EPISODE 37: “MY SON HAS AUTISM: DO NOT BULLY HIM”
Hi, Friends! Thanks for joining me today. It’s just me. October is National Bullying Prevention month, so I thought I would do a segment specifically on my thoughts on this subject, and some of our recent experiences. Since my son started Kindergarten this fall, a subject that I’ve been especially interested in on our journey has been bullying. As a parent with a child on the spectrum, it’s been on my mind a lot. Stay tuned for some of my thoughts, along with some advice that I’ve heard and read about.
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There have been moments when I’m with my son where I have witnessed (and intervened) on other children…and sadly some adults…bullying him. It absolutely rips my heart out and shakes me to my core. Thankfully, in those moments, I’ve been with him…so then my thoughts turn to “What if I hadn’t been with him? What would have happened? Would he have stood up for himself, or would someone else have intervened?” We can’t be with our children every minute of every day, and we all know that words (good and bad) can be carried with someone their entire life. Of course, bullying doesn’t just happen to individuals on the spectrum, it doesn’t just happen to children…but what can we do about it?
Let’s first start with the very definition of “bullying”. I’m talking about the Webster’s definition. To bully someone means: seek to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable). The facts tell us that children with disabilities are much more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. When looking within a school setting, one study shows that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of all students. As parents and caregivers, we have a right to ensure that the school our child attends provides a framework of protection. All children have a right to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment and free from disability-based harassment.
Personally, I can remember (middle school primarily…because, let’s be honest, those are tough years for any child) when I was bullied. I was backwardly shy, glasses, braces, a bad perm, good student…you name it…I was the poster child that screamed “nerd”. I got made fun of…and I cried…sometimes in a school bathroom stall, in the gym locker room, at home. It sometimes made school not so fun. I carried a lot of that with me for a long time, and though I know I can’t protect my son from all of the nastiness that life can bring, I do want to make sure that I equip him (and others) on handling situations like this.
Bullying, I used to believe, used to mean meeting someone on the playground and beating them up, or stealing someone’s lunch. As I’ve grown older and have become more educated and aware, I’ve recognized there are many complexities and various forms of bullying. Bullying not only includes direct contact or physical assault, it can be milder and more indirect: social exclusion, subtle insults, teasing, and the spreading of rumors. Laughter at another person’s expense is a form of bullying. And now that most individuals have online access, we have issues with cyberbullying. I have to admit, I’m so glad that social media wasn’t around when I was growing up.
At my son’s school, they have a couple of apps they use to update families on special events, reminders, updates on their child, pictures from their day. They’re really awesome, and my son’s teachers do an incredible job of keeping the lines of communication open. Alex seems to be really happy at school. But one day recently, a video was posted on one of these apps that showed the entire class singing a song they had learned. I was watching it with Alex, and was commenting on how sweet and special this video was. It was then that he pointed to a specific girl in his class. Now, please note that Alex is now verbal, but can still very much struggle with piecing together sentence structures, especially when it comes to more (as I say) colorful language. He points at this girl and says, “She squeezed my arm and called me stupid.” I immediately replayed the video, and again he pointed to the same girl and said the same thing. I froze. This was the first real conversation that I had had with Alex about bullying. We’ve talked a lot about self-advocating, saying “stop” when he doesn’t want something, but we hadn’t (before this time) talked specifically about hurtful words that people can say. I asked him what he did, not sure if he was going to be able to describe it. He said that he told his teacher. I told him that was exactly what he was supposed to do. I told him that her words were wrong, that he wasn’t stupid – that he was, in fact, very smart. I now have an open dialogue with his teacher, and we are both working on dialogue with Alex. His teacher did respond appropriately when Alex told her, so we’re on a good path, but my thoughts still go back to, “What if she hadn’t? What if Alex wasn’t able to tell her?” I still have a fear, but I can now rest a little easier knowing that it was handled (this time) appropriately. The adult response is so very important, and it’s important that adults know how to talk with someone in a bullying situation. I’m not sure that I handled it exactly right, as I’m still learning, but the child should know that it is never their responsibility to fix a bullying situation. They should seek the help of an adult, and I’m beyond proud that Alex did just this.
You see, Alex loves to learn. He loves school, and I know in a great environment he thrives, but research has shown that bullying can negatively impact a child’s access to education and can lead to:
-School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
-Decrease in grades
- Inability to concentrate
- Loss of interest in academic achievement and an
- Increase in dropout rates
Students with disabilities have legal rights when they are a target of bullying, and most states even have laws that address bullying – specifically to students with disabilities. School districts can have individual policies that address how to respond to bullying situations. In our case, we were provided a packet of information from our local district on their policy on bullying. If you’re not sure, contact them and request a written copy.
Most of you are probably familiar, if your child is in school, on IEPs (Individualized Education Program). Students with disabilities, who are eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will have one of these. The IEP can be a helpful tool in a bullying prevention plan, and if bullying is becoming an obstacle to a child’s education, then it can be incorporated into their IEP. There could be goals for social skills, speech and language skills, and self-advocacy skills written in the IEP so they know how to address a bullying situation. There is a woman by the name of Dr. Michelle Borba that has even designed a prevention approach that she has labeled CALM. It’s an acronym, C-A-L-M, of simple rules that can be taught to students with autism:
-The first step in the CALM approach, the “C”, is to “Cool Down”. Teach your child to recognize stress signals like sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat) and learn calming strategies like deep breathing.
- The second step, the “A”, is to “Assert Yourself”. Part of the social skills curriculum can be teaching assertive body language. This doesn’t mean to start throwing punches. Role playing and video modeling can assist in teaching non-verbal body language that can deflect bullying attempts.
- The third step, the “L”, is to “Look Them in the Eye”. Eye contact can be challenging for some students with autism, but using visual supports can be beneficial in teaching eye contact during a bullying attempt.
- The last step in the CALM approach, the “M” is “Mean It”. Language scripts can be taught such as “stop that”, “leave me alone”, or “get away from me”.
But maybe the most important thing in all of this discussion about bullying, is having your child know they are loved. We all have bad days. We have all been bullied, and they are not alone. I know, at least from my own personal experience, that we often believe we are the only one this is happening to, and that no one else cares. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not up to one person to end bullying, and there are individuals, entire communities and organizations that care a lot about this very specific subject. No one deserves to be bullied – absolutely no one. All people should be treated with respect, no matter what, and we all have a responsibility to work together on creating positive change. This is not about, “If I have time, I will”, “If it’s my child, I will”, no. It takes a village. It takes My Autism Tribe. Thank you for being a part of mine, and for walking beside me as I try to make a difference for not only my son, but for others. Much love to everyone. See ya next week!