Autism is a developmental and neurological difference. The autistic person many communicate differently, not understand the subtleties of what is being communicated to them and struggle to understand the social norms and conventions that others seem to grasp without any problems. Other people to the autistic person, are confusing, unpredictable, don't say what they mean and can be very mean.
Children in schools pick on those who are different. Whether it's curly or ginger hair, the colour of their skin, their clothes, whether they wear glasses or an hearing aid….for some reason that seems built into us, kids pick on these things and can soon make another child's life hell. I wish the simple solution was to educate all children about autism and other disabilities, and then they would magically understand and be kind. Work we do with all children and adults to build better understanding and attitudes is vital. This blog, however, is about some work I've been doing with a group of autistic young people to explore their experiences and empower them by learning together what they can do.
There are some autism / SEND specific resources you might like to use. I have taken aspects from all of these.
The autistic children I know are often the victims of bullies. It starts with name calling or teasing because of their actions, interests or behaviours that are different from what other children do. An autistic child often doesn't have the social confidence to deal with the challenges of name calling or teasing. They are sensitive and feel hurt like all children are when someone does this. This can very quickly cause frustration and anger. And if the anger or frustration comes out of them and they hurt someone then who is it who will get into trouble? I have had many of my autistic students complain that there are those who know exactly which buttons to press to get them angry very quickly. It is cruel and heart breaking to hear all their stories. Many autistic children are bullied because they are different. The National Autistic Society and other charities have done numerous studies on this. Of course the answer IS to stop others bullying them. But I also am working to build confidence and assertiveness in the children I support.
It's often a power thing. Children see that the world around them is about power. Adults have power over them. Those who shout the loudest and bully others in business, government and the media often get all the power. Maybe it is human nature…but for everyone who has power, there are those they have often bullied on the way to getting there. Of course there are those in power who aren't bullies, but they have other skills we might try to learn from, such as assertiveness, building and training others up, trust, allowing others to share their ideas and celebrating the strengths of a team rather than bullying others into doing what they want them to do. It's a focus on the good of the 'community' rather than the individual.
So, thankfully there is another way. I have been working with one particular group of autistic pupils to explore what bullying is and how it happens. Together we are working out its effects on them and trying to solve different problems together. All the schools I work with are keen and active in preventing bullying. The SENCOs and teachers I work with are active and supportive too. What I am trying to do is find ways to help the children themselves stand up to bullying, as a team. To help each other and to feel that they have more power. So far...
- We used puppets to act out scenarios.
- We've done whole group Emotion Works
- We've used stock pictures and their own experiences.
- We've mapped out what we'd like to change.
Friendship groups can be a protection against bullying. we are learning about how our group can look out for each other. Even if they want to be on their own, to know others are looking out for them will be a source of power for each of them.
Laughing it off or being nice to someone threatening or teasing you is controversial. But what this does is redirect the balance of power. If a bully is goading you to wind you up, or get you angry, then laughing it off with a joke, or even, "I don't care" can take the reward away from the bully. This isn't at all easy for an angry child, even more so an autistic child but it is something we are role playing with our group to see how they feel about it. This goes along with knowing that it's okay to tell an adult and that they should expect something to be done to help them.
Sometimes practical strategies can help make them feel safer. We don't want to take away their freedoms and rights to do what everyone else is doing, but we also want to provide extra safe places and less sensory demanding areas to minimise the bullying risks. These are some of the things the pupils suggested...
- Time away from the main throng of students. A room or club where they can eat, socialise or just hang out.
- Stagger break times.
- School bus buddies.
- Older autistic children as mentors.
- Quite area of the playground.
- Chance to do jobs, stay inside.
- Lunch clubs.
Anti-bullying is not just for one week - it goes on forever.
Do lots and lots and lots of work with ALL students to develop awareness and kindness to each other. All children need positive attitudes to those who are different and schools need to celebrate success that isn't just about power or academic success. Encourage volunteering and community engagement. Discuss what's wrong when we see media bullying. Discuss cyberbullying and all online dangers. Don't ever let it go or stop doing this. Bullying has always been part of human nature. It probably will be for a long time to come. But that doesn't mean we can't do something to make children kinder, more accepting of difference and build their networks of people they can trust and who will be on their team. This is particularly important for autistic students. They'll always need more protection because of their differences and difficulties.