As part of their Make School Make Sense campaign The National Autistic Society carried out a large survey on autism and education. From that survey which involved 1400 reponses from families and 28 interviews with autistic children, they found that over 2 in five children had been bullied in school with figures much higher for those with high functioning autism and aspergers syndrome. Indeed the NAS state that these figures may be an underestimate as another study has found that 90% of parents of high functioning autistic children have been bullied over the last year (please click here to read their report in full).
These figures are worrying and a stark reminder that bullying is a real problem for our autistic children who are in school. However bullying doesn’t just occur within school. It can also spread to outside the school gates which is what happened to my son a few years ago. He had got to know some of the boys who lived along our road (some from his old school) and wanted to play out. I was pleased that he wanted to mix with other children and I was keen to encourage him. Our road is a quiet place and a lot of children play out; I felt quite confident that he would be safe playing in front of our house where I could keep an eye on him. How wrong I was. The boys soon started to pick on him. Many a time they would try and lure him out of the house on the pretence that they were his friends but no sooner had he left the house that he would end up being insulted and pushed around. On several occasions he was also used as a cover for their bad behaviour and I would find irate neighbours on my doorstep demanding answers for any unruly behaviour.
We did everything we could to deal with this. We spoke to the secondary school who the kids were representing but they did nothing. We also tried to talk to the parents of the ringleader but they did nothing either. They argued that their son couldn’t help behaving in the way that he did. He had ADHD. It is ironic that another special needs child was one of my son’s bullies but it does illustrate that special needs children can also be bullies themselves. Special needs or not being a bully and being bullied is an issue for everyone.
At that point I was feeling very stressed. The harrassment had spread to my elder daughter who would often get taunted about her brother as she walked home from school. She seemed to cope with it well and would often stand up for her brother but she shouldn’t have had to cope with it should she? She should have been able to walk to and fro school without insults being shouted at her. As for my younger daughter, she escaped the taunts but at an open day at the local seconday school I came across these boys whispering and pointing at her. They didn’t see me watching them but it was all too clear from their behaviour that my youngest would be next in line for their taunts. Fortunately she hasn’t moved up to this school. Her own ASD has meant that the school is not right for her.
Looking back I should have called the police but I was worried that if I did I would make matters worse for my children. I was particularly worried because one of the parents of the bullies worked with the police and I felt that if I made a complaint the police would side with this person. It’s a sad state of affairs when you don’t trust the police enough not to take action but that is how I felt at the time though I’ve become more confident now that disability hatred is being discussed more. At the time though we felt incredibly isolated with noone to turn to. The education system had failed us and now we were living in a community that was also turning its backs on us, or so it felt. I can’t adequately explain the isolation we felt at the time but my husband summed it up when he said he could understand why Fiona Pilkington took her life and that of her disabled daughter. For my normally quiet husband to say such words was profound. Not only did I get a glimpse of how he was feeling but it summed up our life at the time.
fortunately we worked through it and I eventually found the courage to approach these bullies and tell them that if they didn’t leave us alone then I would call the police. It is not easy to do when the bullies are almost as big as yourself and it’s not something I recommend. The stress of approaching teenage bullies who have no qualms about swearing or spitting at you should not be underestimated; you really have no idea what else they are capable of. However I was desperate for an end to this misery. I couldn’t cope with any more harrassment and neither could my son. He had lost his confidence and felt unable to play outside or to even accompany me to the corner shop in case he saw these boys. It pained me a great deal to see how limited his life had become. With no school, no friends and nowhere to go his life became restricted to home.
Fortunately my stance with the bullies paid off. I think they must have sensed that I meant what I said and ever since then things have improved and the bullies have kept away. Occasionally I see them staring at us in the most unpleasant ways and it worries me that if I wasn’t around they would target my son again. I fear that the prejudicial attitude towards my son is still lying dormant in our community waiting to strike and yet I cannot move home; my son refuses to. He loves his bedroom in the attic, he loves his home and even though there is unpleasantness in the street he is even more frightened of change. In any case, why should we move - this is our home.
Unfortunately many people don’t understand the seriousness of bullying. They see these altercations to be no more than spats between young people but when this behaviour is repeatedly directed towards an individual then it is more than a spat. Unfortunately I feel that there is too much focus on the victim to manage the bullying whilst not enough is being done to correct the behaviour of the bully. I have even heard people say to me that my son needs to learn to interact as if correcting his difficulties will be the solution to the problem. What they fail to realise is that my son’s difficulty with social interaction and communication is his disability and no matter how much we attempt to train him he will always have difficulties understanding others. This makes it difficult for him to judge other people’s behaviour and he can mistakenly believe people are his friends even when they are cruel to him.
And that is the core of the problem in my opinion; a lack of understanding of autism and a lack of support for our autistic people. All too often schools are not doing enough and often it feels that the solution to these problems is to either deal with it yourself or to call the police in. But its education thats needed within our schools and homes before it gets to the point that the police are called because by that point people are suffering and relationships are at breaking point. We really need to do more to prevent people feeling so desperate.
(If you want to read more about bullying and how it impacts on siblings please read Wendy’s blog post It Can Happen to Siblings.)