Content note: This article talks about bullying, abuse, and suicide
Most autistic children in schools are bullied at some stage. We know this from research.
We also know that too many of the bullies get away with it, for month after month, and year after year.
We know that many autistic children sink into depression and anxiety, become school-refusers, start to fail in their targets, and some go on to self-harm or to consider taking their own lives. Some die. It’s a very serious subject, and every school needs to be very serious about understanding, investigating, and handling bullying situations with thoughtfulness, care, and compassion.
Many school staff are of course professional, caring, and compassionate. I want to be clear about this, because it can be too easy for it to feel like people don’t understand the pressures of teaching. The relentless targets, the endless workload, the limited budgets, the fight to get support for a child when there are a lot of children to fight for. Many of my friends and colleagues are teachers, and I was involved directly in school Governance for many years, in a tough area with 400 fantastic young people, and later in a specialist autism school. Working as a professional now in the field of autism, my own autistic past and present have taught me a huge amount. I’m very grateful indeed for the many fellow professionals I encounter, and all they bring to the teaching professions.
First, we need to understand that autistic children are generally very honest, and very accurate. Few invent stories to get another child into difficulty, and few invent things that have not happened. So, our first step is to presume competence and say that we will take what they say seriously and investigate it properly.
Second, we need to understand that autism is largely a sensory processing difference. Many autistic children process pain very differently, for example. Some can be put into intense pain by a simple repeat flashing of a light into their eyes, or driven to shutdown by someone deliberately clicking and flicking stuff near them time and time again, knowing they cannot cope. Some will double up with pain from being jostled in a corridor, by bullies who know how to jostle in a, “I was just trying to get past, Miss, honest,” way. Every. Single. Time. Some will not know they are in intense pain, from really serious injury, because the pain processors don’t connect properly. Our own son played rugby for several weeks with a broken foot, and the GP and physiotherapist had no idea it was broken. They asked him if it hurt. It did not. That was a meaningless question to him. If only they had ordered an X Ray…
And there we have our main problem with a good investigation. We ask the wrong questions, quite unknowingly. We assume that the autistic child will appear to be in pain, and will respond with the right pain-responses.
Autistic brains deliver information differently. They gather it differently, too. Our son, a well respected trainer and conference speaker, uses the analogy of “Roundabout Theory” to describe how fast autistic brains can reach ‘overload,’ and the importance of having space, to let the brain’s ‘traffic’ clear and start flowing again.
We also have to consider that there are four basic types of memories:
- Remembering how to do something (procedural memory).
- Remembering facts about a subject or individual (semantic memory)
- Remembering sensory details about something, appearance, sound etc (perceptual memory)
- Remembering a timeline of what happened when (episodic memory)
That last one is the one many autistic young people struggle with. (Though some autistic people have an amazing recall of what-happened-when, so we can’t generalise too much.)
How does that episodic memory difficulty work? An example:
“We went to the cinema a few days ago and saw something. What was it?”
Ha, a fact has arrived—7.3 IMDb rating…wait now, what was that linked to…following the memory trail back…thinking, still thinking…some parts good, other parts bad…nearly there…
Ha! Aquaman! I’ve found the file! And wallop, there’s the data for the whole film and what happened.
It wasn’t filed by time and date. It’s all in there. But often in a ‘sealed box’ with no link to the timeline from today.
And if a child is very traumatised, that box may be completely unopenable. A number of autistic young people are living with PTSD or CPTSD from incidents or series of bullying attacks. That, of course, is very specialised territory to unravel, and needs the help and support of trained PTSD professionals.
So, what happens when a teacher investigating a bullying incident last Thursday asks, “What happened to you last Thursday, Sam?”
Sam may not have a clue. Last Thursday needs putting in context. Sam may well respond with answers that seem truly unhelpful, like “I don’t know.” Or “I had cheesy chips for tea,” or “I went to school.”
Those are, of course, accurate answers to the question. We need to be specific. We need to build on the information, carefully and slowly, with the right support for what that particular child needs.
Supposing a teacher asks, “Did it hurt?” And Sam responds with, “No.” Often, that’s the point where the confused teacher says, “Well it can’t have been that bad then.”
Think about our son, above, playing rugby with a broken foot for weeks. It didn’t hurt. But it was the wrong question.
So, what question should we ask? We may need to consult a school nurse or other trusted healthcare professional, in line with school policies and consents, to investigate for injuries. Look and test, rather than assume the answer “It doesn’t hurt” means “It’s really minor.” If there’s bruising, suspect it could be serious. Although some autistic children are naturally uncoordinated and may well injure themselves accidentally. Generally the bruise and injury patterns are different for that, though. Check your safeguarding policies and follow those.
Supposing a teacher asks, “Did you ask them to stop?”
Many autistic children will go straight into shutdown in a social emergency. Their ability to speak or move becomes nil. They could no more speak than fly.
Others will go into a meltdown event, which is not a temper tantrum, but may involve what looks like angry retaliation. It’s more like a epileptic ‘zone out,’ and out of their control.
Either shutdown or meltdown are hugely unpleasant for them to experience, often with no memory at all of it happening, and much exhaustion and bewilderment afterwards. It is not an attempt to attack someone.
Supposing a teacher asks, “Are you friends with (the bully)?” and Sam says yes? It could be that Sam has no idea that she is being bullied. It could be that the bully has claimed to be a friend, and Sam truly thinks this is what friends do. It could be that Sam is so lonely and desperate for human company that she is willing to put up with a bully, because at least the bully will talk to her sometimes. Yes, some of our wonderful autistic children are that desperate for human contact. Often, teachers spot far more incidents of bullying than the autistic children do.
Bullies may learn that they can hit an autistic child hard and they don’t say anything, and apparently don’t feel pain. Bullies might discover an autistic child who can be put into intense pain with things that are really easy to disguise from the teacher. Bullies soon learn that the world often wants to see autistic people as ‘nasty,’ as ‘troublemakers.’ It is easy for bullies to relish in telling others that the autistic child is the problem, the autistic child is the bully really….
We can be aware.
We can give the autistic child time to process what happened.
We can allow them to use written answers, drawings, maybe model figures to describe what happened.
We can get in an autism specialist to help decode what happened, and work alongside the team.
What one cannot ever do, as professionals, is say, “I don’t believe you,” or “You’re just imagining it.” Or “It was really minor, just get over it.” It wasn’t minor to them. It was painful, and scary, and humiliating.
It can be deceptive, just looking for ‘the right’ responses from an autistic child. They may smile when in pain. They may laugh when terrified. Their responses may be delayed, or seem inappropriate. Those do not mean an absence of danger. Check. Check again. Check with the family. Check whether the child is also being targeted on social media. Targeted on the school bus. Targeted to and from school.
Meantime, keep a safe and respectful watch over things. Find ways to separate them from people who are causing them difficulties, if you can. Move the troublemaker rather than disrupt the routine and safe-spaces of the autistic child. Is there a safe space the child can access for break times, with an enjoyable hobby, if they’d prefer that? A different area of field they can run round, if they need activity? Is there a ‘safe person’ scheme at breaks, an individual that children can go to be with who can be a second set of eyes and ears for them? A ‘friends bench’ where a child can go if they are feeling alone or unsafe, where friends and safe appointed people can come over and sit in companionship with them?
I’m a little wary of the befriending schemes used by some schools where children are effectively bribed to be with the autistic child. Often that doesn’t end well, and the autistic child get the impression that people will only be with them if they pay them to be. That’s not a good life lesson for any child. So choices of companion need to be thoughtful ones, with a child or young person who truly wants to be a friend to people.
Has the whole school been given talks about being a safe and respectful place, and about what to do if we think a person is in difficulties with bullies? There are excellent training groups who can do this. If it’s a whole school, or a whole class, we don’t need to reveal who is autistic, or who might be in trouble.
The autistic children in our classes are fantastic young people, but often in fairly unbearable levels of fear and pain. Often blinded and deafened in the glaring lighting and soundscapes of modern classrooms, and dreading the next beating, the next ostracism, the next shutdown. The next person to tell them it was really minor.
We can do something about that, together. Because our autistic kids deserve better.