Search This Blog

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" ...

No comments:

Post a Comment