Dear Ms. Lydia,
I am the father of three children, ages 5, 7 and 9. My 9-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism at a young age. He is fairly high-functioning, and he is mainstreamed into our local public school, but he does get taken out of class for applied behavior analysis therapy. The problem is that the other children are noticing when he gets taken out of class and have started teasing him. He already struggles so much in school, and it is really breaking my heart that he is now being teased. He comes home from school so upset and says he doesn’t want to go anymore. I need help!
Frank in Fredericksburg
I am so sorry that this is happening to your son. He already has a lot to handle with his autism on its own but teasing and bullying should not be tolerated. The CDC defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. The aggressive behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” The type of teasing that your son is experiencing qualifies as bullying, and schools take bullying very seriously. Without some intervention, this teasing is damaging to his self-esteem, mental health, development of social skills and general progress in school. It needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed quickly before your son suffers regression or refuses to go to school altogether.
The first step would be to talk to the teachers in his mainstream classroom and his special education teachers, presenting them with the following suggestions:
Ask that his removal from class for his therapy be changed to a transition time (i.e the beginning or end of recess or after lunch). This will make going to his therapy less obvious to the other children.
Provide his teacher with some information about autism and how it affects your son. Suggest that the teacher have a discussion with the class and provide the children with an understanding of what autism is and how they can better support your son. This information might help to bolster some empathy in the other students.
Have the school provide a member of their staff designated as a “safe person.” This safe person will be a person that any student who feels they are being bullied can safely and confidently address their concerns. Sometimes just being heard and empathized with can help a child feel more confident.
Ask the school to install a Bully Box, which is a box that children can anonymously write down incidents of bullying. This way, the situation will be handled without repercussions to the “victim” of the bullying.
It is also important that you speak with your son and develop strategies that will help him when he feels he is being teased. Give him language to use when the teasing begins. For example, “I have autism and my therapy helps me.” Sometimes being straightforward and direct can stop the teasing. Make it clear to him that if he needs help in a teasing situation, he can always ask an adult to help him. He does not need to handle it alone.
Another key to helping your son will be building up his peer relationships. One reason children with special needs might be at a higher risk for bullying is lack of peer support. Having friends who are respected by peers can prevent and protect against bullying.
Encourage playdates with other children. Ask if his teacher could institute a buddy system, matching up students who do not regularly play together to spend time together. See if there are clubs at his school that he could get involved in, so that he can get excited about going to school once again.
I hope some of these suggestions are helpful to you and your son. I am hopeful your son’s school will be open to making some changes so that all the students will feel safe and excited about going to school each day.