By Dan Coulter
When I was little, playing with some neighborhood kids, I let them roll me up in a rug. Or I rolled myself up, I can’t remember. I do remember the feeling of being totally helpless. Someone sat on me and didn’t let me unroll for an eternity of probably a minute or so. I struggled, realizing that no matter what I did, I couldn’t free myself. I was absolutely at the other kids’ mercy until they let me go.
That’s something like the sense of desperation I now realize my college-age son, Drew (who has Asperger Syndrome), felt when he was bullied in high school. He talked about it at the dinner table last night. I didn’t understand until that moment how deeply it affected him.
My wife and I knew he had to deal with bullies in high school. We worked with him, teaching him to ignore taunts so he didn’t get into fights. We urged him to tell us about any problems. We made sure key people at Drew’s school knew his situation and that Drew knew who to go to when he was being tormented.
And he listened. When kids who knew that Drew didn’t like rapper Eminem’s lyrics and that Drew was sensitive to noise sat behind him on the bus with a boombox and blasted an Eminem CD into Drew’s ears – he kept himself in check.
He got off the bus and went to the coach who was the school disciplinarian, as we’d told him to. The coach found out who was on the bus and read them the riot act.
We appreciated this. It helped. But I’m realizing now that we only got the tip of the iceberg. Drew got good grades and overcame multiple Asperger Syndrome challenges to make a number of friends his senior year. But he didn’t tell us the full extent of the daily attempts other kids made to tear him down. As Drew describes it now, I have a better understanding that lot of the taunting was routine and subtle and omnipresent. And Drew felt it was inescapable and often unreportable. While the coach dealt with the highly visible bus incident, Drew says that when he did report being harassed, often teachers didn’t do anything.
There’s no shortage of approaches to dealing with bullying, teasing and insults. Most of us have “ignore them” in our advice kit. I know of a father who felt his son’s karate classes could help him deal with bullies. I hope it’s helpful, but my experience is that a kid with special needs who gets into a physical confrontation is frequently assumed to be in the wrong. And only a fraction of bullying is physical.
Even if your kid is big and strong or knows martial arts, how does he deal with the continual, subtle, non-physical stuff that the teachers never see? Having conditions such as AS puts some kids at a natural disadvantage and makes them a magnet for the worst in some other kids.
So what do you do?
The best advice I’ve heard about came from a panel of people with Asperger Syndrome in a seminar on bullying. They said, “What are you talking with us for? Talk to the bullies! They’re the ones causing the problem!”
I think you can take this to the bank. No matter what you do to prepare your child to deal with a range of bullying behavior, you’ve also got to hit the problem at its source.
Fortunately, there’s a growing wave of information, programs and resources that can help you and your child’s school address the source of the problem. Schools can help prevent bullying by making all their students and staff aware of what it looks like, that it’s serious – and that it won’t be tolerated. More and more schools are starting formal awareness training on bullying. The state of North Carolina, where I live, has initiated a “Bullies Don’t Belong” campaign supported by the state’s attorney general.
If you have a child in school being harassed, banding together with other parents to support bullying awareness training for students and staff is one of the best investments you can make in your child’s education. And if you’re frustrated at trying to access limited school resources to support a relatively small number of students with special needs, this time you’re pushing for something that benefits kids throughout the school. I’ve seen estimates that one-third of school kids have been bullied.
It’s terrible that the new bullying awareness programs were sparked by a series of school shootings, but maybe these programs can help prevent future violence – and make daily life at school dramatically better for many, many kids who would never consider violence.
These programs can help those teachers and school officials who need to better understand the problem. An administrator at one of my son’s schools told us that kids learning to deal with bullies on their own was just a part of growing up. But what good does it do to tell our kids not to get into fights over taunting and cruelty and to tell a teacher instead, if the teachers don't take action? This just makes kids feel helpless and trains them to suffer in silence.
Your PTA is a good place to get the ball rolling. In fact, the national PTA organization has information about dealing with bullying on its website at: http://www.pta.org/members/content.cfm?ItemNumber=2783
This information includes signs to watch for that your child is being bullied (or that your child is a bully.)
I don’t believe in looking back and beating yourself up for what you might have done, but I do think we need to learn from the past. I had to wait until my son was in college (where his experience is light-years better than high school) to learn just how tough high-school really was for him socially. Luckily, you can tap into resources that weren’t available to me just a few years ago.
Here’s hoping you find them and use them. Nothing is going to totally eliminate bullying. But if you prepare your child AND support awareness programs to reduce the problem, you’re taking out a huge insurance policy in his happiness. You don’t want your child feeling helpless, like he’s rolled in a rug. You want him feeling free to learn in a safe, positive atmosphere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the video: “Intricate Minds: Understanding Classmates with Asperger Syndrome.” You can find additional articles on his website at: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright Dan Coulter 2004 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved