***PLEASE NOTE that my suggestions for tackling bullying are just suggestions, and they may not work for everyone. After experiencing bullying during my childhood, and later supporting other children who’d experienced bullying, I’ve simply done my best to come up with a blame free, violence free way to tackle the problem. ***
For many reasons, autistic children often become targets for bullying. This seems to be more of a problem in secondary schools, where social hierarchies are formed, teenagers bond through sharing gossip and anything outside the norm is rarely tolerated. I’ve already done quite a bit of blogging on my own experience of bullying in secondary school (see “My Diagnosis” and “My Worst Nightmare: Why is Secondary School So Difficult For Children With High Functioning Autism?”) What I want to discuss today is how to respond when an autistic child informs you they are being bullied at Primary School. Or more specifically, how NOT to respond when an autistic child informs you they are being bullied at Primary School.
A while ago, a child I was working with (we’ll call her J) informed me she was being bullied by another girl in her class. There’s obviously no one size fits all solution for this, but I gave her the best advice I could, suggesting she avoid her bully where possible and inform her teacher immediately if any child attempts to hurt her or call her names. When informing a teacher, it is important that children specifically use the word ‘bully’, as this counts as whistle blowing and the teacher has a legal obligation to intervene. I also asked J if she’d told her mother that she was being bullied. Tentatively, she informed me that she had, and her mother’s advice was to ‘just batter her’. This left me shocked and appalled. J appeared to be deep in thought for a moment, then she said, in a very uncertain voice ‘but I don’t think I should… I don’t think I should hurt people.’
I was amazed at J’s thoughtful and grown up consideration of the advice she has been given. But unfortunately, not every autistic child has the capacity to come to this kind of informed decision. And J certainly wasn’t the first child who’s been told to ‘batter’ her bullies. Many of the children I used to support informed me that parents, carers and other family members have suggested they fight back or even beat up their bullies.
I don’t think a responsible adult should ever tell a child to be violent towards anyone. Bullying’s a tough subject to tackle. It can be difficult to collect enough evidence to prove what’s happening, and teachers don’t always want to get involved. But that doesn’t mean children should be encouraged to fight back. Beat up your bully, and you become a bully yourself- regardless of who started it.
Moral considerations aside, telling an autistic child to use violence is far more problematic than giving this advice to a neurotypical child because autistic children will take any instructions they’re given very literally. They also appear impulsive at times because they lack the theory of mind to predict how their actions will impact on others.
For example: a colleague of mine was looking after a non verbal child with Kanner’s autism (we’ll call him T). She witnessed T eating some polystyrene balls off the floor and immediately panicked, imagining the germs that coated the polystyrene and the damage they could cause to T’s body. My colleague yelled ‘spit!’ meaning for T to spit out the polystyrene balls onto the floor. Without a second’s hesitation, T swallowed the balls and spat right into her face. Because that’s exactly what he’d been asked to do. T hadn’t been told ‘spit out the polystyrene balls’, he’d just been told to spit, and taken that instruction literally. Lacking the theory of mind needed to predict that being spat on would make my colleague upset, he didn’t bother moving his head away from her face before spitting.
Imagine if a child with T’s level of autism was told to ‘just batter’ his bullies. He’d probably go to school, find who ever it was that was bullying him and beat them to a pulp. He wouldn’t know when to stop, because his instructions do not include a stop time. Because T is unable to predict future events and (seemingly) unaware that others feel pain, the beating could be fatal. Of course, that’s only if T had come across the word ‘batter’ in the context of violence before. His literal understanding of language could just as easily result in a trip to the local fish and chip shop where T attempts to dump his bully in the deep fat fryer, thus battering him. Both scenarios could result in someone getting seriously injured or killed.
You should never tell an autistic child to beat up their bullies because they could easily take your instructions literally. We avoid using sarcasm, idioms and metaphors around autistic children for the same reason. Say “pull your socks up!” and they’ll pull their socks up. Say “it’s raining cats and dogs!” and they’ll look out of the window expecting to see these animals falling from the sky.
Now that we’ve established what not to say to an autistic child who’s being bullied, what should you say to resolve the situation? Start by telling them to avoid their bully whenever they can. Since it’s a reaction that most bullies are looking for, the best thing a child can do is not engage- just walk away. If things are more serious and the child is being physically attacked, they will need to tell the teacher. Encourage them to do so immediately, highlighting the fact that they shouldn’t do this in front of the class. As long as the child uses the word “bully”, the teacher is under legal obligation to act.
Depending on the child’s cognitive ability, you may need to use social stories to explain the situation to them. These are simple comic strips that are used to act out and resolve a social situation, often including the child’s name so that they feel like part of the story. For example: Jenny loves to play outside at play time, but sometimes the other children hit Jenny and call her names. This makes Jenny sad. Jenny stays behind after school and talks to her teacher about the problem. The teacher assigns Jenny a mentor from one of the older classes to play with at play time. Jenny likes playing with her mentor. The other children don’t hurt Jenny when her mentor is there, and Jenny’s mentor even helps her make some new friends.
A parent, guardian or autism specialist may need to go into the school in order to explain the child’s autism specific needs and how to take these into account when addressing issues like bullying. Failure to meet a disabled child’s needs is an act of discrimination, so make sure the issue keeps being brought up until it’s resolved. If the teachers end up branding you as the parent/guardian/specialist from hell that’s okay. Your primary focus should be the wellbeing of the child, not what other people think of you.
I hope someone, somewhere, finds this advice useful. Just remember that while bullying is tough, especially for a child with autism, there are lots of ways to tackle it. Violence is not one of them.