Sadly, this year we experienced our first (known) incident of bullying. I naively thought we had at least another year or two before I had to support AZ through an experience where classmates engaged in unkind acts towards him. While we worked through our own emotions related to this, we also helped AZ process this incident. It was not long before we discovered the impact it had on him emotionally and behaviorally at school and at home. With this realization, I reached out to his teachers, and thankfully we have a wonderful working relationship with the educators, specialists, and administrators working with AZ. While we do encounter bumps at times, overall, we have a team motivated to support and encourage him throughout the school day.
One of the things autistic individuals engage in is fixation or looping, especially when anxious (looping means the autistic person will think or verbally repeat the same thing over and over again or become stuck and ruminate with their language). We began to see this quickly after the incident when AZ would ask us repeatedly “why are kids unkind?” Even with being a trauma specialist who has worked with children, answering this for my own son was still challenging. While we honored his experience and did not downplay the impact unkind kids can have on his self-esteem and sense of safety, we also wanted to help him see how many kind kids there are in his class and school.
Last year I took a training with Dr. Shelley Moore, one of the leaders in Universal Design for Learning and advocators on implementing the true meaning of inclusion. She urged us to “find people to get on our bus” of inclusivity. After attending Dr. Moore’s training, she motivated me to find others in the school and community who were passionate about going outside the box and finding true ways to foster inclusivity.
After the bullying incident, AZ’s math and science teacher, Mr. Cubbage, expressed a desire to share about autism with his students and AZ’s classmates. That sentiment was all I needed to know that I had another member to join our Bus of Inclusivity. I quickly ordered the books we have used for years to explain autism to friends and their children. The books also highlight how children can include and be friends with an autistic peer.
After the books were read, Mr. Cubbage reached out to me to share AZ’s classmates had insightful and thoughtful conversations about autism and what it meant to be kind to each other. In reaction to his experience being bullied, AZ began to struggle at school, and after exploration, we realized this resulted from his lack of feeling safe and connected at school. After a few changes in seat assignment (thanks to one of our favorite speech therapists, Ms. Ashton Gress, for figuring this out), greater understanding from staff, and these books being read to his classmates, we went from having behavioral issues daily and across multiple classes, to sudden reports of “fantastic day” or “great day.” Once we attended to his anxiety and need to feel safe and belong, his behaviors shifted to one of a regulated child ready to be engaged and learn. After six weeks of AZ being dysregulated in the school setting, this shift took less than a week to turn around once we implemented ways to foster inclusivity and safety.
I believe these books and honest discussions around autism gave language to AZ’s classmates to learn how to interact with a peer who is autistic. After the books and discussions, we saw children go out of their way to let AZ know he belonged, and they were happy he was there. One child brought AZ a Bluey book that detailed two people meeting who speak different languages and yet find a way to communicate and be friends (side note: if you are not watching Bluey with your children, it is a must see!). We attended another classmates birthday party, and we were able to witness children interacting with him in a way we had never seen previously. This was true for children that had been kind and friends with AZ for the last several years.
This thankfully shifted his narrative from “why are kids unkind” to “kids can be kind.” It allowed him to experience the full range of the spectrum when it comes to relationships/peers: we are closer to some, pleasant with others, and need to keep distance from those who are unkind to us. This shift in thinking was made possible thanks to a teacher willing to be creative in helping his students learn about autism and inclusion.
Sadly, as a trauma therapist, I know our journey will encounter many more unkind kids, and we will need to continue educating AZ on how to stand up for himself and find helpers when kids are bullying him. Even with knowing this, we will make it a priority to help AZ focus on the kids and adults who realize KINDNESS MATTERS!