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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dealing with Bullies

We had a heart-breaking story in our local news this past week of a young teen taking his own life, in large part because he could no longer take the daily bullying dealt out by some of his peers. He was by all accounts a wonderful and talented boy, creative and gentle, a good friend, a cherished son ... and now he's gone, leaving a large hole in his family and his school community. It makes no sense, and although I could say it happens far too often, the reality is that even once is too often.

In the aftermath, the newspapers are full of commentary and editorials questioning the effectiveness of current anti-bullying programs, asking what could have been done differently, what can be done to prevent the next tragedy, why do bullies do what they do .... and on and on. It's a complicated problem, and there are no easy or obvious answers.

Bullying is a topic that I deal with almost daily in my work. Bullies seem to have a supernatural ability to sniff out and target the vulnerable people in their environment, and they definitely see "kick me" written on the back of students with autism. Because ASD students are not able to read non-verbal social cues very well (or at all), they will often interact with their bullies, getting drawn far into the "danger zone" before they realize that there is something wrong. They may even mistakenly believe that the bullies are friends (with the simplistic criteria of "he's talking to me"), and that can create situations where the eventual outcome can be more catastrophic, with social and physical humiliation made worse by the extra disillusionment of being betrayed by a "friend".

When the bullying victim has autism, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what happened - language skills of even the most verbal ASD person deteriorate in the presence of high negative emotion. An additional complication is that the victim can't tell you what they don't know (they missed the social cues of voice tone, facial expression and body language; pieces of information that are key to figuring out another person's "intent"). Drawing out the sequence of events can help you and the ASD student to put things together like a puzzle - use what you know from reports of observers (teachers, other students) to start things out, let the person put in the details they remember, add in information about the social cues they might have missed, help them to sort out the perspective and intent of the other people who were involved.

Here are some pictures drawn by my friend Owen a few years ago when he was struggling with the fact that some people were bullies - these are illustrations of some of the things that he considered "bully behaviour":

Anger is a natural human response to being attacked by another person - the emotion is legitimate and understandable in a bullying scenario. One of the key strategies when helping any victim deal with the aftermath of bullying is to validate their emotional response - it is outrageous what has happened to them, it's not allowed, anyone would be angry under the circumstances. Then draw a strong line between feeling the emotion (which is neither right or wrong, it just is), and the choices that a person must make about how to deal with that emotion.

Owen was very angry about being treated badly - take a look at the "emotional thermometer" (from the work of Tony Atwood) that he drew showing the level of anger he felt ("livid" which for him is 10,000 % on a scale of 1-100):

I know that some anti-bullying programs suggest that the victim be taught to yell back and use aggressive body language and voice tone to make the bully "back off"; but anger turned outward against the "tormentors" is a dangerous strategy to pursue, especially with ASD students. They lack the ability to "read" the potential danger level in a situation - is this a person who is likely to have a weapon? is the bully surrounded by a gang of friends who might join in a beating? - there are people in this world that you should definitely not confront.

Aside from these extreme scenarios, there is the very real danger of teaching the ASD student that violence and aggression is the best response to conflict. Owen is physically a big guy, and I know that the temptation to use his size to fight back and "make the bullies behave" was huge. He did have a couple of incidents where he tentatively tried it out, but he didn't like the result that he ended up being the one in trouble. We drew out the situations where he had "taken the law into his own hands", and then non-judgementally labelled all of the things that were "bully behaviour" - I could see the light bulb go on over his head as he realized that some of his behaviour had fallen into that category, and he definitely did not want to be seen as a bully himself.

But you have to do something with the anger - anger denied/ignored/pushed down turns inward, leaving a person sad and mad at the same time (often equal parts angry with themselves and others, feeling somehow responsible for the fact they've been chosen as a victim). This is a big danger in the Asperger's population. Long-term bullying (along with social and learning challenges) can leave these individuals feeling depressed and hopeless. You have to take any talk of self-harm very seriously, especially since faulty understanding of long-term consequences can reduce inner barriers to suicide - they may not understand that death is permanent (one of the young boys I worked with thought that if he killed himself he could come back the next day without his troublesome "autism problem"). Misperceptions like this add another layer of complexity to the problem.

Anger needs to be managed - one strategy that can really help to counteract anger is "imagined revenge" (I often use this myself to deal with anger and frustration). Here is one of Owen's revenge scenarios to get back at the bullies who were bugging him - he pictured himself throwing his stinky sneakers at the bullies and knocking them out with the smell (dark comedy is a good antidote to anger) - he called it "Stunk by the Shoe":

It may sound odd, but the act of drawing this out and sharing it with another person was enough to help him put his anger aside and begin to work on effective strategies to solve the daily conflict in the recess yard.

Take a look below at the large picture we finally drew that synthesized all of the pieces of the situation: Owen's distress that bullies do exist is acknowledged (the statement "the school is lying" had to do with the fact that after what he felt was a promise by teachers to stop the bullying, some bully situations still occurred), and the things he did right to handle the situation are highlighted in green (exercised self-control and didn't fight back physically, let the teacher know what had happened so she could take care of the situation).

Here's a general summary of the anti-bullying strategies I use with many of my students:

1. Tell a trusted adult what has happened - fill in the gaps in the ASD student's understanding using visual representations of the situation as an "anchor" for the discussion (draw it out)

2. Label the emotions and validate the student's reaction to the bullying - where possible, help the student to understand the perspective and motivations of others involved in the situation - also, help them to see the "danger signals" that they might have missed, so that they can exit a similar situation in the future before it gets out of hand

3. deal with the anger - talk it out, draw it out, use the strategy of "imagined revenge" (think it, don't do it) - try dark comedy to directly combat the inner feelings of anger - be alert to "anger turned inward" and any mention of self-harm or suicide

4. use "positive assertiveness" rather than encouraging aggressive language/behaviour in response to the bully - making "I" statements in a calm/neutral tone ("I don't like that", "I feel bad when you do/say that", "I want you to leave me alone"), then making a quick exit to a safe spot is a good general strategy

Which brings me to the last and possibly most important defense that ASD individuals (or any of us) have against the bullies of the world: community ... a buffer zone of friends, family, trusted professionals and authority figures who have your back. A person standing alone on a playground is the perfect target for a bully - a person standing with 5 friends is not such easy pickings. We need to purposely build groups of kind peers who will help to safeguard ASD students from those who might hurt them (see "peer training" on our website): they can help the student to catch the social cues they missed ("he's not your friend, he said that in a mean way"), they can help the student to get away when a situation turns dangerous ("we've gotta run now!"), they can go and get help from an adult, and they can reassure the student that not everyone in the world is mean.

It's complicated, but if we all work together, I think we can give those bullies the old "stinky shoe" ...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Our website is back online!!!

A few weeks ago, our website domain was hijacked and our site suddenly went offline. Our webmaster, Casey, spent hours on the phone trying to sort out what had happened - after 3 weeks, the string of events was still "clear as mud", and we resigned ourselves to the fact that our domain name had been taken from us by dishonest means, and that it was unlikely we would ever get it back.

This was a big test of a key decision I made a few years ago, when negativity (caused by the multiple negative and stressful situations that are all too common when you work in the field of autism) was literally breaking down my spirit and my physical health and making it impossible for me to do my job. At that point, I made a conscious decision to step away from the arguments over philosophy and intervention, to subtract myself from toxic work environments and to purposely approach my work-life with positive energy (more like the optimistic young therapist I used to be). The whole idea for freely sharing information through a non-profit website came out of this period of time, and I found myself re-energized and able to jump back in ..... and then somebody stole my website.

I won't lie, I had a few bad days, wondering about the fairness of the world and the ethics of the people in it. I have to thank my friends and family for helping me to bump out of this angry and negative mindset: my husband who is sympathetic but also action-oriented (big guy for believing in multiple solutions to any given problem), my boys (and my lovely daughter-in-law) who use humour to highlight the absurdity of the mind-frames I get stuck in, my sister who was the first one to see the problem (and wins the prize for voluntary viewing of my blog and site!), and my yoga class who listened to my gripes but discouraged my more vengeful thoughts (breathe in, breathe out). Wow, this is starting to sound like an award speech. The point being that my buffer of friends and family were my support and shield when the outside world was less than kind. (more on this theme in my next post, which is on the complex topic of "bullying")

So, I chose a positive mindset again, and while I can't honestly say that all my thoughts of vengeance against the "wrong-doers" were completely gone, I relegated the more drastic (and darkly funny) ones to "stay in my thought bubble" (a piece of advice I commonly give to my ASD clients), while holding the legal ones in my back pocket. Casey and I made a new plan that involved walking away from the controversy and starting over with a new domain name - not my first choice, not what I considered to be the optimal choice, but definitely an available choice. It's amazing how freeing it can be to just choose to disengage from the negativity and set your head in a different direction.

.... and then, I don't know if it was the positive energy generated by that last "ohm" spoken by my yoga class, or maybe a cosmic reward for "getting the life lesson", or just one of those random events that sometimes fall out in your favour .... but, out of the blue Casey got a call that said we had the domain name back and could re-register and put our website back up .... so we crossed our fingers, held our breath and did just that ..... TA DA!!

drawing by Adam

We don't know how we lost it, we don't know how we got it back, but we're back online and we're not questioning our good fortune. Thanks to everyone (named and un-named) who lent a sympathetic shoulder ... we'll return the favour when you need it (because that's what friends are for).

... come visit us at  and take a look .... Sheila B

PS - In honour of the re-launch, we have added a whole new section called "Back to School" (in the academics section, look for the school bus icon) with suggestions for teachers and parents to help make the school experience more successful for ASD students (meant to be "user friendly" - read them one day & try them the next). Please share the website address with teachers and other professionals that you think might find it helpful. We look forward to hearing your feedback!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Teaching art to students with autism

An art teacher posted a request to our facebook wall, asking for input from others who are teaching art to students with autism. I'll start the discussion with some of the methods I have used over the years and found to be effective in one-to-one and group teaching situations.

One of the major challenges for all teachers of students with autism (regardless of the subject matter) is getting past the severe communication deficits that are typical of this diagnosis. In a usual classroom setting, the teacher can stand at the front of the class, give information and directions, and have a reasonable expectation that their students will understand what's been presented. Students with autism will generally learn poorly or not at all under these conditions - the verbal information goes by too quickly and is often drowned in a sea of background noise - even when the words are heard clearly, their meaning may not be understood (because of gaps in language knowledge).

If you want to teach a person with autism effectively, you would do better to "show" more than you "tell". Rather than filling the air with verbal explanations, put information into visual format and then model what you would like the student to do. If you are chatty by nature, damp it down - speak in single words and short phrases backed up by your visual pictures and modeling - think of your words as stones dropping one by one into a pond, with lovely silence in the in-between time as the ripples go out and the ASD student can think about what you said.

Art is a perfect subject for this type of approach - you are teaching visual and hand-eye coordination skills that are only imperfectly described by verbal language in the first place. A book that I would highly recommend is Mona Brookes' "Drawing with Children" (and the follow-up book "Drawing for Older Children & Teens"). In the initial chapters of the "Drawing with Children" book, Mona describes a method for teaching classes of young children to draw what they see - she draws a picture step-by-step, describing what she is drawing, and the children draw each line and shape as she does. I have used a variation of this "follow me" style of art teaching for many ASD students of varying levels. One major difference, compared to the method described in the book, involves the language level - talk less than is suggested, and use words that name and describe the pieces of what you are drawing (rather than the shapes and angles). The other major difference is that you will get better results, and a calmer happier student, if you (or another adult model) sit side-by-side with the ASD student, modeling the drawing or painting or sculpting, letting them control the pace of incoming information (don't start modeling a new step until they have completed the step before).

Another type of resource I would recommend for art teaching are the books that use pictures and words to give step-by-step visual instructions for art projects. Ed Emberley (children's author and illustrator) is terrific at this, and he has published many books that lay out visual stepwise instructions for how to draw almost anything. The first time that Adam learned how to draw something from someone other than me, was sitting side-by-side in his school classroom with an adult volunteer (who was an artist herself), drawing animals in a "follow me" mode, using an Ed Emberley "learn to draw" book as a reference for both of them.

Here is an example of an early picture that Adam drew using an Ed Emberley book on drawing animals for reference, with me sitting beside him providing a step-by-step model in the "follow me" format:

note: using this method, Adam drew a much more detailed picture than his usual style
- gradually, his own drawing style matured to match the skills he was learning in this context -

You can find out more about Ed Emberley (including an extensive book list) at his website: .

Other books that explore different art media and techniques, and are great for visual instructions, include "Fun with Modeling Clay" by Barbara Reid (children's illustrator famous for her plasticine sculpted pictures), "How to Make Pop-Ups" by Joan Irvine (paper sculpting) and the many books in the Klutz publishing line that show kids how to do various craft techniques. In addition, you can now find some good visual instructions at various sites online (love that Google search!), and I would also recommend searching YouTube for "how-to" videos on various art/craft, cooking and sewing skills and projects. If you are ambitious, you can make your own customized visual instructions (picture/written or video) - with advances in digital cameras, this is much easier now than it was even a few years ago.

A few last notes for those of you teaching multiple students at one time:

If you are teaching a class of ASD students, make sure the number of students is small, so that you do not get ahead of the slowest person (nothing stresses out a person with ASD like time pressure). Have visual instructions at each student's spot, and make sure that your model is close enough that all students can see the details (be prepared to re-model trickier or more intricate steps). You may want to have extra adults beside students who are more severely involved (and more likely to get stressed by missing information given from a distance). If you have an ASD student integrated into a regular art class, you can use a similar method (with an adult sitting beside the ASD student and modeling the art project using a step-by-step visual method) - this will be most effective if you and the adult support person can get together before each class to ensure that they understand how to do the art project themselves (nothing more panic-producing for an adult than finding out "in the moment" that they don't know how to do the thing they are supposed to be teaching).

I welcome input on this topic from teachers of art (and other subjects) - please join the discussion and share methods that you have "field tested" and found to be useful.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Sheila B

Saturday, October 1, 2011

No, that is not our website

Those of you who may have tried to visit our website over the past week will have noticed that the site looks very different - that's because it's not us. Due to technical problems beyond our control, the website is temporarily offline. We do not endorse any of the information found at our address at the moment. Our webmaster is sorting through the difficulties, and we will let you know when the real site is back up and running.

Thanks for your patience ........ Sheila Bell