Autism and Bullying

6 December 2017

Dear Friend,

Our son was a victim of bullying...

I really hoped I would never see this day but I suppose it was inevitable. I know when our big lad was first diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder the statistics around bullying and autism scared me silly (40% of autistic children will be bullied according to statistics).

I was a victim of bullying in Primary School and it was one of the worst times of my life. I feared that my son would go through the same terrifying, isolating experience as me. Descending into a school life full of loneliness. 

But he did make friends, we were lucky that he was in a relatively small class of 'nice' children. His Friends had the same interests (namely computer games) and we always welcomed them into our house. He started to get invited to things, there were some disappointments but in general he was happy and settled. 

Research tells us that whilst autistic children can make friendships they have difficulties maintaining them, that as children get older the social gap widens and can cause problems, leading friendships to fail. As he is heading to the end of primary school we can see this starting to happen.

Problems arise when my big lad doesn't understand why people behave in a certain way or when he fails to pick up on social cues or hints that 'neurtoypical' children do. For instance when one friend kept saying they were busy, he thought they were busy, he didn't take the hint. Although the social cues are hard for him to understand, he does feel that something is wrong and recently he asked,
How can you be someone's friend then change the way you act?  

Researchers found that, Children with higher functioning autism were actually the most bullied group. They aren’t sure why this is true, but one hypothesis is that it’s because people with high functioning autism are often of average/high intelligence but can still have considerable social deficits, which makes them, in effect, the “perfect target.”

Recently our big lad became really unsettled, we knew something was wrong but he wasn't able to articulate exactly what was bothering him. We noticed a definite deterioration in his behaviour at home; he was more anxious, stimming and struggling to sleep and he didn't want to go to school...

I've often said that being a Spectrum Mum means that you have to be a kind of detective at times, piecing all of the clues together. In the end we worked out that he was struggling with break times so came up with a plan for him to take in his Top Trumps cards to play with a friend. 

Whilst leaving the school meeting I spotted my son being bullied by three boys...

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would never have known because my big lad didn’t see. He didn’t read their mocking expressions, he didn’t catch them sneering at the cards in his hand or notice their disinterested body language or the sarcasm in their voices. He just carried on chatting away, in a friendly manner... My heart was racing and I wanted to run over and challenge them, to ask them why they were being so mean but they/I was saved by the bell.

It was really hard to witness but I did take some comfort in the fact that he wasn’t upset by their behaviour, that he didn't see it. I went home, stunned, angry and upset and talked to hubby. We were left wondering what else was happening that we knew nothing about? Had he become the 'perfect target'?

Then I found a letter hidden in my son's room. The letter was from his support assistant, teaching him techniques to use when a boy kept following him (one of the three). This boy had been deliberately intimidating my son and causing him distress during break-time. It filled me with disappointment and anger and I went straight into school to discuss what was happening and why we weren't aware.
...children with autism spectrum disorders are bullied far more often than their typically developing peers (nearly five times as often) ... and are also often intentionally “triggered” into meltdowns ill-intentioned peers.
Our solution to the problem has been to clearly explain to our son that this boy is not his friend and to stay away from him. We encouraged him to keep communicating with us at home and his teachers at school. I must admit that I daydreamed about waiting outside school to give this boy a piece of my mind, of intimating him like he had my son, making him feel scared and confused...

School were quick to reassure me that the situation had been dealt with and that it wasn't a big problem. But I am not sure that I agree. I think that for my son to read the signals correctly then the bullying must have been 'bad enough'.

Later that week, my big lad pointed out a notice which read;
We accept people for who they are...
His comment:
Well that is exactly the problem with the kids at my school, they don't accept me for who I am... 
Brilliantly insightful! Who has a problem with empathy? His neurotypical peers not him!

My son needs to be taught techniques to deal with negative behaviours but his peers also need to learn to accept difference, especially if Special Needs Pupils are going to continue to be included in mainstream education.

Happily the head has already addressed this issue with his group. We are lucky to have a supportive school and I do feel reassured. But again, I am left wondering, what next? Maybe it is just time for him to move on, to be with peers like him, in a Special setting.

It terrifies me to think that my son may be seen as the perfect target... As a Spectrum Mum and as a teacher I urge you to talk to your children about Neurodiverstiy and teach them to practice kindness. Together we can teach our children that different doesn't mean less. Together we can teach acceptance! 

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