Autism Watch: 2007

Bullying and Autism: Who, where, when, and why?

Posted on: May 7, 2012

Seems like you can’t turn on the news anymore without seeing something about bullying, and more and more, it’s teenagers who not only bully, but advertise it on YouTube, Facebook or other social mediums. It’s bad enough they’re doing it, but they’re proud of it and want others to see it.

The Dr. Phil show today was about four teen girls who beat up a 12-year-old girl (who already had a shunt in her brain, which apparently at least two of the girls were aware of) and video’d it, then put on YouTube. I won’t get into any further details as I don’t want to get anything wrong (you can find it at Dr. Phil’s website) but I will say it was very disturbing to watch, and not just the video but the reactions/responses of others towards what the girls all did.

As a country, we’re aware — the Bully Project movie is playing and many schools hold anti-bullying campaigns. Commercials stress that you need to stop bullying people for their race, their lifestyle, their orientation, but I would love to see them include the disabled. I go back and forth about whether or not we should even focus on the “who” of bullying — no one should be bullied, but with the increase of suicides related to internet bullying, I am aware that we have a long way to go so I’m on the fence. However, bullying is bullying, and bullying is wrong, no matter who the recipient.

We were coming home from the beach yesterday and BB mentioned, out of the blue, how he felt he’d been bullied by a past teacher. It was an interesting comment and his choice of words inspired a long conversation about what bullying was and whether or not he had actually experienced it. We didn’t feel the situation was bullying, but given that bullying comes in all shapes and forms, is bullying in the eye of the receiver? If he felt bullied, was he?

In his case, his IEP was being ignored and some teachers were trying to get him to just stop the irritating behavior so as to get on with the rest of the class and day rather than trying to help him learn better behavior. One example: finding out why he was tapping his foot didn’t matter; instead, he was told to stop tapping and when it didn’t work, he was moved to a corner desk. Alone and singled out, still with the need to tap his foot as the sensory issue wasn’t addressed, and it turned into anxiety and upset. Another: a classmate was allowed to pick on him for his facial tic because “that’s what kids do.”

Was that bullying? Or just lack of education in how to handle it?

We’ve decided that it is unlikely BB will return to a regular public school, in the format that lives now. Instead, we’re going to be looking for something more form-fitting, perhaps a techology-geared magnet school or program. It’s not necessarily because of bullying, though it sure does play into the decision somewhat. BB will need to learn to deal with the bad behaviors in the world. He’ll need to learn to control his reaction and respond appropriately, and/or walk away. We wouldn’t be doing him right if we just pulled him away from it all and didn’t prepare him regardless; he’s going to be out in the world, be it now or next year or in seven years when he graduates, and he’ll run into other bad behaviors displayed by fellow college students or co-workers, or just people waiting in line with him at the bank.

Until he gets old enough to be more independent, we will continue to work with him. Last week, after the homeschool event situation, we gave him some tools on how to handle it if it recurs. “Please don’t touch me.” Talk to a teacher. Seek a safe adult. We want him to realize that even if someone else is being mean, it’s no excuse for him to respond in kind. He can’t control their behaviors, but he can control his own. He is also worthy of respect and doesn’t need to put up with bullying or meanness from anyone. He may be just a child, but children should be respected, too. Bullying sends the message that you’re not being respected, and no one needs to tolerate that.Parents need to model the behaviors they want their children to emulate, so we as adults need to think about it as we’re out in public. Do we honk our horns at slow cars? Do we berate an employee providing customer service to us when things don’t go as we want? Do we fight fair? Do we make fun of people? And to add a new level to it all — do we go to Facebook or Twitter to tell the world about all of our problems? Do we share so much online that our kids think it’s normal for them to as well? Do we bash our husband, our employer or whine about every little twinge or ache? It may not seem to relate but when kids see us use social media to seek attention or antagonize, it rubs off. How many times have our kids said “Well, Mary did it too…” Do we want them to say “But Mom did it too…”

I know it’s not as cut and dried as that, but you have to start somewhere. I don’t want any of my kids to ever be the victim of online harassment or attacks, but prevention is a multi-pronged approach, and even then, not a guarantee of success. It starts with our behaviors, and continues with us watching theirs, addressing things as they come up and listening to their concerns. BB showed me that we may not see something as bullying, but if they perceive it as bullying, it needs to be addressed. Maybe that means just us explaining to them that it’s not bullying, or maybe it’s a red flag that yes, we need to step in.

It’s sad that bullying is such a problem anymore, but one person at a time, we can decrease it. Bullying the disabled — or anyone — happens every single day. We worry about 1-in-88 having autism — and we should worry about it — but like autism, we don’t know the cause or cure for bullying yet and until we do, we need to tackle it before the numbers are even higher.

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