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On Autism and Bullying: A Plea to Parents of Neurotypical Children

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Today I took the day off blogging and took my daughter, Wee Girl, and my son, Little Man, on a trip to Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, a small zoo located in… yep, you guessed it, Battersea Park. They have a selection of smaller animals and a fairly large play area with plenty of room to run around.

The children were happy and amenable, and we had a perfectly nice day, except for one encounter that left me feeling uncomfortable. Wee Girl was on one of the a fort-like structures. She was sitting down, apparently happily occupied, so I paid my attention to Little Man, who had only just woken up.

Gradually, I became aware that all was not well. A group of children were sitting beneath the fort where Wee Girl was sitting. I’m pretty sure they were talking about her, and not in a nice way. Maybe she was mouthing some of the wood chips. I suspect they may have been throwing them — not at her, but in her direction. I don’t know exactly what went on, and Wee Girl was oblivious (at least, I hope she was oblivious. But as I’ve already learned, just because it doesn’t look like she’s aware of something doesn’t mean that she isn’t paying attention). The whole situation left a dark shadow over an otherwise lovely day.

I was bullied at school. Never physically, but the kind of low-level nastiness that gradually grinds away at your self-worth until there’s nothing left but a stub. When I first became pregnant, I wanted a boy. Why? Because I never wanted my child to go through what I went through, and I felt that life would be somehow easier for a boy (OK, OK… but I wasn’t in a great place at the time). When we learned our baby’s gender, my heart sank just a little — not out of disappointment, but out of fear. And then, Wee Girl was born, and she was beautiful and perfect and I knew my fears of her being bullied because of the way she looked were groundless.

Well, men make plans and God laughs, because bullying of children and adults with autism is a huge problem.

Early this year, the Wirral Autistic Society conducted a survey about “mate crime,” a form of bullying where people with autism are bullied or manipulated by people they think of as friends. It was a fairly small survey, limited to the Merseyside area, with only 141 respondents, but still the results are pretty chilling.

Eighty percent of respondents over the age of 16 felt they had been bullied or been taken advantage of by someone they had thought was a friend. Eighty-five percent often feel lonely and left out. This number is just 11 percent in the general population, according to the survey.

The full survey is here, and I urge you to read it. Even if you are the parent of a neurotypical child. Especially if you are the parent of a neurotypical child. The quotes from the respondents are particularly worth reading. They’re heartbreaking, really.

Meanwhile, in the especially sad news corner, the parents of a teenage girl with autism have removed her from school after an anonymous note made claims that, among other children, she had been the target of bullying from a teacher. An investigation has been launched and it may well turn out to be lies, but this strikes fear into the heart of every parent of a child with communication difficulties. Because, what if?

The relatively recent revelations about institutionalized abuse have knocked my trusting, calm, safe little world head over heels. On top of that, this nasty little story is kicking it repeatedly in the backside with a hobnailed boot.

The letter reeks of malice to me, although I don’t blame the parents for removing their daughter from school for one millisecond. But if the letter is a pack of lies, what sort of person would send such a vicious, spiteful note, deliberately undermining the parents’ trust in the school and disrupting the poor girl’s education? Whether the letter is true or not, she remains the victim of bullying. There is no good end to this story.

I trust the school where we are sending Wee Girl. But what will happen in the next five years, the next 10? Who will her friends be, and will she be able to trust them? All I want is for Wee Girl to be happy. If I could, I would wrap her up warm and safe and cozy in a blanket and keep her safe from the world. But I can’t do that, and even if I could, that’s not what parents are meant to do. All I can do is equip her with the tools to cope as best I can and send her out into the world, hoping with all my heart she doesn’t get hurt.

So, if you are a parent of a neurotypical child, please remember this: not all bullying is obvious. Some is subtle, quiet slip-under-the-radar stuff, and even the person it’s happening to might not know it’s happening. It’s talking about a child who isn’t responding appropriately because he is unable to engage with his peers. It’s laughing at a child who is mouthing something, or making strange noises, or flapping his or her hands, or spinning around. It’s ostracizing them because they are different, because they are “weird.”

Teach your children that this isn’t acceptable. Please don’t just assume they’ll know automatically, or that they’re sweet and kind and would never behave that way. Don’t kid yourself. Kids can be mean, even the good ones. Part of it is because of lack of understanding and part of it is the influence of their peers, but it’s all horrible and it needs to stop.

Follow this journey on All Past Midnight.

Originally published: September 3, 2015
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