Kerry Magro didn't learn to speak in complete sentences until he was 7 years old.
By then, he'd been bullied for years.
During a recent presentation to more than 200 sixth graders, Magro, now 31, explained how he suffered at the hands of his peers, largely because he has autism.
"I want you to imagine a kid about your age being bullied because he couldn't talk as well as everyone else," Magro said. "Imagine a kid who was bullied by his peers because he had something like special needs. A kid who was called weird, an outsider and 'not normal.'"
At one point, Magro even broached the topic of suicide, explaining that it is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"A lot of people sometimes come up to me and say, 'Is this the right age to actually talk about such a sensitive topic?'" Magro told TODAY Parents after his speech at Franklin L. Williams Middle School in Jersey City, New Jersey. "And I always reply, 'If we don't talk about this now, when are we going to talk about it? When is the right time?' Because it is happening."
Last month, a 16-year-old boy died by suicide after he was outed online and allegedly cyberbullied by his classmates. This summer, a new study revealed that suicide rates among young people are the highest they've been since 2000.
"It's important for us to really talk about the negative effects bullying does have," Magro said. "We've actually had guidance counselors come up to us and say that after we presented and talked about suicide a little bit, some of their students came in to talk to them about having suicidal thoughts."
Broaching the topic now opens up the door for students to be honest about how they're feeling — and get help if needed, he said.
Magro was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old. Though a doctor told his parents he might never graduate from high school, he did — and recently earned his doctorate. Today he's an author and a professional public speaker, and hopes to soon start teaching at the college level.
He speaks at schools across the country year-round and especially during October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.
"When I was growing up, there was no autism acceptance month, there was no national bullying prevention month," Magro said. "I was very isolated in public schools. Special needs was still very up-and-coming."
Magro hopes that by sharing his personal story, he's able to break through to the kids. And it seems to work — during the Q&A portion of Tuesday's presentation, one student was so moved he asked to share his own story. He said he and his sister both have autism, and began to cry as he shared how his sister had been bullied during ballet class.
Later, one of the students in the audience, 11-year-old Isabella Torre, said she "got a little teary-eyed" watching her classmate speak. "It was so brave, such an inspiring story," she said.
Another student, 11-year-old Rachel Mokoko, was shocked to learn that Magro had been bullied since age 4. "That was surprising, because I thought bullying only happened in middle school and high school."
Magro, who also works with schools on diversity and inclusion efforts, explained how developmental disabilities like autism are on the rise, making it all the more important for young people to understand the disorders. (One in 59 children had autism in 2014, a sharp uptick from 1 in 150 in 2000, according to the CDC.) And kids with disabilities are more likely to be bullied. Magro explained how his autism caused him to struggle with speech and social skills, including maintaining eye contact and understanding sarcasm, which prompted teasing from other kids.
"It made life challenging for sure," he told the students. "I struggled with anxiety. I struggled with depression."
He also shared some simple tips for students to combat bullying in their own school:
- Know that bullying usually stops when someone steps in and says, "What you are doing is not OK." Don't be scared to be that person.
- Encourage other students. "Make everybody feel like somebody, right now," Magro said.
- Take a pledge to stop bullying — and tell your friends to do it, too.
Magro said this type of programming would have been "life-changing" for him when he was a kid, and he hopes that all the students he meets know how important they are.
"I sound like a broken record at times because I truly believe that we were all brought onto this planet for a reason," he said. "We all have value and when students are bullied or teased, they think they're not valued, that they're not somebody. And that's something I hope every student is able to receive, especially at an early age, because if they can find their own value, I just hope that can stay with them for their entire lives."