Bullies. The bane of the educational system. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, races and religions. And now Max has met one. Bullies are devious; they cajole, flatter and slash to those who are perceived as weak and without champions. We hear many excuses for bullies: "Kids will be kids"; "He didn't really mean it"; "I'm sure this was a one-time thing"; "He just wants to give him a gentle message"; "He really just wants friends"; "This is part of growing up." Well, if this is part of growing up, then I think we should rethink growing up.
Unfortunately, however, we are up against biology. Humans are an animal species, whether we want to admit it or not. We are really not that much different from the lion. An adolescent lion will start testing his strength against his brothers and sisters, in order to see where he will fall in the pecking order of the pride. We humans are the same, and you can see it happening on the playground.
Like lion cubs, children begin to badger each other early. Some of it is harmless teasing, and some of it is true bullying. But how can someone like Max, who faces severe social impairments, understand the difference between the two? As an adult without Asperger's, Kristina recognizes it after just a couple of episodes - but we can't expect Max to do the same. Kristina is correct in facing down the bully. Max's teachers have not yet picked up on the bullying, but as a mother protecting her cub, Kristina does so quite quickly.
Children need to learn that targeting others for ridicule or harm is not okay. Teachers need to watch for bullying behavior - especially when there is a child with Asperger's, autism or other social impairments involved. Placing a child with ASD in a socially charged environment without champions is like putting a lamb amongst the lions. Kristina cannot always be there to jump in and stop the bullying that Max will encounter, so several things should be done to protect him, including:
Teaching Max the skills and knowledge he'll need to recognize the power difference between "teasing" and "bullying." (Do you know the difference? For the sake of your child or student, research this!)
- - Setting up peer programs that provide him with buddies to protect him at recess.
- - Teaching him strategies to deflect bullies.
- - Letting him know whom to go to when he feels that he is being bullied.
- - Ensuring supervision during non-teacher directed times, like the playground, lunch, transitions, hall times and bathroom times. (But the supervision needs to be subtle and not interfere with the making of friends).
It is also important to recognize bullying behavior in children when they are young and testing the waters of power. When there is an early intervention, bullies can be turned into friends. But when they are not caught early, some incipient bullies will need counseling for the short term, and some for the long term. All should face real consequences.
It should be added that not all bullies are boys, though boys do tend to do more physical bullying. Girls can be just as destructive through emotional and psychological bullying. And now we have cyber-bullying, which can have the horrendous results seen in recent news stories.
Every year, we lose some children due to extensive and unrelenting bullying behavior. No child should grow up a victim of bullying behavior, period. Nipping it in the bud fast, as Kristina did, is exactly what should happen. Being (or even feeling) threatened and scared by people you interact with shouldn't happen anywhere - whether it is on the playground, in work place or even at home.
It may be a part of the power play that all in the animal kingdom face when growing up, but it doesn't have to rule our lives or destroy others' lives. Max, like almost all those with ASD, will need help, instruction and protection from bullies. No one should have to face down a lion alone.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.