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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bullying - My fears and hopes as a mother

I posted this on Facebook a while back, but somehow it never made it here.

A decade ago (well, more than that now, but close) we watched the horror of Columbine (and other tragedies like Paducah and Little Rock) where the result of bullying was the lashing out of those who were bullied so that they took the lives of others in their desperation.  What did we do? We didn't stop the bullying. We didn't tell our kids how wrong it was or pound into their young brains (I was a kid then, Columbine was my junior year of high school) how much harm and heartbreak they were doing to those they bullied. It was never stressed how very wrong it was, or even what exactly bullying is. We were given mesh backpacks and told we couldn't wear black and made to walk through metal detectors and be watched by security guards and cops.  We were taught fear, not tolerance.

At what point does "harmless fun poking" and "gossip" become bullying and defamation of character? When is it too much? We never taught that lesson. Even adults bully. We say bad things about even our friends behind their backs. I grew up being bullied. Not pushed around or cursed at or taunted, just shunned or snipped at, or worse nasty comments made when my back was turned or people thought I wasn't listening. It still hurts when I think about it, so I try really hard not to. It was so bad that even now, although people are nice to my face, I always wonder what they say when I'm not around - ESPECIALLY if they bad mouth other people behind their backs when I'm around.

Now, the result of bullying is no less tragic.

Instead of killing others, the victims of bullying turn their pain and anger inward. They cut, they cry, they ultimately kill themselves in way too many instances. The pain wrought by "harmless" words ends in the worst way possible. Never is a punch thrown, no kids are pushed down, half the time no mean words are ever spoken to the target's face. It's surreptitious, insidious, and devastating.

At what point do we teach kids better?!? My child has autism. He is disabled, and has a lot of difficulty with understanding social mores. Often he does strange things in order to cope with the world around him (Ear muffs at the grocery store? Roaring at friends when things are overstimulating him? Melting down for 45 minutes when he can't express his needs?).  He is afraid to be around our next door neighbor's 9 year old daughter (or their son). He knows that she says mean things to him, calls him stupid, calls him baby, taunts him and tells him he can't play with her and her brother (who is Aidan's age).  Where in the world did she learn this behavior? Considering that when I approached her parents about her brother's bullying of Aidan, we were only answered with "Well Aidan sometimes does stuff too".  Wow. Really?  The fear that the bullying will only get worse as Aidan gets older and kids get meaner terrifies me. I can't even bear the fact that he might have to deal with the bullying I did - or worse.

How do we teach kids what defines bullying and why it's so harmful? When do we finally get across to them that enough is enough, and not only should they not bully but they shouldn't stand by while someone is BEING a bully? How bad do the consequences have to be, how many kids have to die before we finally say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH?!

As one of those kids who was an "outcast" and never one of the "cool kids", I vow that my child will know exactly what bullying is and why it's wrong, and that he will be taught that it is NEVER acceptable, whether he's the one doing it, or someone is doing it to him or someone around him.  Will you do the same and stop this endless cycle of heartbreak?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is Different Wrong?

I had a discussion today with a psych professor about autism and whether it was an atypical/wrong developmental path or just an alternate/different path. When there are more than 1 in every 100 kids who have autism, then is it truly atypical, or a sign that some children are just evolving into taking a different pathway through the developmental process? If we see the path autistic children take (or rather, paths) as negative and wrong and something to be altered or stopped, perhaps we're hindering their journey.

Ultimately the goal for any child is that they be able to function in society – socially, physically, economically, etc. Our job as parents is to give our children the tools to make that often difficult journey to adulthood and independence. Perhaps we need to take a step back from the situation. What if we approach autism as a different path rather than just a disability. I prefer to think of Aidan as different, not damaged. If I take into account the different path he's on, and try to ascertain what the differences ARE in that path, then I can give him appropriate tools for that particular path he's taking.

Aidan's big differences have been in speech, potty training, and social maturity. He stopped speaking around age 2 and stopped potty training as well, after normal and even accelerated development up until that point. It took him about two years to catch up and he's been about two years behind ever since. He's almost 8 years old and in first grade and that's a really big deal because he's made it this far. I think that as time passes that maturity gap will slowly grow smaller. Each child with autism has a different set of developmental differences or challenges. Actually, EVERY child has a different set of developmental challenges. Most of those challenges are predictable and acceptable and so we know what to do, based on others' experiences, to help the child along their developmental path. Speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and ABA therapy are tools for autistic children to meet those same developmental goals, but on their own path and timetable.

Same goal, different path. Is that really a bad thing?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

20 Exclusion no-no's for teachers with autistic students in their mainstream classroom:

School is starting back! For the kids this can be an exciting time, but if your child has autism both you and he could be a bit worried about what's to come this year - especially if your child is moving into a mainstream classroom! Aidan's going to be in first grade this year, starting out with an aide with him in the mainstream classroom all day.

Here are twenty "obvious" rules for the mainstream teachers out there:

  1. Try not to use metaphors or sarcasm - “it's a piece of cake,” or “let's put our thinking caps on” are things don't make sense to me and it will take you a while to explain. Sarcasm is even harder to understand!
  2. Don't make jokes about clumsiness or difficulty speaking, even with the neurotypical children – it can make me even more self-conscious.
  3. Don't dismiss me as having nothing to say or refusing to participate or not paying attention just because I don't speak up.
  4. Don't give long strings of verbal instructions. Offer one step at a time and make sure to give me written or visual instructions or rules no matter how “simple” the instructions may be.
  5. Don't assume that because I refuse to look you in the eye that I have an attitude or am lying about something. Make sure neurotypical students understand this about their autistic peers. Don't force a child to make eye-contact!
  6. Don't assume that I will understand the gist of your rules or be able to apply them in a different way to other situations. I think of rules as literal, to be specifically followed to the letter in the situation in which they were presented. Generalizations are often useless to a child with autism.
  7. Try not to plan class parties or field trips in situations that are loud or noisy.
  8. Don't focus on a my disabilities, focus on my abilities. Don't use words like “weird” or “strange” or “bizarre” to describe children or their appearance or behaviors whether they are neurotypical or not.
  9. Don't make changes in the schedule or expect me to react calmly to changes in the day that happen without warning. If there are unanticipated changes, don't reprimand me if I do react negatively.
  10. Don't judge a me or reprimand me for choosing to communicate with you or my classmates in a way that is not speaking out loud – for example writing notes or drawing pictures.
  11. Do not rush me or speak over a me if I'm struggling to verbalize something. Give me time to put my thoughts together and don't try to speak FOR me unless I look for help. Don't assume it's not important if I'm not able to verbalize it.
  12. Don't punish me for being truthful! Sometimes a child with autism will say something that is painfully true (Joey smells bad, Ms. Smith's hair looks funny, etc). Also don't punish me for speaking up when I feel something is wrong or I have reached my limit.
  13. Make sure my classmates and I have a trusted person we can go to if we need to bring up a problem we are having with fellow students or even our teacher (this is the first step in stopping bullying!)
  14. Don't point out the strange behaviors I may exhibit while upset or distracted.
  15. Don't fill every inch of wall space with pictures or every quiet moment with music – every poster, scrape of a chair, squeak of the chalk/marker is one more thing for me to focus on instead of my work.
  16. Don't become impatient with me for not reacting or responding immediately after you give instructions or ask a question - give me a little bit of extra time for absorbing what you said.
  17. Don't assume that certain ways of acting or speaking are “common sense”. Children with autism have to LEARN things that come naturally to most people.
  18. Don't offer open ended choices (What do you want to eat?) - instead offer closed-ended choices (Would you rather have a hot dog today or chicken nuggets?)
  19. Don't JUST send a note home if I have a meltdown or hit another child and definitely don't WAIT to make sure my mom and dad know! Call that day and explain exactly what happened to my parents. Notes just don't give enough information and aren't urgent enough.
  20. Don't move from one activity in the day's schedule into another without some clear transition. Tell me how long until the next activity, what the activity is, and what is expected of my classmates and me during the activity.

    These are the rules I've got so far with help from the web and Twitter (I'm @thepyxie if you want to follow!). What do you have to add?  Feel free to print these out and hand them over to your child's teacher along with your phone number and email address so you know you can always stay in touch.