April 21, 2010
I read a very disturbing post today, a blog entry written by a mother of an autistic child who was brought to school by his father the other morning, and was taunted and teased before he even set foot on school property. “He’s not normal.” “He spits.” You get the gist. The child, apparently, did not react. The father was probably scarred for life. The imagery of the event is horrifying.
One of my biggest fears when my son Justin was diagnosed with autism was he would one day be the object of torment and ridicule, a pariah among his peers. This fear stemmed in part from my years as an elementary school teacher both in Washington, DC, and the suburbs of northern VA. Contrary to popular belief, not all children are capable of great cruelty, but some, like certain adults, are predisposed to it. Also contrary to popular belief, this may not be a direct result of inadequate parenting, uncaring educators, or too much television. Sometimes, children are just inherently mean to those they view as more vulnerable than themselves. Our job, as parents, educators, and members of society, is to eradicate that desire to wound if possible, and if not, make the consequences of enacting that desire so unpalatable that the child makes a different choice the next time a situation for teasing presents itself. It is that simple.
It’s been seven years since Justin has graced us with his complicated presence, and to date, at least in my presence, no unkind word has slipped into his psyche from the lips of either child or adult. Trust me, I’ve paid attention to people in close proximity to us when we’re out and about, as I’ve felt that if some pejorative commentary were unleashed upon my child I would use that opportunity to confront the individual, and educate them about autism. We’ve had some looks come our way on occasion, and when I’ve been immersed in full battle mode with Justin I’ve obviously ignored them, as my desire for both of us to remain alive took precedence over my need to inform. The times when he’s been mildly cantankerous I’ve simply responded to looks with my own gaze, an explanation of “he’s autistic”, and a smile. The truth is, Justin looks completely normal (whatever that is), and when he’s not emitting a string of vowel sounds or flapping his arms in excitement, it would be easy to assume he’s just exhibiting bad behavior. He doesn’t have a scarlet “A” emblazoned on his forehead. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and just assume they’re judging for the same reason we all do – to feel better about our own ridiculous lives.
To date, in every instance, my commentary has been received with at least a smile, and often an offer of assistance. Perhaps this is because my family has only resided in either a major metropolitan area where there was a certain level of sophistication, or our town in central New Jersey where there is about one degree of separation between every resident and an autistic child. The level of awareness I’ve encountered has been extremely enlightened so far. I know I’m extremely fortunate, and I’m grateful.
I’ve also come to accept that the autism that my child experiences would preclude his understanding of most harassment, and for that I am eternally relieved. Short of physical torture (which between the surveillance techniques of his hawk-like mother and diligent teachers is highly unlikely to occur), Justin would not comprehend that a child was being mean to him, did not have his best interests at heart. He has only known kindness, from his family, teachers, therapists, neighbors, and the community at large. I don’t think he’d even notice. In a way, his autism, the disconnects in his brain, shield him from hurt. I’m grateful for that as well.
But I am also cognizant of the fact that certain children on the spectrum are far more aware of the subtle nuances of discourse than my son is, the interplay of conversation and inference. For those children aware enough to understand they’re being maligned, the harm is terrible, and can be permanent. It cannot be tolerated. And frankly, this sentiment should apply to any child, those with a label, and those without.
As a twelve-year veteran of the education wars, I have had the good fortune to witness the eradication of bullying done right. We had a zero tolerance policy at my elementary school in VA, and it was strictly enforced. Half the battle, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, was in figuring out that cruel encounters were indeed taking place. Smaller children are famous for tattling, and almost proud of it at times. Older ones sense the stigma associated with it, and are far more recalcitrant in their penchant for narking.
Understand that particularly in the upper elementary grades teachers are facing classrooms of thirty children, trying to concede to the demands of 504s, IEPs, ESL students, unlabeled children who just need extra assistance, No Child Left Behind, and in some instances, just plain crazy parents. For the most part, I believe the men and women who teach are caring individuals who truly want to be in the classroom (women particularly have far prettier and more lucrative choices than “summers off” these days), but even with eyes and ears open may miss an unkindness, or worse, unless informed by a parent or student. I am not making excuses, but we are not omniscient. In order to eradicate the problem, we need to know that it exists.
And once we know, it is the school’s collective duty to stamp out that child’s ability to torment, period. At times, this is a particularly difficult endeavor, as there may be nothing more reinforcing to that particular kid than the high received from making someone else feel badly about themselves. Some children can be deterred by a simple “knock it off” and loss of recess or computer time. For some, the need to injure, for whatever reasons (and trust me, it can be boys or girls, children from intact families or not, daycare, nannycare, or stay-at-home mom care respectively) runs far deeper. I’ve found by far the most effective way to get a child to relinquish the cruelty ghost is to make their parents repeatedly miss work for parent-teacher-principal conferences. Nothing inspires a parent to discipline like that repeated middle of the work day meeting.
Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, and have both the benefit of my years in the classroom coupled with my experiences as a parent, I recognize ultimately the burden of care rests on the latter, and in the case of the special needs child, the particularly beleaguered latter. I’ve had a number of instances in my career where I was confident I’d rectified a teasing event, even congratulated myself on discerning it and destroying it without the benefit of administration’s intervention. I’ve also had the experience of witnessing, mere hours after what I considered a personal hell-raising, the exact same torment of the harmed child by the exact same procrastinators when they thought I was engaged with other students (I will admit, it’s usually girls, they are generally the sly ones). It can take repeated sanctions to make a difference. Sometimes I required parents to act as informants multiple times simply because I missed the teasing. I was always grateful to them for telling me, for being advocates for their children.
The climate for encouraging tolerance has changed, and we as parents need to use this to our advantage. No principal wants to see the same parents repeatedly at the threshold of his or her office, demanding a cessation of a child’s torment. No superintendent of schools wants to be the recipient of multiple letters of complaint in regards to treatment of a child, or wishes to be witness to an impassioned plea by a parent at a school board meeting. Threatening mediation or legal action is undesirable, but often effective. I’ve even seen some parents take their plight to the media to seek relief. We have to do whatever it takes, but we will see the best results if we start early, and follow through often.
We don’t have much control over what happens in our communities, as often encounters with the public are brief at best. But our schools can be contended with, and it will require all of our efforts, in our already limited spare time, to eradicate prejudice. Children can change their behavior, whether it’s intrinsically motivated, or simply as a result of an all-encompassing fear of the consequences. In many respects I feel the disabled are the new disenfranchised minority, with the added deficit that many of them cannot speak up for themselves as women, African-Americans, and the gay community have done for themselves in the past. When I see how far those populations have come, I am greatly encouraged. If we as parents are relentless in our pursuit of a safe, positive environment for every child, I know we can get there.