All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there...Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison...I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

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15 March 2009

World Autism Interviews: Melissa Barton/Port St. Lucie, Florida

Alex Barton
Alex with his father and brother
Port St. Lucie, Florida

In May of 2008, Melissa Barton's son Alex, who is on the autism spectrum, was voted out of his kindergarten class at Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Alex's former teacher, Wendy Portillo, instructed Alex's class to say aloud what they do not like about Alex. Afterward, Portillo led the students in a vote over whether or not they wanted Alex in the class. Fourteen students voted Alex out of the class while two children stated that they would like for Alex to remain. After the vote, Wendy Portillo proceeded to ask Alex how he felt, to which he answered that he felt sad. Portillo then asked Alex where he planned to go given that he had been voted out of the class. When Alex responded that he would be going to the office, Portillo told him that he was not wanted there either. Alex ended up going to see the school nurse. Melissa was not informed of this atrocious act until Alex told her when she picked him and his brother up after school.

That evening, Alex repeatedly spoke these words, "I'm not special."

Melissa immediately filed a complaint with Morningside Elementary's school resource officer. Unfortunately, this case is still unresolved.

This incident has given birth to Melissa's passion for advocating for children on the autism spectrum. Currently, Melissa is helping other parents who are dredging through Florida's unsatisfactory Exceptional Student Education system. She will soon travel to Tallahassee to speak with legislators about Florida's Child Find program, as well as about proposed improvements to the current ESE system.

Melissa states that now is the time to both lobby for and establish effective civil rights for children.

Interview with Melissa

E: Were you having significant troubles with Wendy Portillo prior to the incident of Alex being voted out of his class?

Melissa: I did notice, on several occasions, that other parents were upset with Wendy Portillo for the way she was treating their children. It seems she hid whatever abuse she was doing to Alex, as well as to the other children, behind closed doors. There was also a time when another parent approached us other mothers regarding Portillo's negative and rude behaviors.

During a particular meeting between Portillo and I, she stated her belief that "To spare the rod is to spoil the child." I never dreamed she would actually use a rod or a ruler (refer to police report) on children.

Also, at the Mother's Day classroom play, Portillo was very angry with the children for messing up their lines and she even went as far as to make rude gestures to a mother who was holding a vocal infant.

At a school dance, a parent complained to Portillo about the dirty lyrics coming from some rap songs that were playing. According to this parent, Portillo was very rude and did nothing about the songs being played at the elementary school dance.

E: What was your immediate reaction when you first learned of Alex having been voted out of his classroom?

Melissa: Shock! That day, I happened to pick up Alex and his brother from school early. I met Alex in the cafeteria where he attends after school care. Alex's first words to me were said with a red face: "Fourteen kids voted me out of class today." I asked him for further information, but all he was able to add, at this point, was something about the school nurse. From there, I took Alex's hand and we all walked to the school nurse's office. No one in the office wanted to tell me what had happened. So I approached Wendy Portillo and she boastfully recalled the events of the day. I could not understand how, or even what kind of, a person could put a child through such expulsion.

E: Were other staff members clearly in shock and disagreement over Portillo's actions, or did you immediately feel ostracized by the whole school community?

Melissa: I did have a few teachers and staff members offer consolation. One teacher even said, "Wendy Portillo is the meanest teacher in our school. She can be heard screaming at those kids from outside of her classroom."

I cannot help but to feel that the people who knew Portillo was abusing kids did nothing about it. After it was clear that I was going to pursue justice for Alex, eighteen members of the school staff ostracized my oldest son--who still attends Morningside--and me. The retaliation from the school has, at times, been overwhelming. My instincts are strongly signaling to me that fear is what the school wants. It's quite simple because if I am made to be afraid to come forward then the direct threat to Morningside's "inside" secrets would be eliminated.

E: If you could go back in time, at what point would you have made different decisions for Alex and what would those decisions be?

Melissa: I would never have moved to Port St. Lucie. Realistically though, after my first meeting with Portillo, I would have stopped the conversation between us, went directly to the office, and then withdrew my children from Morningside Elementary. This should have been my response to Wendy Portillo's questioning my husband and me about our religious beliefs (my husband is Jewish and I am a Christian).

E: Though it seems your case is far from over, what advice would you give to other parents who are experiencing similar struggles in regards to obtaining appropriate and fair education for a child who is on the autism spectrum?

Melissa: My advice to parents and caretakers who attend IEP meetings is to know your rights, as well as your child's rights. Also, if you feel you are being lied to then immediately make it known and call the school out on it. If you do not have the time to familiarize yourself with the IDEA laws, then contact either an advocate or an attorney.

Also, document everything! If the school's meeting notes are not 100% accurate then demand that they are changed so that the truth of the meeting is preserved. Don't feel you have to go it alone! In Florida, there is an attorney who will advocate for the cost of only $50 per hour: www.sopplaw.com. Also, check out www.familyadvocacyresources.com.

Give your children's education a fighting chance. The school system is only as involved as parents are.

E: What do parents of children who are on the autism spectrum stand to gain from interacting with the Autistic Community?

Melissa: Support! We must support each other. I have not only been helping other parents, but I've also been on the receiving end of some great advice. I have a great deal of respect for any community of minorities that stands together as a whole that cannot be broken.

E: What are your feelings regarding the Autistic Rights Movement?

Melissa: It is very real, and if you want equal rights for your children then you must stand with us. There is no other way.

E: Were you always supportive of the Autistic Community, or were--or are--you more aligned with organizations such as Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America?

Melissa: I am just getting my feet wet. Frankly, I have been burnt from Autism Speaks after I requested help from them to support Alex at the Wendy Portillo appeal. I was told by Autism Speaks that they didn't want to muddy their name and that Alex's case is too political for them to get involved with. Autism Society of America has helped me and has also been supportive of Alex's case. Their local chapter, however, has never contacted me.

E: What have you learned from interacting with organizations from both the Autistic Community and the cure-focused community?

Melissa: It's not a lesson that anyone in business hasn't learned. Some organizations are out for their own personal gain, no matter the cost to children and families. On the bright side, there are organizations and advocates who are truly as they claim. Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities through Florida Atlantic University are such organizations.

E: What organizations, people, and/or causes, have been the most beneficial in providing you with much needed attention and aid to your case?

Melissa: Autism Society of America responded greatly, as they even tried to find someone to fly in from out of state. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has also tirelessly made contact with as many people who would listen to them about Alex's case. Plus they have made frequent contact with me and I definitely see ASAN as a true tower of strength.

There is also Paul Sopp, from Sopp Law West Palm Beach, who provides legal representation with no upfront fee. Family Advocacy Resources West Palm Beach has been calling me on a daily basis and has also been making contact with other parents in our community. Kristina Chew advocates for not only her son, but also for other children on the autism spectrum.

E: Some parents of children who are on the autism spectrum think the Autistic Community is, as a whole, angry and militant. There are myths circulating that the Autistic Community has little respect for parents of children on the autistic spectrum. What have your experiences shown you?

Melissa: I have only been treated with respect from the Autistic Community. If anyone questions this, then I have thousands of emails, letters, and cards to prove what I am saying. The Autistic Community has been there for me every step of the way.

Also, a young lady who was going off to school, sent Alex a little bee that sings "Don't Worry, Bee Happy." She also shared her story as an Aspergers child, which provided great insight. We sent a thank you card, but she may never know that Alex actually played that bee's song every night until it stopped working. This young lady's message meant the world to Alex.

E: At this point, what do you feel Alex needs most to be successful in life?

Melissa: Alex needs to understand that being different is not bad. Being the same as everyone else, thinking the same, loving the same, and growing the same is not what I want for either of my children.

E: Do you feel that resources and funding for children and adults on the autism spectrum should go toward cures or toward improving the lives of such individuals in the here and now?

Melissa: Let's work on the here and now! How can we justify a cure when so many children are struggling with the basics in life? Let's fund a better educational program for these kids. A cure will neither change my son's situation nor the situation of any other child who suffers in silence from abuse and discrimination.

E: What message would you like to broadcast to the world about autism?

Melissa: Autism is not the ender of all marriages, finances, and happiness. Fear will take these things from your life far sooner than autism. Autism is a huge spectrum. That noted, my son is not the exact same as another individual on the autism spectrum. The autism spectrum is a beautiful kaleidoscope of differences. To know autistic people is to love them. To understand them is wisdom.

E: If you were granted a private intimate conversation with Wendy Portillo, what are some key things you would like to say to her?

Melissa: To be frank, I would pray for her. Can someone who is so self-serving even understand the pain she caused my child? Would she care more for Alex than she does for herself? I hope that she is humbled, yet also rebuilt as a person.

At a recent hearing, Wendy Portillo expressed tears when her attorney spoke of her punishment, but when she recalled what she did to Alex and his classmates, or how she wrote tally marks on the board for the votes (so that Alex would have a visual) she shed no tears.

There are many Wendy Portillos in this world. How can we cure hate? Can we even cure discrimination? Wendy Portillo may be allowed to teach, but I am hoping that she has grown from her experiences because you never enter and exit someones life without leaving a mark on their future.

E: How can others best help you at this point?

Melissa: Support! Keep supporting the fight to change this system. This case is not just about Alex and the St. Lucie County School Board. This is about all children on the autism spectrum. Not a day passes that I don't think of the pain that so many children suffer because of discrimination. Never give up! Tell as many people that will listen about my son Alex because his fight is your fight.

Thank you Melissa. Best wishes to you, Alex, and to the rest of your family. Let's hope that this case turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
Check out Melissa's blog.


  1. Hmm - for some reason it is not going through - here it is again

    I consider Melissa a dear and loving friend. She is such a strong woman and a great advocate for her son and so many children like ours. As a mom of 5 kids on the spectrum in the Florida schools, I know the same hardships and battles she faces - and I am one of the lucky ones who has a great advocate and attorney. That being said, what she stated is true. We need to support eachother in the autistic community because if we don't we are lost - nobody knows what we face except eachother.

    Melissa knows I stand beside her 120% and more and I hope and pray that Alex continues to thrive and excel because he too is lucky, with a mom like Melissa and a support system - he will prove all of the Wendy Portillos and nay-sayers out there that children who are special can accomplish more that their wildest dreams!

  2. Thank you for your commentary Krystal! It was definitely a positive experience for me to interview Melissa. And yes, we do need to support each other in the Autistic community. It's time to take the blatant connotations of fear out of the word: autism.

  3. This story makes my blood boil. It is appalling to have people like that teacher have an influence in young minds and hearts. Alex is very lucky to have a mother who is a fighter!

  4. Yes, I am starting to become less amazed by atrocity and more likely to do what I can to counter atrocity.

  5. Melissa Barton's claims need to be thoroughly examined. She claims that Wendy Portillo was the meanest teacher at the school, that others routinely heard her yelling, and that she abused children behind closed doors. However, more than half of the teachers signed a letter supporting Wendy Portillo. A dozen parents of former students spoke in her defense at a board meeting. The local newspaper, TCPalm, writes in editorials that Portillo was treated unfairly and Barton's parading her son on TV was a mistake.

    Melissa Barton has also made many other claims elsewhere. She has claimed that 15 of the other 16 parents from the classroom support her. She claims Portillo is guilty of battery and lied under oath. She claims she was threatened by another parent and she claims the local newspaper is trashing disabled kids.

    Look into the validity of those claims before taking them at face value.

  6. @ anonymous: thank you for your comments. I agree that all sides of an issue need to be examined in all situations such as the Barton/Portillo case. In the future, I will be more diligent about presenting both sides of a case. Thank you for reminding me. I do feel that, as an interviewer, I simply asked questions and then revealed the answers. It is difficult to represent another side of a case when only interviewing one person.

    This interview is a account of Melissa Barton's interpretation of what is going on and not Wendy Portillo's. Lol, I doubt I would have been able to snag Portillo for an interview, but it would have been quite juicy--and again, I would have asked questions and let the answers be revealed.

    All in all, I still believe that Portillo was out of line by having students vote on whether or not Alex should be a part of the class. Even is she had been the nicest teacher before this action, the action alone is intolerable.

  7. I saw Mrs. Barton in the movies the other night and wanted to go and shake her hand for her bravery. I wasn't sure it was her, so I didn't. So I'm saying now, she did what she had to do and I congratulate her. There is a "mother bear" in only the mothers who care enough about thier children to do what she did and continues to do. I've read others comments, who are mothers, that say Melissa has done enough damage. Well, to those negative mothers, you don't know what you would do until something happens to your own young, so don't judge too quickly. Put yourself in her shoes. I wish I had gone and shaken her hand, Melissa, keep up the hard work !!!

  8. If you have five kids on the autism spectrum, you need to stop breeding.

  9. Melissa is the mother of two children. Her son, Alex, is on the autistic spectrum.

    This blog post is about human rights, and not about eugenics.

  10. It is one of the most cruelest and bizarre things i have ever heard a teacher do. She should not be allowed to continue teaching! It is an appalling thing to do to an already stressed child. She must have a mean streak and should be fired! This story angered me to no end.

  11. Kudos to Melissa! I have fought for my son soo many times through his elementary school days.. and I would do it again, and again and again! Children in the autism spectrum should not tolerate bad treatment towards them because they are misunderstood. Enough! There is a point where it is no longer child's play! As an adult, and a parent, we need to teach children to respect others.. you'd be surprised how far the GOLDEN RULE will take you in life!

    Prayers go out to Wendy.. may the Lord humble her!

  12. Relating to Barton family. Our 17 year old PDD-NOS, MPS III Type C daughter, was physically abused at Will C Wood High school by a special ed teacher. Detective Erwin Ramirez informed us that she was not this teachers first victim. Teacher, Marion Elkins, was suspended with pay during the grand jury investigation. WHat can we do? Have already spent over 20k in attorney fees but we refuse to use our daughter as a pawn to extort money. We want this teacher stopped! Regards, Kimberly Pruett

  13. What a fighter! I have a son w/ PDD-NOS,ODD and ADHD, the same age as Alex in NY. I am just starting to see the tip of the iceberg in situations like this. God bless her and her family. Unity will make us strong and help us help our childern.

  14. Its Very sad that there are teachers with such a lack of compasion for kids with autism.My son is 4 yrs old & we just found out he has autism.I pray to God he is Not miss treated as Alex was.
    God Bless you Melissa & Alex.

  15. Know the family and that is not a picture of the boys father. That is their step-father.