â€‹When I was a girl we played out in the street with all the other kids in the street. There was one boy in our group we all called 'fatty Norman' and would often make fun of him and leave him out.
At the same time, at school, I was called names because I looked liked Olive Oil from the Popeye cartoons. My siblings were called names because they had ginger hair. At some point we were left out, called cruel names and even pushed around or hit because we were different....
â€‹I am still deeply ashamed of how we treated Norman. But it is true, as children you don't really understand the deep and long lasting psychological effect this behaviour has on the person you are doing it to. I learned through getting to know about difference and making friends with many different people, that what we did was wrong. If Norman by some miracle read this, I truly am sorry.
I don't know anyone who wasn't teased, called horrible and personally targeted names, and hurt physically by other kids when they were at school. Most of us hated it. We tried to ignore it, sometimes we fought back, sometimes it took people years and years to recover. Some still struggle with the effects of bullying that happened when they were younger. There must be people who were the bullies, and maybe even a few who felt they were okay, and had never been bullied.
I wish I knew WHY? Why are children so disposed to making fun of difference? Is it society? Is it innate? And these days social media makes it so much worse. There's often no break, with Facebook comments, grooming and trolling a danger to all our children.
Kids with autism are one of the most bullied groups of children. The National Autistic Society have surveyed children with autism and published this sobering report. http://www.autism.org.uk/bullyingengland
For over ten years now I have been supporting children with autism in mainstream schools. In primary schools there is less of a problem. I put this down to pupils growing up together, learning about each other and being together all the time often builds good relationships.I've seen many primary classes which are supportive and encouraging of the pupil with autism. I know there will be people with examples of primary school bullying but it's secondary schools where things really change.
My own children say secondary school was full of teasing, name calling and 'banter'. But they had the social skills to understand what was good natured and what they needed to ignore or give a quick retort to. It was still a minefield they had to navigate and both are much happier having left school.
The pupils I have worked with at high schools over the years are well supported, the schools know their needs and have systems in place to help them learn and build relationships. But high schools are huge and many of them are struggling with the interactions with other kids in the yard, the corridors, the dinner hall and busses home. The teasing, banter and name calling goes on and on. Their vulnerability to not understanding social situations and not being able to ignore or give a witty retort is soon noticed by others.
...Then it starts; seeing an easy target, other pupils find it fun to target the child with autism. From subtle teasing, tripping them up with social traps and then laughing at them when they fall into it, to full on name calling: "weirdo" and "gay" being common cat calls. Physical bullying; pushing them in the corridors, punching, kicking under the table to full on fights. The worse incidents I have seen have taken full advantage of the autistic child's social vulnerability. Fake Facebook accounts that encourage the child to post nude pictures of themselves. Stupid acts posted on instagram on a school trip in a game of truth or dare. Goading and encouraging pupils to take drugs just to fit in. And this done by classmates. Some autistic children will react violently, and be the ones who get in trouble, others will go along with it and get deeper into trouble, or withdraw into themselves, and all become extremely unhappy and stressed.
If we start with the little stuff, the teasing and the laughing at children with autism (and other differences) and if we make sure that teachers and children understood autism (and other differences) we might have a chance of building a support network around our autistic pupils that will continue through their school and hopefully adult lives. We should have a zero tolerance to hurting others who are different (without losing our sense of humour) and discuss with all children what teasing is funny and what is cruel. They should understand this from an early age. We can help children with autism understand that reporting is the right thing to do, and that there are people they can trust. We must never tell them to ignore it and it will go away. It's no good just wringing our hands about the state of it all, bullying seems to be something that will always be with us. But we should and could do something about it by tackling the issues straight on. We should be talking about difference and tolerance and kindness and acceptance and helping others all the time, every day and then demonstrating it. Disability hate crime is real and has to stop.
Please look at the resources from the National Autistic Society for Autism Awareness in Schools. Or ask me and Emma to come and help out!
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