Tara and her sons, Wyatt and Rye.

Tara and her sons, Wyatt and Rye.

Over six months ago, my supervisor handed me a postcard he knew I would be interested in, and he was right. It was a save the date reminder for an upcoming workshop presented by Professor Tony Attwood.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Dr. Attwood, he is an internationally-known speaker and author. He’s written numerous scientific papers and books about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and it’s probably safe to say I’ve read most of them.

I’ve been a big fan of his work for a very long time. I immediately saved the date on my calendar and registered.

I was particularly eager to hear his session about bullying and teasing because I worry that my son Rye, now 13 and in middle school, might be a target for bullying because he is on the autism spectrum and struggles with making friends.

I attended Dr. Attwood’s workshop in mid-October.   I gained a lot of insight about a difficult topic. I wish I didn’t need to know any strategies about how to reduce bullying. The truth is I do need them, my son needs them, and I want to share what I learned from Dr. Attwood with anybody else who might need them too.

I decided the best way to share might be to walk you through my experience attending the workshop; so that is what I did.

October 17, 2016

We arrived on time, early in fact, and found a space right up front. Dr. Attwood jumped right into it-Strategies to Reduce Being Bullied and Teased.

He identified bullying as “any unwanted, aggressive behavior that is repeated or has potential to be repeated, over time, among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”

He went on to say that individuals who are bullied have lower self-esteem, lower academic achievement, higher anxiety and depression, higher levels of paranoia, are less likely to tell someone, and are less likely to ask for help.

I wasn’t surprised to hear and already assumed that the effects of bullying lowered or increased these feelings and behaviors for most kids. However, when Dr. Attwood began sharing more statistics specific to ASD and other developmental disabilities, I was shocked at what he was saying.

  • The rate of bullying is four times higher for individuals with developmental disabilities.
  • Bullying occurs in 90% of children with ASD.
  • 1 in 10 adolescents with ASD who are bullied by an individual are also victims of an attack by a group of peers.
  • Effects of bullying are often lasting and typically affect many subsequent relationships in a negative way.

Wait a minute. What? Did he just say 90?

I felt angry about that number. Here I was less than an hour into the workshop I’d spent six months feeling excited about attending and I was instead feeling uncomfortable. To be honest, a part of me wanted to stop listening. I didn’t stop, but I did spend the next hour feeling like I was being forced to answer a never-ending checklist of questions that had answers I knew I didn’t like.

Is my son a passive target because he is physically weaker, shy, unable to hide his anxiety at times, and/or because he has no extensive network of friends?

Is my son a proactive target because he has poor social skills, is sometimes perceived as intrusive or irritating, engages in behavior that gets others in trouble (wrestling or rough play), and doesn’t recognize when to stop?

Does my son seek and need solitude? Is he Eccentric? Is he not “cool”? Does he have any friends that might be prepared to come to his defense? Is he good at characterization skills or does he have good radar?

I was now feeling guilty, worried, and pretty overwhelmed but I kept listening. Does my son know that he might be a target? Has there been any physical evidence I missed? Could bullying be the reason for losing things at school? Has he had torn clothing that I haven’t noticed?

Is there any psychological evidence like increased anxiety, school avoidance, or depression? Is he responding differently to family jokes or friendly teasing? Is he paranoid? Has he appeared to be more interested in toys that are weapons or movies and games that are more violent? Is he mimicking any new or unusual behavior?

The checklist I was answering in my head was growing and it became clear that currently my son is poor in the currency of friendship, and because of that, he has more than likely already fallen into that 90%.

Dr. Attwood suggested the following strategies as a place to start if you believe your child might be a potential target for bullying:

  1. Don’t try to lessen what is happening, being the target of bullying does not build character.
  2. A team approach is needed.   The team needs to include everyone involved. The target of the bullying, teachers, school administration, parents, other children, and the child who engages in bullying.
  3. Understand that an established code of conduct is needed that outlines responsibilities and consequences for each person involved.
  4. Understand that both the target and the bully need help and support.
  5. Help the targeted individual to identify a peer that has a social conscience and an established social status. Ask for their help and develop a code of conduct that includes both encouragement for and consequences for not intervening.   Be honest and seek investment in the issues that the individual is facing.
  6. Individuals need to know how to identify others who will most likely be bystanders that are willing to intervene and are assertive. Individuals don’t need to become best of friends or even interact with bystanders willing to intervene if that is too difficult or not desired, they just need to be able to identify who a helpful bystander might be.
  7. Develop a map of both safe and vulnerable spaces/places and teach targets to avoid vulnerable spaces and to seek spaces where bystanders willing to intervene are around.
  8. Teach individuals that there is security in numbers and to congregate with or near like-minded peers.
  9. Teach individuals that they must have a response. Ignoring the situation often makes it worse.
  10. Avoid teaching individuals to lie or use humor to get out of the situation. Responses need to be true and constructive.   “I don’t deserve this, stop it.”

I hope that anybody needing this information finds what I shared to be useful.   Having a conversation about bullying isn’t fun, it’s hard, and talking with our kids about things they are struggling with is never easy.

I do however believe we can’t be afraid to have the tough conversations, particularly when the benefits of having them can be so great and the consequences of not having them can be so detrimental.

You can find more information on Tony Attwood at http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/