Friday, January 18, 2013

The Oblivious Target, a bit about autism and bullying...

When my son started first grade, he was still partially non-verbal and spoke quite unclear. The untrained ear interpreted his speech as a foreign language, and many people looked to me for interpretation. Since I couldn't follow him into his mainstream first grade classroom, I made a set of cards for him with pictures and words that he may need throughout the day. One card for bathroom, another for needing help with his schoolwork, and so on. I assumed that this would be supported by his teacher and speech therapist. The reality, however, is that my son was laughed at for using his cards and the teacher seemed, to my son, to be siding with the laughing students. He expressed to me quietly and privately a feeling of defeat. He returned to school without his cards, without a way to tell his teacher he needed to use the restroom or when he didn't understand the lesson.

I volunteered in my son's classroom doing busy work that the teacher didn't have time to do, and used the opportunity to watch how my son fared during classroom time. What I saw was a muted version of the intense teasing and bullying he endured in preschool, often without realizing that the other kids' laughing was at his expense rather than a happy mutual enjoyment. I removed him from preschool because of bullying and other social disasters he was involved in. Then I removed him from kindergarten to homeschool him for the same reason. So here he was in first grade and little had changed with the other kids. What had changed was his ability to stay seated and pay attention to the teacher. I felt confident and let him ride it out throughout first and second grade. He went through a lot of bullying, teasing, manipulations and exclusion in those two years. When I did start homeschooling him again,  I overheard his best friend say to him "It's a good thing you're homeschooled now because those other kids were so mean to you."

CNN ran a story last year on why autistic kids are more likely to be bullied here, citing a study that states: "...about 46% of autistic children in middle and high school told their parents they were victimized at school within the previous year, compared with just over 10% of children in the general population." This may make you think of the classically autistic kid whose disability is outwardly noticeable, but in reality it is the kids who are more high functioning and in mainstream classrooms who are receiving the most bullying and negative attention. "...those who were mainly educated in mainstream classrooms were almost three times more likely to be bullied than those who spent most of their time in special education." Why? Because they are still socially awkward, have trouble reading social cues and don't have the full capacity to understand the other kids. "...autism disorders are characterized by an inability to read subtle social cues and by difficulty with communication." And, studies like this are hard to pull off accurately because these children have such difficulty with understanding the whole picture of what is happening around them socially. "In order to report being bullied, you need to understand when you're being targeted, for example; in contrast, you also need to understand and effectively deploy harassing social information in order to be a bully — things that autistic children generally cannot do."

Now that my son is in 5th grade and is in his third full year of being homeschooled, it is much harder for an outsider to see his autism. He talks much more clearly despite sounding to some like he has a foreign accent. He is highly intelligent and can talk to adults about many different subjects, though he will always prefer to tell you about his latest obsession (which is currently Minecraft). He still has trouble in social peer groups, however. He is still autistic. It still hurts when I see him getting bullied, even if he is totally oblivious to it.

I enroll my son in classes with other homeschooled children so that he will have structured time and space to develop his social abilities. He currently takes a physical activity class with an instructor who connects with him well. After a year and a half of taking classes with this instructor, my son has improved in huge leaps as far as his ability to be a part of a group dynamic. I think having someone tuned in to him who can redirect him back into the activity easily is key. Sometimes he will connect with another child outside of class, but it always seems brief which leaves my son bewildered and sad. Sometimes I watch him in class and see subtle bullying, teasing and exclusion taking place. Sometimes it isn't so subtle. I don't expect the instructors to see and monitor everything that happens in a large group of kids, but I do wish I knew how to talk to the parents of the children who bully my son.

It was while watching my son's class that I thought to write this bit on the topic. I love my son and I love his autism. He is an amazingly beautiful person with an intriguing view of the world. His understanding of some things is deep and heavy, while he just doesn't seem to get other (often basic) things at all. That which makes them beautiful can also make their lives profoundly difficult. But he can't wear a t-shirt everywhere he goes that says "I'm autistic and may act in ways you don't understand." He just has to be who he is, like we all do really. I hope we can all try to understand each other and teach our children to see & treat everyone as fully human and worthy of love and acceptance.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Morning @ MadHouse Farm

Jamie had his breakfast of mealworms in bed, Honeydew is missing some head feathers, Loki pinned Jonathan to the bed and Maia has new rats...