By Joanna Blanchard, OTR/L
During elementary school, our family was able to partner with school staff to navigate most of the social issues that cropped up. However, middle school and high school is a totally different story for any child. For those with difficulty processing social cues in the first place, it can be very challenging.
Our oldest child, now entering seventh-grade, is on the very high end of the autism spectrum, coupled with intense ADHD. In the past, it seemed his lack of awareness about what his peers thought was a blessing. He didn’t worry about it, so neither did I.
Now that he’s more aware of social norms, things that other kids have moved past at this age still cut him deeply and cause anxiety. He often feels blind-sided, despite years of social groups and therapy.
To help educate his peers, I’ve shown a video in his elementary classroom about bullying, talked about autism, drawn tangled neurons to emphasize that a person with autism has a bigger brain. This presentation was always as enlightening for me as it is for the kids—all who had the most amazing insights and questions.
However, older kids tend to be more sophisticated and guarded about what they say in front of each other. This is challenging to approach talking about the subject without sounding “preachy.” I am not sure what to look for or say within an older, savvy group of kids to encourage social inclusion.
“I’m not sure we can prevent bullying,” says Lori Ohama, a fourth-grade teacher in the Battle Ground School District and parent of two teens. “But we need to inform our kids of different forms of bullying, how to respond and make sure schools take it seriously.” She recommends parents and educators address each incident individually and promptly to ensure students that adults within the system will not fail them.
Mark Moy, owner and head instructor at Moy Martial Arts and Tai Chi in Vancouver, has several tips to prevent bullying, and suggests scenario training with your child, asking: “What would you do if…”
He also advises parents to have a “permission talk” with kids, giving your kids permission to say no to other people, setting personal boundaries and preventing being an easy target.
Another important prevention technique is to take time to talk to your child about his or her day, which is often a challenge for children with autism. Making sure to communicate with school staff regularly via email, journal, or in-person is important, especially for non-verbal students.
If you are able to volunteer at your child’s school, it allows you to begin putting faces to the names of kids that your child talks about. Getting to know your child’s classmates first-hand enables you to help your child interpret difficult things, including tone of voice and sarcasm, and help you find solutions together.
Some effective mantras our family has practiced over the include, “Fly under the radar like a stealth bomber” or “Lions look for the scared zebra,” which keeping a low profile, even if you want to be part of the action. Loud, silly, over-reactive, or attention-seeking behavior can
call attention, attracting bullies. There are often indicators when your child is being bullied. These can be subtle and especially challenging to see in non-verbal individuals. Both Ohama and Moy say to look for changes in behavior, such as avoidance or withdrawal from participation in class or at recess. Moy and stopbullying.gov also list the following red flags:
- Unexplained injuries
- Unexplained damage or loss of personal items, including electronics, clothing, books or jewelry
- Negative self-talk, such as “I’m stupid” or “I feel like killing myself”
- Self-destructive behaviors, such as harming themselves or wanting to run away
- Declining grades, avoidance of friends
- Frequent headaches, stomach aches, or faking illness
- Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
- Loss of appetite, unexplained gain in appetite or binge eating (could be hungry from missing or avoiding lunch)
Responding to actual bullying is stressful for everyone involved. Ohama recommends approaching administration consistently with every single incident.
“Every time that something happens you have to email, call, or do both,” she says. “No matter what, you have to fight for your child that has been bullied,” she says, adding that email correspondence works best to keep a record of communication.
It is also important to talk to kids about the difference between how to react to situations. Moy stresses that self-defense is different than fighting and uses several strategies to teach this.
“Self-defense is when I tried to ignore it or walk away, but the bully continues to physically harm me, and I physically resist,” he explains. “Fighting is when I can walk away, but don’t and lose my temper, entering a physical altercation.”
In his classes, kids repeat drills yelling, “Stop! Leave me alone! Back off!” and practice turning and walking away from imaginary bullies, as well as learning how to break holds, block hits and twist out of grabs.
For children who have difficulty communicating verbally, these phrases can be programmed into an augmentative communication device, or pictures placed on note cards to carry. Make sure your child’s school staff is aware of these options and that they are respected when used.
Both Moy and Ohama expressed the importance of making a child feel supported when they stick up for themselves. “If there is a zero-tolerance policy at the school, and the child gets in trouble due to defending themselves, the child needs to know that the parent will still stand by them,” Moy explains.
Ohama adds: “Kung Fu really has helped our child’s confidence and given him tools to deal with bullies. We have it on record if he has to defend himself that I am 100 percent behind him if the school is not going to take action.”
It is also important to remember that kids often don’t report bullying at all. Statistics show that only about one-third of bullying cases are reported, in part because kids don’t want to be judged as weak or be more socially isolated than they already are. Most children will want to handle the problem on their own, particularly as their approaching adolescence. They do not want to be labeled “tattle tales” and may fear backlash from bullies or peers, according to stopbullying.gov.
Moy explains that when a bully begins bothering a child, teaching these simple points are some of the most effective in avoiding escalation of a problem:
- Ignore them and walk away
- Don’t let the bully poke, push, pinch, punch or grab me
- Use my voice: “Leave me alone”
- Report my problem to an adult that I trust
In addition to teaching the appropriate tools, ensuring open and frequent communication between you, your child and your child’s school is key to helping them to stay safe and feel supported.
Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two boys on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Wash. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.