-year-old boy with autism punished at school for hugging another student: Family

A Tennessee family is angry after a 5-year-old boy with autism was allegedly reprimanded for hugging one of his classmates at school.

Nathan, a student at East Ridge Elementary in East Ridge, Tenn., was punished by school officials after a teacher accused him of "sexual activities" when he hugged a fellow student and kissed another on the cheek, the boy's guardian, Summery Putnam, told WTVC.

Putnam said she felt "sick to [her] stomach" when she received a phone call from the kindergartner's teacher, who allegedly told her, "You need to have a talk with Nathan about boundaries."

Nathan's autism has led him to struggle with understanding social cues, Putnam said, adding that the boy's teacher simply misunderstood his actions.

"He doesn't know what he's doing wrong," Putnam told WTVC. "If you don't understand how autism works, you'll think he's acting out or being difficult. But, that's not the situation."

Nathan was transferred into special education services following the incident, a change which included a new classroom and teacher.

After Nathan's family expressed anger that East Ridge Elementary filed a report with the Department of Child Services, Tim Hensley, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County Department of Education, released a statement on the decision.

"School personnel are required to [sic] concerns regarding children to the Department of Child Services (DCS)," Hensley explained. "It's up to DCS to determine if those reports are acted on by DCS and what form those actions may take."

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the nonprofit Autism Speaks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 1 in 59 children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in 2018, although the condition was four times more prevalent in boys than girls. Autism Speaks notes that nearly two-thirds of children with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied.