Lately, it seems as though every time I sit down to browse my Facebook news feed, I'm bombarded with new stories of individuals with autism being bullied...horribly bullied! Perhaps the most notable story is that of the ALS ice bucket challenge gone wrong. People were rightfully outraged...none more than autism parents like myself.
Having a child on the spectrum, bullying is a very real fear. These stories- though perhaps making more headlines as of late- are nothing new. When Shaun started mainstreaming this year, my greatest fear for him was not that he would not be able to handle the academic standards- but of how he would be treated by the other students.
As Shaun has gotten older, his little differences have become more and more noticeable by his peers. My Shaun is perhaps one of the sweetest, most friendly kids I know. He LOVES meeting new people and making new friends. BUT he doesn't always handle social situations appropriately. He will run to a complete stranger and greet them with a hug, get into their face, hold their hand. He will ask them the same question over and over or try to talk to them about things that are of interest only to him. In his mind, this is how you make friends...and that's all he is trying to do. He does not realize that not everyone shares his interests or is as affectionate as him. At just 7 years old, I already see the looks of annoyance and disapproval that kids give him...and unfortunately, it's not just kids but adults alike. As much as it breaks my heart to see my little man struggle to make friends, this is nothing in comparison to the bullying that so many on the spectrum experience, and the bullying I fear my son will one day face himself.
So, when does it go from a mere not understanding to these acts of violence? Why is this still happening, and still accepted? How can we as parents help to end this violence towards those with developmental delays? In my personal opinion, I think it all begins with a change of attitude.
I have on many occasions, shared my support of a fantastic organization, Spread the Word to End the Word- which seeks to end the use of the r-word. So, what does that have to do with autism and bullying? Again, it's all about the attitude. When using this word in a derogatory manner, we are saying-intentionally or not- that those with developmental disabilities are inferior than. We are saying that they are these things that we are using the r-word in replacement of- dumb, stupid, silly, less than. We are saying that they deserve less respect. Jokes at their expense- special education, short bus jokes, etc...? Same thing. All of these things, though perhaps said with no ill intent, only go to add to the perception that it's okay.
But it's not just the words we use, but our actions as well. How many times have you cast a judgmental glare at the mom whose child was having a very loud, very public meltdown? You think- perhaps even voice- that YOUR child would never act that way. But unless you're in that situation, you truly do not know. You don't know the years of therapy that child might have had and how far they came, or what was going on in their life to trigger that meltdown.
A few years ago when we made the move from California for Indiana, our family decided to have dinner out at a family friendly restaurant in the area. With the excitement/anxiety over the move and going into a new and unfamiliar place, it just ended up being a bit much for Shaun, leading to a meltdown. Being older than what was typically acceptable for that type of behavior, it drew some attention. We were no strangers to meltdowns and were actively calming him, when another man at the restaurant started yelling at MY child. We quite calmly tried to explain the situation, and yet he continued on, much to the embarrassment of his family. Now, while this man had no young children with him, this is not an uncommon experience faced by autism families...and sometimes these people DO have children. They see these outbursts, those looks of disgust and judgmental faces and once again are shown that there is something inferior about individuals with autism.
My hope is that one day, my son can live in a world where he is not only accepted, but also celebrated for his differences. A world where parents like myself don't have to worry about sending our children off to be bullied. A world that understands that individuals with developmental disabilities are not inferior and deserve the same respect we all seek...and the first step is changing our attitudes and teaching our children by example.