Category Archives: bullying

Teens throwing chairs at B104 Night, Mayfair

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The crowd sang along to Chiddy Bang’s “Mind Your Manners”

B104 night at Mayfair every Memorial Day weekend in Allentown is a great bargain:  $5 entrance fee for nationally known acts.    It’s usually a bit crowded, but where else can you can get $5 seats where you can see the stage? A few years ago we waited a couple of hours and got in the front section to see Jesse McCartney.

This year was Chris Rene from X factor, Chiddy Bang, and Boys like Girls.  My husband and I thought it would be fun to go, and we particularly wanted to see Chris Rene from the X factor. We arrived to a mostly full tent after a rainstorm, and found 3 empty chairs in the middle of a sea of teenagers. As we sat, I saw a ripple of reaction from the teens around us: adults don’t belong here. Girls with long straight hair wearing tiny jeans shorts and crop tanks, smart phones in backpockets visible as they scan the crowd to see who’s here, who is arriving.

President Obama knows the right gestures to use when singing Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”, despite several dubbed viral videos which make him him look pretty… nerdy.  Start by teaching kids gestures that go with songs from preschool like the Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the Chicken Dance. By about 4th grade sleepovers,  girls learn to lock eyes while singing a key phrase, often accompanied by a gesture. but :      “ you can’t keep singing at the same person, that would be awkward, you only like sing a line or two”. For call me maybe, make your telephone at “call me” and shrug at “maybe”.

I see clues that these kids know each other, that they must be from the same school. Open mouthed smiling girls with braces check their phones, and look at each other and laugh.  Girls sit in rows, a few braiding each other’s hair, wet after being caught in the rain. Boys sit behind in groups,  a brave girl or two sitting with a date in the boundary. Finally, Capcee starts the warm-up music: “Teach Me How to Dougie”.  A couple of  teens stand up and try out a couple of dance moves, scanning faces and gauging reactions to each movement. Everyone knows words of the songs , they know which parts to sing aloud, locking eyes briefly and singing phrases at each other. Girls ignore the  boys, until more dominant boys show up at the last minute, striding right to the  most popular girls.

By the time the DJ Capcee gets to “Low”, by Flo Rida, the kids are all up: lines of carefully set chairs block their forward surge.  My daughter gets up to dance, but I caution her to stay  back, sensing her danger in not belonging. While my daughter is standing,  a girl brazenly comes and sits in her seat next to me – I pull my daughter back down into her seat to re-claim the space, and the girl hops over into a boy’s lap.  There are fleeting touches, and a couple who might be graduating middle school risk a first kiss.   Someone starts throwing  chairs into a pile, helter skelter, to make room for the arriving kids, who snake forward.   They never look at us, but their bodies tell us we are invaders in their territory: they  wall us off with the chair pile.   I freeze when someone taps my shoulder from behind, knowing that we are  blocking the path, and parents eyes don’t belong here . The crowd shouting:  “Sex Sex sex sex” , along with a song that I have never heard before, but that they all know well.

After the concert, I did the research…….my sources tell me that  probably they weren’t actually shouting “Sex” it was probably “Shots”, by LMFAO featuring lil Jon,  a song I hadn’t heard before. It sure sounded like sex.

Girls turn to each other and make eye contact, singing phrases, imitating gestures:  Applebottom jeans, boots with the fur…lowlowlowlowlowlowlow.  One girl is suddenly  spit out from the group, and connects with friends on the edge  explaining  with animated gestures. As the chair barrier piles up, my invisible family is a rock in the stream, as teens file around us to join with the larger group. Kids slip and slide, climbing over the chair pile to get  past , and  suddenly the prettiest, best dressed  girl throws a chair in our direction with barely restrained viciousness.

Concert riots are nothing new. This picture of thrown chairs is from a 1980 riot at a Black Sabbath concert. In 1980, fights and thrown chairs resulted in the cancellation of a free Drake concert at South Street Seaport.

We finally give up and head for safety in the periphery.  We excuse ourselves to pass through a group of teens dressed in black: we make eye contact and smile. They smile back with gentle understanding, and suddenly  we are visible again. After we move, the crowd continues to heat up, bumping each other, standing on chairs, pumping fists, pushing forward. I take a tour around the crowd, and I see piles of chairs all the way across the crowd.  It wasn’t personal.

Rob Harvey and Vose. I took my daughter to see my favorite local band, Vose, at Crocodile Rock in Allentown. We had to listen to a heavy metal band before Vose went on. I hadn’t seen live moshing before, and I wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette. It wasn’t that hard for me to figure out to move back away from the circle pit, but  a teenager  with autism might need a cue to figure out where to stand. My older daughter is in college — she’s a much better teacher for this kind of situation.

As the last Chiddy Bang song comes to an end, a security guard wades into the vortex of the group of teens, right into the spot we left, and says something to the charged up teens.   Suddenly, the group scatters, quickly leaving the concert as if with one mind. A Mayfair official gets up on stage and tells the audience they must follow rules: no climbing on chairs, no pushing forward.  But the intensity is already diminished, the danger is over now. The crowd settles listening to calm pop music, and  event volunteers come and rearrange the chairs.

Capcee was a master at revving the kids up, but the security guards knew just how much intervention was needed to allow a good time, but prevent a riot.  This wasn’t even a newsworthy  event:  concert review don’t mention any near melee at the concert.   This is just everyday group behavior at a concert.

I have so many questions. How can I possibly teach a  teenager with autism safe concert behavior?  I had been thinking to invite some of the girls from my social skills group to this concert, but I hesitated. Caution…..often a good thing!   I was surprised to see so many young teens without any adults checking on them. Where were those helicopter parents?  If there were any parents of these kid at Mayfair, they were so far away as to be useless.   The security did manage to prevent real harm, but I can’t imagine that the parents of these kids would be okay with this.    I chose to bring my daughter  so that I could teach her — well, I really thought it might be fun for her– but I couldn’t let her move  into such a complex social situation.   We remain more connected to our kids with autism, who, like the kids wearing black,  are vulnerable and have no protection from the pack.

Here’s a list of popular songs that come up at dances and other occasions.  This list is somewhat different than just “what’s in now”- some songs are important in the context of school dances and parties.   I’m sure I’ve missed some.

  • Lady Gaga, Just Dance, Telephone
  •  Beyonce,  All the Single Ladies
  •  Mary J. Blige Family Affair
  • Sarah Bareilles, I’m Not Gonna Write You a Lovesong
  •  Chiddy Bang, Ray Charles
  • Jennifer Lopez   On the floor
  • C&C Music Factory,  Everybody Dance Now
  • OutKast, Hey Ya
  • Pink, Let’s get this Party Started
  • Nelly, Hot in Heere
  • Miley Cyrus, Party in the USA
  •  Taio Cruz Dynomite
  • Bruno Mars, Grenade
  • Ciara, 1 2 step
  • Right said Fred, I’m too sexy
  • Justin Timberlake, Sexyback
  • Rihanna, We found love ,  Birthday, Don’t Stop the Music
  • LMFOA Party Rock Anthem, Shots, I’m Sexy and I know it
  • Flo rida, Low,  Right Round, Club Can’t Handle Me, Good Feeling
  • Cali Swag District, Teach me how to Dougie
  • Cee-Lo,  Forget you (there is another version with F you)
  • YMCA/Cotton Eye Joe/Electric Slide/Chacha slide /Macarena
  • TikTok,  Ke$ha
  • Eiffel65 , Blue
  • Journey, Midnight Train (aka Don’t stop believing)
  • Katy Perry, California Gurls, Firework, Hot ‘n cold
  • Green Day, Time of Your Life
  • Maroon 5, Moves like Jagger
  • Black Eyed Peas, Imma Be, Boom Boom pow, Let’s Get It Started, I  Gotta Feeling
  • Montell Jordon This is How we do it
  • Enrique Iglesias, I like it
  • Justin Bieber, Baby
  • Reel2reel, I like to move it move it
  • Shakira,  Hips Don’t Lie
  • Chris Rene’s Young Homie has grown on me, and I like his peaceful message:     “Hey, young homie what you trippin’ on
    Looking at life, like how did I get it wrong,
    Life’s too short, gotta live it long,
    To my brothers and sisters when will we get along”

     

Teaching Slang and Idioms

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Swag means style, or confidence in how you carry yourself

Language development goes beyond learning names of objects and grammar to learning slang and idiomatic expressions. It is essential for older children and teens with autism to have a good handle on how peers are using language. Parents may have mixed feelings about teaching slang as it is often associated with non-standard words referring to  body parts and sexuality.  It  feels wrong for adults to intentionally teach about words we really don’t want  kids to use, but children with autism often benefit from direct teaching about all forms of non-literal language.  Kids with ASD can particularly get in trouble with sexually tinged language, for example accidentally using a common word that has multiple meanings.  Peers may find ways to use this lack of knowledge to tease a child with a disability so that others in the group will laugh at the child’s cluelessness.

When kids with autism are small, we first struggle with teaching basic naming. We move from naming to generalization: it’s not enough to name one picture of a cow, kids also need to recognize a cow with different colors and patterns, in cartoons and photos, as well as more abstract toy cows.    Language learning starts out on this concrete level.  Often, speech therapists are “done” teaching language when a child has a reasonable vocabulary and grammar as measured by tests of expressive language. When parents express concerns that a child is not understanding and using speech like his peers, speech therapists may send home a worksheet with 20 examples of non-literal language and idioms, but this is  just a drop in the bucket in teaching idioms as there are thousands of such expressions in daily use.

Higher level academic work is dependent on understanding of abstract language, and reading such literary classics as Shakespeare requires the ability to decipher new meanings. Students with autism will need assistance in progressing  from concrete to more abstract language if they are mainstreamed academically. Parents can support learning about non-literal language by continuing to read aloud with children even after they are reading on their own and discussing meanings of words, expressions, and social inferences. Popular music, TV shows, movies, and cartoons are also rich sources of language that  parents can use children to take advantage of “teachable moments” with children. It can be fun to teach through the use of pictures.  For several years, I put an idiom of the day on my daughter’s laptop, so that she’d see it when she logged on.

Cry your eyes out.  Lists of idioms, as well as funny idiom pictures drawn by children can be found at Idioms by Kids

Selena Gomez crying her  eyes out. Some children do better with pictures of what an idiom really means, rather than humorous drawings of  literal interpretations.

Typical children do not need to be  taught basic idioms, but a child with autism ,may not pick up the meaning in context.  In later  elementary school, idioms may be taught as part of language arts, but children with autism need instruction early, in order to follow basic directions given by adults.  A child may look like a deer in the headlights when you tell him to “hand it over” or to give you a “hand”.  Sometimes an adult will give directives using indirect or idiomatic language, and become upset when a child with autism appears to be non-compliant.   But if you say “Would you mind backing up a little?”,  children with autism  may get stuck on  “Would you mind?”, because they don’t understand that they need to comply even if they DO mind.  They may not understand the variety of meanings of the  word “back”: back up, back down, get your back up, get off my back, behind her back. You can find long lists of these expressions at websites, such as Free Language Stuff. I use this phrases intentionally with children with autism, and provide them with an immediate translation. For example, I might tell a child to “cut it out” and follow-up saying  “that means I want you to stop”.

My daughter, as a toddler, often started screaming if someone offered her a “diet soda” as she thought it would make her “die”

In later elementary school,  no later than 5th grade, it is time to  get  familiar with slang expressions. Slang includes new uses of existing words, as well as invented words. Some invented words are based on abbreviations.  This is more and more common as abbreviations emerge from  “text talk”.  Some text talk is only used during writing /texting (such as CUL8R) but other text talk is increasingly incorporated into conversation such as  OMG, TMI,  BFF, BF/GF, yolo ( you only live once ) and IDK ( I don’t know). Kids don’t need to be able to use these expressions, but it helps if they understand what they mean.

It’s fun to introduce slang in current music, and you can find less sexy versions  of music videos appropriate  for younger kids, such as the Chipette versions of popular songs. Here is a fun Chipettes mash-up of two popular songs: Something To Dance For / TTYLXOX “MashUp” (The Chipettes Version) – YouTube.

Randy Jackson from American Idol is known for his use of expressions such as “Yo Dawg” “you can really sing the phone book” (means you can sing anything) and “that was HOT” (awesome or sexy). Incorrect usage of phrases such as ” he can really blow” (in this context, meaning sing) can lead to trouble for kids with high functioning autism.

Some abbreviations, such as LMFAO, BFD, and WTF  are substitutions for “bad” language. If you don’t know what these mean,  you can look them up on Urban dictionary.com .   It is important to teach kids that although abbreviations and substitutions of bad language are slightly less offensive, using them with teachers and the principal is disrespectful. Many children with autism appear to be disrespectful because they miss the social context of language. We need to  teach them many unwritten rules, for example,  that adults can use command language with children, but school age children are rude when they use command language with adults. Imagine a child with Asperger’s telling the principal to “move it”, or worse, “move your butt”.  When a child is scolded for being rude, it just confuses them, as they may be repeating words they heard on the playground, or that adults used with them.

Kids across the autism spectrum can pick up bad language they hear at school or at home, but explanations should be tailored to cognitive level of the child. Younger children and children with cognitive delays may hear a bad word they don’t understand and repeat it; the heightened attention that follows makes it more likely that a child will repeat the word just for the drama. The safest approach is for adults to use minimal attention and emotion when addressing use of “bad words”.   For children who enjoy drama sometimes it’s possible to teach funny or cute popular expressions, so that they do get the attention they are craving. It might be cute if a child says “Oh….sugar-monkey”  or “aye caramba” as substitutes.

Many  kids with Asperger syndrome think about rules as black and white with no gray area, and so they  may be stressed when peers begin to experiment with language. For children who are strict rule followers, you can  introduce and explain all forms of bad language before they start hearing it at school and seeing it on bathroom walls.   Having a talk about the meaning and usage of words is not likely to lead to these  children using the words.  On the other hand, when an adult role model screams ” !?!@#!” every time something goes wrong, what happens next is predictable.


Bella Thorne and Zendaya are current  stars on the Disney channel. Lyrics of Bella Thornes: TTYLXOX: “Be be be my BFF
Cause IDK what’s coming next
And I’ll be LMHO with the rest
So TTYLXOX”

Keep in mind that usage rules for slang are very specific, and include intonation and body language. Teaching about social context is critical:  kid talk changes dramatically depending on whether adults are present.  Typical children learn that they can say things to a young adult babysitter that they can’t say to their grandmother, but we need to teach this to child with autism.

Moving on to actual slang: The terms sick, mad, dope, fly,  and epic are all positive descriptor words.  Sick implies over-the-top insanely fantastic. Mad seems to be used to replace “a lot of ” as in,”I have mad homework “. It can also mean impressive as in “he has mad skills”.   Epic is a superlative: the term epic fail is what happens when you lose a video game, or make a giant mistake.   Calling someone a tool, or saying something is whack are both negative.  Both have multiple slang meanings – if you don’t know the meanings, look them up!  Other terms: crib (home), bounce  (leave; “let’s bounce” means let’s go), and  ride (car, as in the show “Pimp my Ride”). Tight can mean either “close” as in “we’re tight”,  uptight and closed up  as in ” my mom’s tight”, or stylish as in “those is some tight kicks”.  Swag is a positive word meaning stylish. Saying that someone “killed it” means they did a great job, not that they committed a crime.

Another fun new term is Noob which is short for Newbie, or newcomer, which emerged from multiplayer online games, referring to someone who doesn’t know the social rules of the setting/game. Bromance is a non-sexual closeness between males. A frenemy is someone who you seem to be  friends with, but who you don’t really trust.  Some terms, such as Homie, home skillet, Shortie (or Shawtie) and props have urban origins. Shawtie is an affectionate term for an attractive female, but can also be used for a friend. Giving someone props means to give respect to someone. Junk is a current word referring to private parts on a male, or  referring to a female’s “booty”.

Some teens with autism may start to pick up on new slang  on their own, but it helps to have on-going open discussion of language with open-minded adults to clarify appropriate usage. Adults need to think carefully about how to teach language use, as children who behave like a parent  Mini-Me will have reduced social acceptance.

Sheldon Cooper in the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory has a literal understanding of language despite a genius IQ. The very popular show revolves around Sheldon’s constant social misunderstandings. I feel a little queasy about laughing at him.

Props to my friend and colleague Virginia for helping me with this post,  she is mad fly!

Looking for The Secret Garden in special education

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Looking for The Secret Garden in special education

When we  first imagine a new baby, we dream of a happy family life, full of friends and laughter. We look forward to cheering our children on as they grow and achieve.   We don’t look forward to our children spending an isolated childhood in a segregated special education classroom.  But as we come to terms with a child’s disability, we hope that somehow we can find communities that love and accept our children.

The recent viral video by father Stuart Chaifetz reveals an ugly side of special education.   Mystified by behavior changes in his usually happy child with autism,   Mr. Chaifetz sent his son to school with a tape recorder in his pocket.  The YouTube video contains audio clips of school staff  telling Akian to “knock it off” “shut your mouth” and “shut up you bastard”.    When Akian asks for reassurance and is laughed at, he began screaming.  Mr. Chaifetz describes a ½ hour long tantrum which followed, in which Akian knocked over chairs and hit teachers.  The 4 million views of this video suggest that average folks find this tape shocking.

I wish I was shocked to hear this story, but I’ve heard and seen too much in 16 years raising a child with autism, and 10 years working with kids with autism. I have met many adults who cannot find a place in their hearts for children with autism.  Our kids don’t always respond to people who try to be friendly, even  by smiling or making eye contact.  Whether kids are verbal or non-verbal, they lack basic people skills to connect with people.  They have annoying personal habits like picking noses, and wiping mucous and spit in places they don’t belong. Their faces, hands and clothes are often smeared with remains of recent meals. Children with autism move in erratic, compulsive ways.   Kids all over the autism spectrum know when the adults they interact with dislike them, although they usually don’t understand why.  Akian had no way to know what “bastard” meant, but he understood the tone which said that he was unloved and unacceptable.

Parents of kids with autism know how people react when their child behaves oddly in public, perhaps making strange noises and strange movements. We are wounded by the stares and outright questions, and this becomes a barrier to bringing the child to the playground,  grocery store, and to church. Parents yearn for a safe place where our children can play and learn and be accepted.

I’ve heard a teacher say that a child with autism just “didn’t belong” in her mainstream classroom, and I’ve battled with teachers who wanted to exclude  children with autism  from field trips for forgetting one too many homework assignments. I’ve heard about a principal berating a child with autism who made mistakes in the lunchroom, and seen kids with autism excluded from outdoor recess. I’ve seen kids restrained and secluded in time out rooms. I’ve heard many teachers ranting about parents and blaming them for the child’s behavior at school.   I’ve also seen teachers who care go the extra mile to include kids with autism in marching band and musical plays and who find a way to make things work.  I’ve been in  schools that include non-verbal kids with autism in mainstream classrooms, because it is the right thing to do.

Imagine being a child with autism:   you are the focus of the energy of so many loving adults who are trying to change you.  Your basic self is not acceptable, and needs fixing.  Imagine the perseverance needed to tolerate 500 repetitions needed to learn how to roll a  ball, or to learn to point to a picture of an elephant . To tolerate having your behavior corrected, again, and again.

Pennsylvania has outlawed the use of prone restraints, possibly due to deaths of children, but this technique is still used in many states such as Minnesota.  School personnel working with aggressive children usually   receive training in safe crisis management which often including how to restrain safely.

Many idealistic young people want to work with special kids, but it is hard work, and sometimes boring and frustrating. Kids and parents are not always grateful, and when kids have increasing problem behaviors, it’s easier to blame the home environment rather than analyze one’s own actions. School staff need to follow through with mountains of small details like collecting data and following behavior plans, and must stay positive throughout contentious IEP meetings with argumentative parents.  In the video, Akian’s dad implies that an Functional Behavior Assessment  was done by a behaviorist and that a behavior plan was created.  One assumes that the school staff received training during this process, but that these adults weren’t motivated to follow through with what they had learned.

Rifton Chair

Early in my experience as an “Autism Professional”  I visited a school where many children were restrained in Rifton chairs for a good portion of the day.  Staff wore black armguards to protect their arms from scratches and bites.   I watched staff move two semi-circular tables around a child who was attempting to attack them.  At this school, the teachers maintained quiet patience, despite reliance on antiquated methods of handling problem behaviors.  I have seen many teachers with arms scarred by the fingernails of students with autism, who maintain a love for their students. Good quality behavioral intervention can sharply reduce high rates of problem behaviors,  making the use of mechanical and physical restraints unnecessary.  Ugly scenes of aggression and restraints motivated me to learn  the skills needed to minimize physical control of kids, so we can all avoid the scars.

Mary and Dickon push Colin’s wheelchair into the secret garden, where he gains strength and secretly re-learns to walk .

One of my favorite childhood books is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Mary Lennox is a spoiled and sickly young British girl orphaned in colonial India who returns to England to live on the estate of her bitter widowed uncle.  Mary, her cousin Colin, and her uncle regain health through the magic of growing flowers, animals,  and fresh air in the garden.

Heidi introduces Clara to her friendly mountain goats

The book Heidi follows a similar theme, as the invalid Clara is healed by fresh mountain air, goat’s milk, and the companionship of friends on a visit to the Swiss Alps. In these books, adults are not truly evil, but tend to stifle healthy growth through their anxious attentiveness to illness. Mary, Colin, and Clara have no  real  disabilities or illnesses. Out in nature and away from adults,  the  children challenge each other, and  learn to run and play and help each other heal.

These powerful stories of healing feed my attraction to animal rescue and farm life.  I don’t trust that people will be able to be kind, patient or including of speical children, so I gravitate to the acceptance of baby animals. Like many parents, I yearn  for a positive nurturing environment, where all  children  can experience life without criticism and negativity.

Annie, a Good Shepherd resident with Spina Bifida, painting the barn at Flint Hill Farm. She says that people without the use of their legs can find plenty of  work to do on the farm!

Last weekend at the farm, I heard a mother scolding her son “What are you doing, I told you to wash your hands, what are you, some kind of idiot, get going, wash them now…..”  I was leading some disabled adults around the corner, and I paused at hearing the loud, ugly tone.   I casually asked them to excuse us to make room for the wheelchair to pass by, hoping that might nudge them into some self-restraint.

Later I saw a mom with a son with Down syndrome, struggling to convince him to stop putting his hands in his mouth after interacting with goats.  She didn’t raise her voice, although she was clearly stressed.  I approached, wanting to distract him by letting him hold a chicken egg I’d just collected, and attempted to reassure the mom that it didn’t matter if the egg broke. Later, I realized that  she probably feared contamination from the egg, as well. I was trying to distract him from putting his hands in his mouth in an accepting and positive way…..but perhaps I would  have been more help by finding the hand sanitizer.

The contrast of the two situations stayed with me: the use of “idiot” as an insult to the son in the first, the self-conscious physical struggle of the second. Both moms were so fearful of contamination after contact with animals.  I was sad that the worry created by dirt and germs blocked joy of  contact with the natural world.  It is certainly simplistic to hope that children, learning together about growing things, could somehow heal and grow straight and strong.

Teenagers feeding a baby calf

  Parents of children with autism, like Mary’s uncle in the Secret Garden, have the potential to become bitter with grief.   There is so much anger and pain in Mr. Chaifetz’s rant against his son’s cruel teachers.  However, in a follow-up video, his voice is more hopeful when he speaks directly to his listeners and thanks them for their support and stories.  In this fleeting moment of public attention, there is hope that people  have gained a glimmer of understanding of what it might be like to be a powerless child with autism.

The Bully Project

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Jackie Libby recalls that she and her husband, once found their son Alex passed out in the front yard of their Sioux City home.
“He said some boys were slamming his head into a seat on the bus,” Jackie said. “We thought he made it up.”

I keep seeing commercials for The Bully Project.  So I’m starting to pay attention.  I watched an interview with Alex Libby, one of the 5 kids who were followed for a year in this important documentary. The stories of these kids are heart-breaking, and include two  children who committed suicide after prolonged bullying.

Something about Alex made me watch more carefully — does he have some form of autism? They don’t mention it – but I spot a blue puzzle pin near his  shoulder, and when I look closely his mom is wearing one too.  I check  the promotional website but Alex’s bio doesn’t mention Autism. I wonder why.

Alex Libby and his mom Jackie during a TV interview about the movie release http://thebullyproject.com/indexflash.html

Digging deeper, I find an explanation from the film-maker, Lee Hirsch: “…both Tyler Long and Alex have Asperger’s Syndrome, and we made a conscious decision not to disclose that in the film. We certainly could have, and perhaps it would have been insightful to the audience and we talked about it a lot. Ultimately, we decided that we didn’t want anything to make the audience think, Oh, well, that explains it. Well, of course. We didn’t want anything that anyone could hang onto in that way.”

Wow.   That explains it?  Well of course?   Like, they have Asperger’s syndrome, so of course they’re going to be bullied?

Lee Hirsch, film-maker, hugging Alex

A variety of kids are targeted by bullies, not just kids with autism.  Gay kids are beaten up. Kids with learning disabilities and mental health diagnoses are called names. Kids who are perceived as weak and non-assertive are intimidated.   Kids who are different are at risk of being bullied in so many different ways. But somehow, Alex’s blue puzzle pin reminds me of Katniss’ mockingjay pin in the Hunger Games books: a signal of solidarity from Alex and his mom to those of us affected by autism. A tiny symbol of rebellion from Alex in the middle of a media circus.

Rachel is slushied on Glee, a TV show that uses music and humor to discuss important social issues affecting teens

When people complain that the definition of Autism is “widening” and about “over diagnosis”, I hear them questioning whether kids similar to  Alex should be included in the Autism numbers. People may argue that the articulate and aware Alex doesn’t “really” have autism,  and that he was just another “different”  kid who got beat up on the bus.   In my life, I’ve met so many kids like Alex; kids with high functioning Autism who can manage at school without behavior problems, kids who can do the schoolwork, but just don’t fit in. Kids who have been shuttled for years to different doctors by anxious parents, without a diagnosis or treatment. Kids whose parents, like Alex’s, have more than a little bit of denial about the cruelty of other kids.  Many kids with Asperger’s get diagnosed as late as 6th or even 9th grades, and already have significant depression and anxiety.  These kids don’t need one -on -one assistance at school, and many of them would be mortified to have someone hovering near them all day. But they are at risk from aggressive kids, and need vigilant adults who are willing to intervene. [ Autism Puts Children At Risk for Bullying]

Worry about out-of-control kids underlies decisions parents make about schools for their mainstreamed kids with autism.  As teenagers move through middle school to high school, supervision and monitoring is looser, and possibilities of victimization increase.   Often, parents find alternative solutions, and send vulnerable kids to smaller religious- based schools and charter schools. Many parents don’t take any risks at all and pull out of the game, cyber-schooling at home. They don’t trust that adults within schools will do what is necessary to keep vulnerable kids safe.

The short bus is a target for offensive comments and jokes.

Maybe you think Alex should have been riding on the short bus, where he would have been safe from bullying peers. Maybe you think he should have been home schooled. But shouldn’t Alex be accepted for who he is, and have the independence he has earned? When kids with autism gain independence, parents  worry less about their own child’s behavior, and instead focus on their safety.

Kids like Alex may no longer be diagnosed with autism with the stricter criteria developed for the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The DSM is the document developed by psychiatrists outlining consistent criteria for diagnosis of mental disorders.   Since  insurance companies are starting to be forced to cover autism, I wonder about their role in tightening up the diagnostic criteria. The new CDC autism numbers, showing that 1 of 88 kids have autism, may still be  just the tip of the iceberg, as  a study by a Yale researcher found autism rates in South Korea are 1 in 38.     1 in 38 could cost a lot of money.

There will always be kids who don’t fit in.  Who don’t wear the right clothes. Who are preoccupied with Pokemon and Star Wars, and who’ve never heard of One Direction or Big Time Rush. Kids who are unaware of the subtle pecking order of kids, and who don’t know the rules of where to sit at lunch or on the bus. Kids who get teased.  Kids who don’t get the rules of the playground games, and who melt down when they lose.  Kids who nobody likes.   Where is the dividing line between the annoying kid, pestering everyone with repeated questions, and the kid with a clinical diagnosis? Which kid deserves insurance reimbursed therapy, and which should be left on his own, to sink or swim?

At this point you may be wondering whether the kids who are bullied are really the ones who need to be changed.  It’s a good question.  Should kids have to change who they are?  Well, no, we should not try to change gay kids, or keep them in the closet. Diversity makes people  interesting.    But we do need to look at the bullying ringleaders, whose unbridled aggression may develop into long-term anti-social behavior.  This is quite different from many kids with autism, who desperately want friends, but just don’t know what they are doing wrong.

Alex Libby, talking about the kids on the bus: “If you say these people  aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”

We want our kids with autism to actually have friends.  We want people to like them; we want them to be be included.  In social groups, I don’t use behaviorism to coerce kids to bounce their balls in the same rhythm. And I’m not  looking to transform kids with autism into Popular Kids. But I do want kids with autism to ride the school bus with the other kids without getting beaten up.   Maybe if I do a good job they will just….pass.    Maybe if I teach the right skills, when students are partnered with a child with autism, the other kids won’t roll their eyes or wince, making sidelong glances and exchanging smirks of sympathy. Or maybe typical kids will invite friends with autism to birthday parties because they want to, not because their mom said they must. I try to teach kids skills that will help them survive out there in the real world, such as what clothes and music are in, how to know when someone isn’t interested in what you’re saying, how to be flexible with rules, perspective-taking, and how to tolerate feedback without crying.  I set things up so they can experience the enjoyment of having fun with other kids, and so they will have the motivation to keep trying.   But teaching social skills costs money. Health care dollars.

Alex and Kelby with Victoria Justice

As parents, we want our kids to be accepted and have a couple of friends. We don’t want them to go trick or treating with us when they are 16, or to be alone on their birthdays.  We don’t want them to tolerate cruelty as the only attention they get, and we surely don’t want them to contemplate suicide.  We have to work through our own pain to face the difficult issues: we have to face the pain of seeing our beloved sons and daughters rejected by strangers, and the pain of our own experiences of being left out and getting picked on.  We have to find our voices and speak up, and then we can teach our children to stand up for themselves.

I love hearing your comments and thoughts! You can comment on the blog, on Facebook, or send me your thoughts by e-mail at trebat@ptd.net

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Napoleon Dynamite: a happy ending movie about a picked-on kid who finds a couple of friends