Awareness is a key bullying prevention tool
Rebekah Heinrichs M.S.N., M.S. Ed.
Alex is 16 years old and diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. He looks like a typical adolescent and spends his school day in general education classes. Alex experiences teasing and bullying in school related to his disability. He believes that other students don’t understand about Asperger Syndrome and that they resent the special help he receives from his teachers. Alex also feels that the other students get the wrong idea about his sensory issues. He makes a video describing his life as a person with Asperger Syndrome in the hope that it will help his peers understand him better. In fact, he feels so strongly about helping others understand that he decides to put his video on YouTube for the whole world to see.
“I hope that because of this video and I showed you the way that I learn and how I express how I feel, that you guys can probably understand me much better… and actually treat people with Asperger’s equally and give probably more respect to and treat them right and not just consider them plain old people who just want to get what they want … and maybe I’ll finally know and actually have a break once in a while.”
I had the chance recently to speak at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s annual conference. I presented information about bullying prevention and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) to an audience of parents, professionals, and experts in the field of bullying prevention. During my keynote, I spoke about the Power of Empathy. Empathy means being with people in their vulnerabilities. We move towards empathy when we are willing to tell our stories even though we feel vulnerable and afraid. We move towards empathy when we are willing to listen and relate to the stories of others. Empathy moves us towards making connections and building meaningful relationships. Empathy is the common thread in bullying prevention for bullies, targets, and bystanders.
The opposite of empathy is shame. When we live in shame, we feel flawed, inadequate, and unworthy of connection. Shame breeds fear, blame, and disconnection. Shame keeps us from sharing who we are and encourages us to hide and keep secrets.
What does this have to do with bullying prevention and children with ASDs? Children and adolescents with ASDs are bullied more often than their typical peers. They are also more likely to be rejected and to be socially isolated. Children who are frequently bullied and rejected feel shame. This shame can prevent them from building meaningful relationships.
How do we help students practice courage in a world where the stakes of not “fitting in” are so high? What do adults, children with ASDs, and peers need in order to move towards empathy? Adults need bullying prevention awareness, disability awareness, and a willingness to be creative and proactive. Children with disabilities need bullying awareness, self-awareness, and tools for self-advocacy. Peers need bullying awareness, disability awareness, emotional intelligence, and positive adult mentors.
Notice the common theme of disability awareness for everyone involved. The more I work in bullying prevention, the more I realize the value of disability awareness. Disability awareness for students with ASDs is beginning to take root in our schools, but we still have a long way to go.
It takes courage for parents to help their child understand his disability and allow him to be vulnerable by promoting peer education. It takes courage for a young person with an ASD to share what makes him unique. It takes courage, creativity, and commitment for teachers and other school staff to participate in activities that promote disability awareness. It took courage for Alex to make his video and support from his teachers to help make it happen.
Not long ago I participated in a discussion group with children, adolescents, and young adults diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. We spent an hour talking about bullying, friends, and feelings. A fifth-grade boy in the group had lots to say and asked many questions. Towards the end of the discussion, he said, “I don’t know about this Asperger Syndrome stuff, but there must be something wrong with me because I get bullied all the time.”
His mother sat behind him with tears streaming down her face. This young man didn’t know he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. He was bullied often and felt shame related to the bullying. He was confused about being in this group talking about a condition he knew little about. On the other hand, he related to others in the room and was seeking answers to help him understand his social experiences. It was very moving, and I could sense the pain felt by both mother and son.
The alternative to disability awareness for the child with an ASD is too often a lack of self-awareness that can lead to shame, fear, and confusion. The alternative is a child or adolescent who can become ashamed of who she is and unable to adequately self-advocate, someone who doesn’t fully understand his strengths and challenges.
When we don’t provide education to the students surrounding the child with ASD, we miss out on an opportunity to create true empathy. We expect students to understand and possibly make accommodations for the child with an ASD without giving them the information they need.
In our efforts to educate, we should always ask if what we are doing is moving us toward empathy and connection or towards shame and disconnection. Fortunately, we now have many excellent resources available in the area of disability awareness for adults, individuals with ASDs, and for peers. I encourage parents and professionals to seek out and use these resources as often as possible. It can make a positive difference in your child’s social world and help prevent bullying and exclusion. Of course, children with ASDs who are bullied will also need protection, help with social skills, and support developing their talents and skills. It may not seem obvious, but disability awareness is a valuable bullying prevention tool.
Rebekah Heinrichs M.S.N., M.S. Ed. earned a Master's degree in pediatric nursing (University of Kentucky, 1982) and a Master's degree in special education/autism and Asperger Syndrome (University of Kansas, 2001) and is the author of Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying--Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World