Tag Archives: bullying

Dear Friend Who Just Did The (R-word) Impression

Dear Friend,

I’ve known you a long time.  And I love you.  I really do.  A thoughtless comment on your part isn’t going to change that.   Because I know you are a good person.  I know you wouldn’t be deliberately hurtful to another.  You have been there for me through my life –my wedding, births, deaths, professional successes, the idiotic decisions I’ve made, and even those moments not fit for public discourse.  You’re a great person.  You make me laugh, and you are one of those friends who shows up.  You know what I mean — the people who don’t just ask what they can do, but just arrive when they’re supposed to.  That’s you, my friend.

But, oh, how I wish you  hadn’t just said what you said and did what you did.

Just a little while ago, we were having a great time.  We got a babysitter, cleaned up whatever substances the children smeared on us, and took off to remind ourselves that we are still capable of socializing with grownups.  At some point, somebody shared an amusing story or point.  And that’s when you did it.  You made a comment about “not being a retard” and then made a gesture I doubt you seriously considered.  You raised your hands and screwed up your face in a parody of a person with a neurological disorder/genetic condition/brain damage and altered your voice — doing the classic “retard” impression.  (The r-word – which we’ll call it from this point on.)

And here’s the thing.  I’ve seen you say and do that before.  Several times.   Times when I didn’t think too hard about it.  No, you would never tease an actual person with an intellectual disability like that.  But you’ve amused yourself and others many times in small group get-togethers – usually just making a quick joke about something being dumb.  But that was long before I gave birth to a sweet, beautiful, seemingly perfect baby boy who, at 3 1/2 years old still isn’t talking, won’t play with others, and takes no joy in toys of any kind.  That shook me to my core and altered everything I thought I knew about myself, humanity, unconditional love, and the evolution of personal strength.

So, coming from the perspective of a mother who is very likely someday going to hear someone tease her child cruelly, there is nothing – nothing – funny about that at all.

And here’s why.  It’s not because we’ve lost our sense of humor or the ability to laugh at ourselves or life.  It’s because we now personally know exactly how the mother of an intellectually disabled child would feel upon seeing you do that.  It’s because some of us personally know how painful that is to the heart of that same child.  Yes, they do know when they are being talked about.  They do know when they are being excluded.  So would a pet dog.  Yet they are not dogs, they are human beings.  And they deserve that respect.  They have worth.  Their lives have value.  They can be happy, be productive, and give joy to others.  And that’s just something you are not going to fully understand until the issue affects your life in a profound way.

So, friend, I’m going to ask you to do something for me.  I’m going to ask you to try to step outside of your own perspective and natural defensiveness and just trust me on this — this is another one of those Golden Rule kind of things.  When speaking of human beings, always go with respect for the dignity of the human soul.   That path will never steer you wrong.

(Giveaway) Book Review: In His Shoes by Joanna L. Keating-Valasco

Note:  I was contacted by the author Joanna L. Keating-Velasco with a request to consider this book for review.  After accepting, she sent me a free copy for review.  This is the copy that I will be giving away to a lucky reader.  Gently used, I promise.  I received no other incentive or promise of blog promotion for my review.

Because of the staggering numbers of autistic kids who are being bullied in school, In His Shoes: A Short Journey Through Autism appealed to me.  And, while this is not a book about bullying, it is a book that could help prevent or alleviate bullying of ASD kids.

In His Shoes:  A Short Journey Through Autism is written for a middle school audience.  The book is arranged in chapters containing vignettes of daily experiences of a 13 year-old autistic boy named Nicholas.  Nicholas speaks, but is not conversational.  He suffers from sensory integration issues and is often quite frustrated at his inability to communicate his thoughts and needs.  Nicholas is enrolled in a self-contained classroom, but attends inclusion classes to learn and socialize with typical kids.

Through the vignettes, we observe Nicholas as he experiences many things common to autistic kids.  We also see the experiences of the typical kids who interact with him.  Which is important.  It can be hard, when worrying and hurting for your bullied child, to remember that kids are kids and usually do not have the knowledge or life experience to understand our children’s eccentricities which do seem weird to typical kids.  He (and they) experience such things as:  transitioning to middle school, meeting new people, meltdowns, food aversions, being taken advantage of, bullying, birthday parties, being talked about, sibling relationships, sensory overload, adapted curriculum, going to the dentist, and more.  Following each vignette, is a “Points to Ponder” section of thought-provoking discussion questions.

I particularly like the design of this book.  Having worked with thousands of middle schoolers, I can tell you firsthand that middle schoolers do not care about autism.  Middle schoolers care about middle schoolers.  They are still very self-centered at this age.  It isn’t that they don’t care when faced with another person’s difficulties.  It is that they are mostly oblivious to them.

When you want to reach the hearts of a group of 11-13 year-olds, you have to first put them in the other person’s shoes.  This is what Keating-Velasco does with the aptly named In His Shoes.  Each of the “Points to Ponder” questions asks students how they would feel if faced with the same situation.  The questions are excellent, and I can tell you from experience that they would start a wonderful classroom discussion about tolerance, compassion, and bullying.  Middle schoolers actually love to discuss these issues – especially when given an opportunity to share their opinions!

I see In His Shoes best being utilized in a group setting.  It would be an ideal book to use in 15-20 minute segments.  I could see youth groups, peer counseling groups (student led school guidance activities), or classroom teachers using it.  It is quite the thing these days to have built into the school schedule advisor-advisee periods – usually once a week or during a short homeroom period – when teachers or guidance counselors lead discussions about topics such as this.

If you are a parent whose ASD child is transitioning to middle school or having problems in his/her school, I would take a copy of this to the guidance counselor or principal and ask if they might be willing to use this with the students.  I would go that route first rather than the classroom teacher, as approval would no doubt be needed first.   This book might also be useful to put in the hands of siblings of ASD kids (or their friends) who are having difficulty understanding a brother or sister’s needs.

Joanna L. Keating-Valasco also has a similar book geared toward elementary students.  As my teaching experience has been only middle school for the past 14 years, I decided I would best be able to evaluate this book.  But it might be an option if your child is in elementary school.

In His Shoes: A Short Journey Through Autism is a book written with a specific purpose – opening the hearts and minds of middle schoolers to the experience of kids with autism.  Based upon my professional experience, I think it would do an admirable job of doing just that.  Highly recommended.

The author’s website and information for ordering:  http://aisforautism.net/.

If you would like to enter to receive a free copy of In His Shoes, please leave a comment below.  Must be received by February 9, 2012.  (Planning to simply draw a name out of a hat!)  Question:  Have you (or would you consider) visiting your child’s classmates (or having guidance assistance) to explain his or her ASD condition?  Why or why not?  And, if you did, how did it go?  

From the Rooftop: Autism Disclosure

Last year, when I made the realization that my then-20 month old son was showing clear signs of being on the autism spectrum, I shared my concerns with a few people.  Those people had one of only two reactions.  The first was denial.  I was told that my son was too young, too cute, too social, and the oft-repeated “But he’s a boy.  They develop later than girls.”   I understand this reaction.  Parents often worry for nothing — especially about early development.  Boys are different from girls in their development.  And, yes, my son’s spectrum behaviors are somewhat atypical.  (As for being too cute?  Well, I don’t deny for a moment that he is The Cutest Little Boy in the World, so there is that.)

It was the other reaction that left me somewhat disconcerted and admittedly…torn.  I was immediately told by several people to keep quiet about it.  I’m not suggesting that they didn’t want us to seek help for him.  They did.  But they also insisted that we should protect him from any stigmatization by keeping it a secret.  Not wanting to make any irreversible mistakes, initially we followed that advice.  Only close friends and family were told, along with my administrators, who would inevitably notice all of the days I had to be out for assessments, appointments, hearing tests, etc.

But as the months passed, I found this advice difficult to follow.  We live in a small city.  One tends to bump into acquaintances in one of only two therapy centers in the county.  Family friends know that ASD in the family.  Inevitably, one member of the family is incapable of keeping a shut mouth.  To state the obvious, it gets out.  In our case, because Callum has some indicators that he may one day be high-functioning, I found myself wanting to clarify his situation as being hopeful rather than bleak.  So, while I initially intended to protect his privacy, life happened, and now folks know.

Yet it wasn’t mere inevitability that decided the secrecy issue for me.  What decided it were my experiences as a teacher.  After years of working with ASD kids in middle school – in a range of severity and ability – I have reached the conclusion that not only should ASD not be shrouded in secrecy , it should be shouted from the proverbial rooftop.

In my sixteen years working and teaching in multiple schools across the school system, I have met a lot of ASD kids.  While they have all been verbal (nonverbal spectrum kids in this county usually attend a special-needs school), their functioning has varied from non-reader to academically gifted and from requiring a full-time aide to being completely self-sufficient.  I have also worked with kids who were clearly – to persons with any sort of knowledge of autism spectrum disorders – clearly autistic/Asperger’s, but were never diagnosed due to their families’ desire for secrecy and a refusal to have them evaluated for needed services that might “put a label” on them.

In addition to ranging in severity, function, and awareness of their condition, they have also varied in the positivity of their middle school years.  In my experience, the ASD kids on the more severe end of the spectrum fare a little better in terms of teasing and bullying.  Their behaviors are so obvious that the typical kids seem to “sense” their differentness.  The bullies among them don’t bother as much to target those kids as they don’t give as satisfactory of a response to teasing.  This is not to imply that severe ASD kids don’t suffer from bullying.  They do.  But most middle-school bullies prefer a victim who will provide a little more “entertainment” and interaction.

The ASD kids on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, in my opinion, don’t fare as well.  Their differences and needs are perceived as weird or deliberate, and they suffer all the negative attention that follows.  Because their diagnosis is known, however, school staff try to be on the lookout for such things and often make accommodations to help them navigate around the bullies.  We try to pair them up with more sensitive students and have plans for them on special events days.

But the ASD kids who are never diagnosed or whose condition is not revealed?  They have it worst of all.  These kids, whose families- and sometimes even doctors and teachers- want them to be viewed as “normal”, have received little to no help whatsoever.  They have endured years of criticism about their poor handwriting, clumsiness, social awkwardness, etc.  They have been left alone in the world, trying to navigate a mine-field of subtle human behavior, facial expressions, and unwritten rules of social norms.  These kids could have received speech, occupational, physical, and cognitive therapy.  They could have been taught how to interpret otherwise inexplicable-to-them behaviors of the world around them.  But they get nothing.  Their middle school years are pure hell.  They don’t even know themselves why they are different.  Imagine being that intelligent and not knowing why your life is so hard.

A desire for secrecy – as well as the well-intentioned desire to “not stigmatize” them – denies these kids years of help and the understanding of others.  To me, that’s unforgivable.  Because in the ASD world, that level of high-functioning is a gift horse you just don’t look in the mouth.  

Just imagine how years of speech, occupational, and cognitive therapy could have benefitted them.  Would they still be autistic?  Of course!  But they could have been autistic with friendships and accomplishments and far fewer memories of bullying and humiliation.  I pray each day that my son learns to speak in sentences and that his joint attention improves to the point of being able to learn academically.  I pray each day for him to have the opportunities the high-functioning kids have.  I also pray that, no matter what his level of functioning, that I will find the right words and actions to help him fit into his world.

Yet all I have seen with regard to autism disclosure is…nothing.  Either the autistic child’s functioning is so low that the other kids just sort of naturally leave them alone or their functioning is so high – but so unusual as to be weird – that the other kids tease and bully them.  I have yet to see a moderate to high-functioning child who understands his own condition enough to help others understand or a parent or counselor (with parental permission, of course) come into the classroom and visit with the other students to explain it for him.

The thing is, I really do believe that could make a difference.  It is amazing how typical kids can and do often rise to the occasion when something is explained well to them.  Will bullying still exist?  Of course.  You can’t be different and not experience it at all.  But when you point out the obvious, you, to some degree, disarm those who would have done it for you.  You educate others and prepare an easier path for yourself.  At the very least, you put the world on notice of how you expect to be fairly treated and can then reasonably expect to hold them accountable.  Until then, you can’t say they really know better.

I am certain that there are those and will be those who believe that I should keep Callum’s challenges quiet.  And I know they mean well.  But I’m coming at this with the hope that his abilities will be such that he will need me to help clear that path for him in the regular classroom.  I’m hoping his functioning will be at such a high level that he will seem merely odd, rather than incapable, and need the understanding of his condition by those who might not otherwise have perceived it.

I might not get what I want.  He might never progress beyond a few words and gestural communication.  If that’s the case, we will love him and help him to be the best and happiest Callum he can be.  If that’s the case, then our revelation of his ASD status will be moot.  Everyone will know anyway.

But if it isn’t the case, then I’ll still be the eye in the sky reporter, watching for trouble, pointing out roadblocks, and suggesting other routes.  I will visit his class and help his classmates to understand.  I will insist that not only his teachers be present for initial parent conferences but also any para-professionals, administrators, office personnel, or cafeteria managers who might need to know who he is and why he does what he does.  I will continue to do those things until he can do them for himself –so that I will never see the look of grief in his eyes that I have seen in so many ASD kids’ eyes.  I might not be able to change the world.  But, by avoiding secrecy and ignorance, I can help to improve his.

And at the very least?  I intend to put them on notice.