Marie (mother of Sam, 15, who is autistic): He sort of toddled along at primary school, did fairly okay. He’s been constantly bullied, but did fairly okay. When he went to high school it seemed to open a can of worms and I think it’s probably because there’s so much more of the social scene at high school and what kids do after, on the bus, and things like that.
Dolores (mother of James, 14, who is autistic): Our biggest, absolute biggest fear for him going in to high school was how is he going to cope out in the playground? Because the school he came from, the support unit had a separate area where they didn’t integrate too much into mainstream areas. They did, but not a lot, whereas in high school, they are expected to, at recess and lunch, to look after themselves. So we were really concerned about how that was going to go. But we found that the other kids have been a great support for James and he has got some nice little friends at school. Not a lot, but a couple there. It’s good.
Marie: I know that he constantly seeks out, as we tend to call, the ‘in-crowd’, always have done, because he can see that they’re having fun, that they’re popular, that people want to talk to them and they generally look good. They look cool in Sam’s eyes. They’re probably not the best children that he should be attracted to, but he is, which usually ends in tears.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer (psychologist, The ASD Clinic): The advice, again, that we try to give a child about interacting with their peers is to say, ‘Well, look, there’s nothing wrong with you, but this main pack over here, they may not be accepting of you yet, but there might be a crowd over here that are much more accepting of people who are different.’ And I love schools that have structures like computer clubs, and robotic clubs and chess clubs and there’s a great music program, or something structured that you can do rather than sit around just chatting.
Frances Burns (specialist clinic teacher consultant, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne): Schools can provide some extra opportunities of activities to do inside of a lunch time. So there may be options to belong to clubs, to play specific sports, to use the library, to go into the computer lab, or to have a position of responsibility so that a part or all of the lunch time, they know what’s expected. So rather than having a whole hour of unstructured playground time that makes them feel vulnerable and insecure, they can have something specific that they do on certain days of the week.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: It’s not uncommon for my clients to really start feeling like they’re fitting in at high school say in Year 9, but who are they playing with in say the computer club, or chess club? Sometimes really well with the Year 7s, or sometimes even with more mature Year 11s and Year 12s, and saying to a child that that’s actually what we would expect and that’s good.
Frances Burns: One of the other options that work well in some schools is to designate a buddy system so that a student will have a particular group of kids to hang out with or to be with at some time in the playground.
Onscreen text: Handling bullying
Frances Burns: Most parents ask me about bullying at some stage in their child’s schooling, and for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, we know that they’re a vulnerable population. All students should know how to get help in the playground if they need it. So, rather than lash out or get distressed or, alternatively, to retreat into themselves, if they have a problem they should be well versed in knowing go to the teacher on duty, go to the front desk.
Elena (mother of Alex, 15, who is autistic): There are certain kids in his class that knew he liked Super Mario and they were just calling him Mario, which probably you’d think was quite innocent, but the kids were doing it because they knew that Alex would scream and hold his ears and run off. They kept doing it and as a consequence Alex actually kept saying to me he didn’t want to go to school anymore, and then, because he has the ability to talk, I had to try and get it out of him. Why didn’t he want to go to school anymore? And it sort of became apparent that these kids had been saying things to him. So I advised the teachers and they actually kept an eye out the next day and they caught the children doing it again in the act and those Year 3 children actually got letters home to parents and stuff. Alex actually, it was a good learning curve for us for him to say, ‘Look if something like that happens, tell us because we can get them to stop doing it if you tell us. If you don’t tell us, then it could keep happening every day.’
Frances Burns: Until you’ve got a picture of what’s happened, it’s hard to know how to address it. But certainly take your concerns to the school earlier rather than later. I hear from teachers quite often, ‘I didn’t know that that had happened. Nobody told me. It wasn’t recorded.’ Particularly things that happen in the playground. So children, particularly children with autism, will not necessarily go to the teacher in the first instance to tell them what’s occurred. They may not be able to even verbalise it.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: They may misinterpret things and that needs to be worked out. There’s a big difference between mucking around, joking, stirring and bullying, so an ASD kid sometimes needs help in understanding. ‘Was that kid just mucking around like teenagers do, or was there something behind that?’ Trying to unpack those things, but if we think there’s a serious case of bullying there should be very top-down protection and need the school authorities to really make it clear that this child is vulnerable and he’s going to be looked after and anybody crosses that, there will be a consequence.
Frances Burns: All schools have bullying policies. They do vary in how they’re enforced. The best schools will have a very strict zero tolerance for bullying and the only way that that can be enforced is if issues are reported.
Nancy (mother of Andrew, 19, who is autistic): Andrew did experience a little bit of bullying but the school handled it very well. This boy in particular was going after Andrew as in hitting him, or trying to snap his jacket, or trying to take his hat, or push him, and what the school did is they assigned someone who would be on one-on-one with that boy who was having the difficulties, because it was not only Andrew he was targeting, but others. What they did is they set up a defence and Andrew actually, they taught him how to say, ‘No,’ and how to have a gesture where to push the bullying so that when he’s doing this, it alerts the adults that something is not right and then they can interfere.
Katharine Annear (disability educator who has Asperger’s disorder): One of the things that we’ve worked on when teaching girls in particular is to say, ‘No, I don’t want this to happen,’ or, ‘No, I don’t like this situation,’ or, ‘No, I’m leaving now,’ is that you need to rehearse it. So you need to get into these peer-on-peer interactions in role-plays and actually have them know what it feels like in their body to say no.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: I am a big believer in rather than just working on the ASD person about anti-bullying measures, it really should be the community that looks after these guys. And so understanding that there are just natural places of vulnerability, it might be the locker area, it might be the change rooms. Does a child with ASD necessarily have to get changed with everybody else where he’s getting picked on every Wednesday on sport day? Does his locker have to be with everybody else where somebody just can easily give him a nudge?
Katharine Annear: Kids have to understand that it’s going to happen. They have to be given those skills to be quite resilient around it. And then we need to educate the bullies as well around what it is that’s happening for people who are different and why we have diversity in society.