Bullying (and Asperger Syndrome)
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On April 20, 1999, two boys at Columbine High School in Colorado went on a shooting spree and killed twelve students and themselves. Because these boys were victims of bullying, all kinds of academic studies resulting in all kinds of new recommendations for school policies against bullying are now in place. Most schools have a "zero tolerance" of bullying, fighting, violence and disability harassment. If students do these things, they are automatically suspended or expelled.
Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability harassment is against the law in all schools, school districts, and colleges and universities that receive public funds. Handicapped children who are bullied or harassed have legal rights to grievance procedures and due process on the local level; they can also file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these laws and policies, the National Education Association estimates that every seven minutes of every school day, a child is a victim of bullying, and 85% of the time there is no intervention by other students or adults. Your child's school may have anti-bullying policies that do not help much on a practical level.
Children in special education are the most frequent victims of bullies. Children with Asperger Syndrome are inevitably victims of bullying-one expert puts the percentage at 100%. The reason is that Aspies fit the profile of a typical victim: a "loner" who appears different from other children. Like hungry wolves that attack a limping sheep that can't keep up with the herd, the Aspie with his clumsy body language and poor social skills appears vulnerable and ripe for bullying. What's worse is the Aspie often suffers in silence and does not tell his parents about his torment.
Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome explains it like this:
If your child appears under extreme stress, if he is missing school because of headaches and stomachaches, if he has physical injuries and torn clothing, he may be a victim of bullying. If your child is stealing money from you, he may be using it to pay off a bully.
- AS kids don't realize which things they are supposed to go home
and tell. "What have you done at school today?" wouldn't automatically
bring about the answer "I have been bullied" unless that subject was
specifically brought up.
Once you determine that your child is a victim of bullying, you have to be careful not to make the situation worse. Writing in his book Freaks, Geeks & Asperger Syndrome, Luke describes what happened after his mother spoke up to his tormentors.
Luke endured not only physical beatings, but also name-calling, teasing, tripping so his lunch tray fell all over, having his books destroyed and chairs pulled out from underneath him. He ended up changing schools.
- The bullies left me alone for sometime after that . But no amount of threatening by my brother, by the teachers, fear of expulsion,
pleasant reasoning, absolutely nothing made any difference and they never left me alone. In the end they were physically pushing
me around and punching me and it was about the worst time of my entire life.
One major problem that Luke's mother and other parents of Aspies face is that a school may have an anti-bullying policy, yet the staff looks the other way when it happens. Some school administrators are simply more tolerant of bullying than others. Some schools, including Columbine, tolerate a "pecking order" in which athletes and popular students have special privileges and develop a sense of entitlement that leads to a "bullying atmosphere." In such a school, if parents report bullying, the principal may advise them to enroll their child in karate or otherwise teach him to stand up for himself. The underlying attitude is that it is the victim's fault. One principal told a parent of an Aspie, "Your son is a little different and it bothers other children, so he brings this on himself because of who he is." Also in such a school, teachers and coaches bully the child too.
Another problem in approaching teachers and school administrators is that an Aspie does not have the social savvy to tell his side of the story effectively. Bullies typically lack empathy and real feeling, but many are good at crying on cue and playing the victim. Often the Aspie gets expelled and the bully receives no punishment unless the Aspie has an effective witness.
In a recent survey by York University, only 23% of students agreed with the statement "teachers usually or almost always intervene" when bullies attack. However, 71% of the teachers in the survey agreed. Part of the problem is that teachers do not witness most bullying because it usually happens off-campus (which also means the school may not be legally liable for it). Aspies are most vulnerable when they walk alone to and from school. The other most likely times bullying occurs is during unstructured times such as lunch hour, recess and passing to classes. Bullying peaks in junior high school.
There are things you can do to protect your child. It is a good idea to demand an anti-bullying clause in your child's Individual Education Plan. This is a proactive way of having solutions in place and holding the administration to its word in the event your child is bullied anytime throughout the year. If your school does not have an anti-bullying program, try to work through the PTO to get one in place. Dr. Dan Olweus's model, first used in Europe, is still one of the best. It involves hiring a bullying coordinator, keeping monitors in the lunchrooms, restrooms, corridors and playgrounds, and making sure there is consistent intervention.
If your child is a victim of bullying, don't approach the parents of the bully or the bully himself. According to some authorities, parents of bullies are often physically abusive people and many have criminal records. You should talk to your child's teacher and principal in private. Ask for an adult aide to accompany your child at all times, if necessary. If the bullying does not stop, you can involve the police or file grievances through your local Office of Civil Rights. If your child is in danger, you can home school him until the situation is under control or transfer him to a private school. If you have to file a lawsuit against the school and the parents of the bullies, find a lawyer whose expertise is in special education law.
Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: from pre-school to high school: how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
"Disability Harassment," The United States Department of Education, July 25, 2000, posted at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html
Heinrichs, Rebekkah. Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying (New York: Autism Asperger Publishing Company) 2003.
Hyman, Irwin. Dangerous Schools: What We Can Do About the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Our Children. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 1999.
Jackson, Luke. Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers) 2002.
National Bullying Awareness Program," The National Education Association, posted at http://www.nea.org/schoolsafety/bullying.html
Newman, Katherine. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Olewus, Daniel See http://modelprograms.samhsa.gov/pdfs/FactSheets/Olweus%20Bully.pdf.
Pepler, Debra. "The Teen Relationship Problem: What We've Learned about Bullying," posted at http://www.arts.yorku.ca/lamarsh/projects/trp/trp_wwl01.html
Sheras, Peter. Your Child: Bully or Victim? New York: Fireside, 2002.