I have yet to work with a high functioning student on the autism spectrum (AU, PDD) who has not been bullied. When I refer to bullying, I am using part of the definition from StopBullying.gov; I am not referring to teasing. which may occur in isolated instances and is often reciprocated. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can be verbal or nonverbal and include systematic exclusion from the group. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.
Why have AU students been targets of bullying behavior? I have seen the following factors at work.
1. AU kids usually don’t have peer support as protection. The “bystanders” may not have a vested interest in the well-being of the kid being ridiculed. (See #3 below.)
2. AU kids often have at least one atypical behavior that makes them an easy target. For instance, a number of my high functioning AU kids had some grimacing or “stretching” behavior that had become habitual, related to earlier sensory input issues. (Students may still need additional support in this area.) Even very high functioning kids may have a bit of hand flapping or repetition of sounds/comments as they enter kindergarten. Many of them have not yet eliminated asocial behaviors such as nose-picking or groin-touching. Some atypical behaviors emerge as a reaction to the social pressure of a regular classroom setting.
3. AU kids don’t often appear “friendly” as they enter kindergarten. They may not appear to listen or look at others. They may not respond typically to classmates’ comments or questions. They are unlikely to initiate conversations or appropriate play interactions. Bullying behavior may, in fact, simply reinforce false impressions that kids have already formed, such as “That kid doesn’t even notice the ‘teasing,’ or “That kid isn’t friendly, anyway.”
4. AU kids are often an anomaly to the regular classroom teacher, who can then inadvertently set the stage for them to appear even more atypical. That teacher may have lowered expectations for their participation, may not use effective strategies for engaging them, and/or may be fearful of outbursts. In such a case, the other students may follow the teacher’s lead.
Can anything be done or is this a hopeless situation?
This is NOT a hopeless situation. There are a number of effective strategies for addressing these four factors. I’ll link the following strategies to each numbered item above:
1. Teach all students how to respond to bullying. (This is in the domain of regular education.)
- If it is not already in place, conduct regular (weekly) anti-bullying sessions with the entire class. Give kids a definition of bullying which includes systematic exclusion of others. Teach “bystanders” how to respond. Since much bullying occurs at recess or lunch, make sure that adults are vigilant in protecting at-risk kids during those times (that means physical proximity to address verbal aggression or exclusion from activities). Adult responses such as “Go play,” or “Stop tattling,” should be few and far between when kids ask for help.
- Be explicit in teaching kids how to respond positively to differences among themselves. Be culturally proficient as well as special ed-proficient. Use community meetings to teach social skills, including not prejudging others.
2 and 3. Teach needed social skills. (This is the special education teacher’s domain.)
- Assuming AU kids have at least resource support, teach them social norms for what they do with their bodies at school. This can be a balancing act for specialists because the last thing AU kids need is another person telling them they aren’t OK. Prioritize skill instruction. Use observation and classroom teacher comments to determine which behaviors most impact the student’s inclusion in the group. It is possible to substitute a more acceptable form of sensory feedback through breaks or activities done “privately.” Occupational therapists have provided mini-trampolines for some kids, I’ve purchased bendable materials for others, and taught kids how to press down on a table or pull up on the sides of their chair without drawing attention to themselves. Parents have played a vital role in providing after school gymnastics, martial arts, or other physical activities which give kids a chance to really move around. A little chewing on a pencil may be more acceptable than chewing a shirt into pieces. Incorporating subtle, prearranged visual cues in the class may be helpful. And which kid doesn’t enjoy games which explore the perimeters of “personal bubbles?”
- Teach social skills systematically and provide opportunities for generalization, such as lunch bunches or buddy activities. Use videotaping and rubrics to assist kids in learning new skills and seeing their progress. Team with the classroom teacher, other specialists (OT, speech), specials teachers (such as art, music, etc.), and the student’s family for consistency in practice and vocabulary related to specific skills.
- Support your AU student in reporting bullying incidents. I have yet to meet ANY child who didn’t internalize bullying and respond initially with shame and embarrassment. Explain what bullying is and how kids feel when they are bullied. Develop the kind of relationship where kids feel safe to talk honestly about their school day. Teach them how to talk about problems with someone (their parents or guidance counselor, if not you).
- Balance social skills instruction with regular and frequent opportunities for AU kids to “shine.” They may have a unique ability to recite all the basketball and football scores for the week, or perhaps they’ve completed every level of a certain video game. You can let them share these skills with a small group, share digitally with family members, or share with their classroom. Some schools have daily morning video announcements. Your AU kid might be thrilled to share the latest weather information or sporting stats. Be creative! Making them a “big buddy” is a perfect opportunity for them to amaze others with their special talents, to be admired and sought after. Remember that none of us could survive an environment that consists solely of correction and emphasis upon our weaknesses, even if the intentions are good.
4. “Normalize” your AU kid. (This is under the domains of both special and regular education, but the specialist must lead the way.)
- If at all possible, prepare the classroom teacher ahead of time for her special needs student/s. Reassure her that you will be there to provide support and instruction in social skills and any behavior issues.
- If at all possible, set up a transition meeting for the AU student and family to give the child a chance to explore his or her environment before the official back-to-school melee. Prep the teacher for this orientation as well. After she introduces herself, and perhaps points out where the student will sit, let her talk to the parents while the kid explores. The specialist should be there to observe and provide support. Once the student has roamed freely, the teacher can then review the cubby assignment (which should be easily reached without having to get through a maze of kids), expectations for bathroom breaks, etc. The student may have some questions to ask (parents can check on this before the orientation).
- A classroom teacher cannot be expected to provide the systematic and individualized instruction needed in managing potential frustration or outbursts. The specialist must address these from day one in order to help the student fit into the classroom and reduce the wariness of peers.
- Work with the classroom teacher to seat the AU kid with potential playmates during group and table work . Make sure the AU kid is lining up between kids with good social skills. Besides seating positions, you can provide support for effective strategies for teaching, following classroom routines, managing transitions, and practice related to ongoing social skills instruction.
- Normalize your role (that is, of the specialist). Assist other kids in the classroom, not just the AU kid. I always had a sizable group of kids who begged to come to my room once I started pull-out services. Note: You may have to deal with teachers and assistants who say, “Oh, THAT one will be joining you soon enough!” “Yay! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” is one of my responses.
To summarize, it is possible to create an environment where the AU kid is accepted as one of the gang. I’ve seen my AU kids celebrated by their classmates instead of being bullied. It is possible to break the cycle of bullying, even if it has already begun. Both take perseverance and a red-hot desire to see all kids treated with respect.