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seanan_mcguire has a posted a powerful, personal, and heartbreaking entry here.

But I'm not linking it just to boost its signal. I'm linking it before I talk a bit about my own experience, not as someone who was bullied (I was as a child, as one of four visible asian children in our school), but as the mother of a child who so easily could have been. Because seanan_mcguire is right: change is entirely possible; it is absolutely necessary. It is not entirely in the hands of the parents; the parents are a third of the triangulation necessary.

And now, given it's one of my posts, there will be context.

My oldest son was…an interesting child. Until he was four years old, he never acknowledged a greeting--from anyone. I could walk into the house, returning from work at the store, and say "Hello," and he would continue playing with whatever had his interest. This did not, however, mean he couldn't hear me or that he wasn't listening; he didn't connect listening with the need to acknowledge.

This is going to sound familiar to some of the parents who are reading this. To those who don't have children or have no interest in continuing to read about mine, now is a good time to bail, because it will be, of necessity, quite lengthy.

My oldest son never jargoned. That happy babble of random syllables blended with tone of voice that generally precedes real speech? He never did it. He understood at ten months of age that specific sounds meant specific things. He spoke his first real words at fifteen months, but they were very infrequent.

My oldest son was, however, a happy child. He could be reasoned with. At fifteen months of age, I told him--once--not to run out into the road. And I told him why, by pointing out the cars parked in said road, and highlighting the difference in the height of their bumper and his own height. The drivers, I explained, couldn't see him, and if they couldn't see him, they might run him over. He didn't say a word--but he never tried to walk into the road again.

We adapted to our son because we assumed that he had a somewhat quirky personality. We knew that he was very touch-sensitive, but not in the way that's usually meant; touch could quiet him when very little else could. At three months old, he would scream his lungs out any time I walked into the local photo-developing shop around the corner, and we quickly realized it was because of the smell; he was, and remains, highly highly smell sensitive.

He could not sit or stand still. We would go into grocery stores and he would run down the isles the entire time. He understood that he was not to touch anything, so he didn't cause destruction, but boy did I get severe dirty looks. I could, however, live with those -- and he didn't notice them.

He required constant companionship. I don't want to use the word attention, but lack of adult presence frightened him. HOWEVER, adult presence was often apparently ignored; he would get upset only at its absence. Until he was four and a half years old, he did not or would not play by himself. He did, however, teach himself to read at that age while we were playing Diablo together; that and the Incredible Machine. We had no interest in teaching him to read early because we couldn't see the point in having a bored child in school.

We understood him pretty well. We knew he required clear and cogent explanations--of everything. He didn't mind being read to--but I literally never finished a picture book without a constant stream of interruptions. "Why did the little bear's chair break when she sat on it?" Everything had to be explained. And the explanations had to make sense. If he kept asking, it meant that the explanation I'd just given him didn't compute. So, I'd try again, using different words, until it did.

He liked other children, and as long as they were all running around and shrieking, he was joyful boy.

Running around and shrieking, sadly, does not work at school.

So he went to junior kindergarten with one year of preschool under his belt. I was given permission to sit in at the preschool class (which was required), because the two caregivers felt that my presence was actually necessary to him, and that he had to become comfortable in the classroom environment because in the following year, that's where he would be. This required the caregivers to actually intercede on my behalf with the program coordinator, who flat out said I was not allowed in that room. But he didn't interact with me at all while I was there, and I would take my computer to work. Every other child there did talk to me, though.

I understood that the reason he wanted me there was that if I was present, all of the inexplicable and nonsensical things he was required to do were somehow safe -- because if they weren't, I wouldn't allow it. He was afraid of what might occur in a room or a place I'd been forbidden to enter, because the only reason he could see for that stricture was that something that I would disapprove of would happen to him. He did not, however, say this; this was just the way he was. Pointing out that all the other mothers weren't there didn't matter to him. Normative social behaviour of this kind also made no sense.

He did finish the preschool, he did seem to enjoy it while there, and we took him to his first jk class.

He had to be dragged into the classroom every morning because he clung to the door and wept. My husband took him to school on the way to work; I'm not sure I would have left him there if it had been me.

And… then it started.

The difficulties. The teacher was a very nice woman who...was very nice.

But she wasn't terribly observant, and she wasn't--in the way that I or my husband are--capable of discerning the causal logic inherent in my son's odd behaviour. She couldn't separate out the expected social norms from the brute force logic that might dictate non-normative behaviour--and to be fair, why would she? She wasn't teaching a special ed. class.

But when she asked me, at pick-up, a few weeks into school, how I handled my son when he spit at home, I was utterly shocked. Because he never spit at home.

Some of the other children were not particularly kind to my four year old. I'm sure this won't surprise anyone. There were in particular two girls who were enormously nasty--at four years old, they were in control of the entire social dynamic of the class. It should have been the teacher -- but what I quickly learned was that girl bully behaviour isn't so easily corrected; boys just hit each other, and you can sit on that right away.

Mostly, the two were of the sneering "you can't sit here, we don't like you" variety.

I went home and thought about this, and discussed it with my husband. My son, among his other many traits, did not discuss events in his life or things that upset him, and in particular, if you asked him why he had done anything, or for that matter, why anyone else had, he short-circuited and blew a fuse and would scream for an hour. The two things that upset him most were having to choose between two options (vanilla or chocolate, for instance, could keep him stock still for half an hour), and being asked the question 'why'.

But the thing my husband and I had figured out about our four year old -- and we didn't have words to explain it until much later -- was that he didn't understand that what he knew and what anyone else knew were not, in fact, the same thing. If he knew something, he assumed it was known, period.

And his behaviour sounded very much as if it were of the "this is not fair" type, to me. I couldn't be certain, so I asked to sit in on the class. The teacher was happy to have me do so, because she couldn't -- she admitted this -- make heads or tails of my son, and she wanted to be able to do so.

So I went and I watched. And here's what was happening. The kids would be playing with something--say the wooden blocks. One of the boys, I'll call him Peter, picked up a block and whacked my son on the head with it. My son turned and whacked him back. Peter then ran off to tell the teacher that my son had hit him with the block, and my son was then dragged off to the corner.

Except in this case, he wasn't. I interceded and pointed out that Peter had hit him first, and while hitting Peter back wasn't entirely acceptable, I considered it justifiable. So the teacher's aide asked my son if Peter had hit him, and my son very angrily and loudly shouted YES.

Then the teacher and the teacher's aide both asked, in some shock, why my son hadn't said anything to them, and I said "because he doesn't know that you don't know. This is very hard for him because he thinks that you don't care if Peter hits him--or if any of the other kids do, or are mean to him, or take away his toys. He thinks that's fine with you because you haven't ever stuck up for him. He feels persecuted because if he responds in the exact same fashion, he has to stand in the corner, timed out. This is why he's acting out."

The teacher said, "but he has to tell us--we can't see everything that's happening all the time. You have to tell him to tell us."

And I thought of the many conversations that my son and I had had--all aborted by him--about this very issue, and I knew that telling him, at this developmental stage in his life, would not in fact correct the problem.

So I said, "He never, ever lies. He can't--because to lie, you have to understand that the person to whom you're lying doesn't know the truth--and as he thinks everyone knows the same things, a lie would make no sense at all. If you ask him what happened, he'll tell you."

I'm not sure they believed me, but you know what? They did try. "Did you bite Peter?"


This was a start, for my son, but had it not been for one other important factor in his life, he would have had a miserable junior school life for the duration. Children develop social patterns and habits, and the kids in his class had taken to blaming my son for everything that went wrong in the class, because he was always getting in trouble--and because the teacher and the teacher's aide were always shouting his name. Mostly this was because they thought it would get his attention. It usually failed--but hearing a name shouted like that on a daily basis makes a deep impression on the kids who are hearing it. (His grade one teacher, some years later, explained this to me in detail, and I want to mention her because she was also critically important, but she comes later).

The good and the quiet kids were actually becoming afraid of him because of this. And the very vocal, very opinionated, and very vibrant mother of one of those kids had decided to take matters into her own damn hands: she insisted on coming into the classroom as a permanent volunteer--and this is not a mother that anyone ever said no to. She wanted to see this monstrous boy for herself, because her daughter was so terrified of him; I truly think she had every intention of stomping his little butt into the ground.

Let me quickly add that my son had never, ever caused trouble to her daughter. Her daughter had become afraid of him because he was always in trouble, or appeared to be. (Yes, yes, I'm a mother; I just had to say this.)

So, she came to class. And she took one look at my isolated and mostly quiet son, with his big eyes and his downcast expression, and she thought this is the child who's supposed to be such a monster? This one? It took her the two hours of that first day to decide for herself that this wasn't true, and that her daughter was not going to live in fear of…nothing.

But the way she did this was to interact with my son. She was a big woman, with a lovely, lovely accent, a very earthy sense of humor, and a very warm voice. She was also a very touchy-feely mother. When my son started to fidget or gear up for near-hysterics, she picked him up and put him in her lap and sat with her arms around him--at the activity table. And he would instantly calm down. He talked to her. He interacted with her.

And as she interacted with him in such a positive and affectionate way (and also, I should add, a way that teachers are absolutely forbidden to interact with their students--the whole grabbing child and sitting them in-lap thing is not considered acceptable), the kids began to take their cue from her attitude and her behaviour; her daughter relaxed, and behaviour that she had previously seen as threatening became behaviour that was silly, instead.

On the teacher front? Whenever my son was accused of something, the teacher's aide would ask him if he had done the crime. If my son said yes, he had to time-out in the corner. But: if he said no, she would send the other child to time-out in the corner for lying. This meant that over the next few weeks, and continuing into the year, the children stopped blaming him for everything and anything that had gone wrong. They didn't want to be the one in the corner, after all.

The two girls continued, however, to be incredibly socially cruel; there was nothing that could be done about that, and in the end, it was a fact of life: some people will not like you. It's something that has to be learned.

I've left out one fundamental and important figure in my son's school life: his principal, and the new principal for the school. I'll name her: Jane Fletcher. She was brought to our school because of incidents of bullying; she was brought in, in fact, to put a stop to it. But until the end of the year, we didn't speak to her, because we had no reason to, and because we never fully appreciated what a principal--a good one--can and does do.

I have, as usual, gone way too long on this, and will continue it in the next entry.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 14th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
This sounds almost exactly like what my little brother went through. Except it was in middle school, when the bullies had gotten smart enough to figure out how to provoke him into throwing the first punch. And by that time, everyone knew he was special ed because he had autism. I think Mom even wanted the kids to learn a bit about autism in hopes that the nicer ones would look out for him, and the teachers would learn enough to keep the nasty kids in line.

As I mentioned in Seanan's post, it lead to Ben being transferred to another middle school, because she was down there with the district autism specialist every month, and my special ed. teacher knew the teachers at NewSchool and that they knew how to help kids with autism there. Not to mention that they handled bullies better.
Oct. 14th, 2010 12:21 am (UTC)

Thank you so much for posting this. I was an assistant in a special-ed pre-k for many years and so have been that person that had to touch the child to get him to stop freaking out...but I have NEVER read the parent's side of things.

Hoping there are more parents like you out there.

Thanks. And tell you son thank you as well for letting you tell this story.
Oct. 14th, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. Our son definitely has social issues, although they don't rise to the level of Asperger's. Complicating that is his peanut allergy, which makes things... interesting.
Oct. 14th, 2010 12:45 am (UTC)
It's always interesting to hear other parents of ASD children tell about their experiences. Quite often, I feel very alone when dealing with my oldest (he has Asperger's as well), especially since his mother refuses to believe in the diagnosis.

So thank you very much for sharing. I look forward to part 2.
Oct. 14th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
It's always interesting to hear other parents of ASD children tell about their experiences. Quite often, I feel very alone when dealing with my oldest (he has Asperger's as well), especially since his mother refuses to believe in the diagnosis.

I cannot imagine how difficult that would be. My husband and I parented in ignorance for years; yes, our son was difficult, but it wasn't hard to keep him on an even keel at home; it was work, but it wasn't soul-draining.

However...much of the explosive/over-stimulated behaviour occurred only when he'd hit school =/. I admit that I've wanted to post about our experiences and observations on and off for years, but I had also promised myself when he was very small that I would wait, and ask him when I thought he could reasonably grant permission. I made him read this before I posted it -- and he laughed at parts of it (the part about the angry parent storming in; he knew who it was, but had had no idea at all that that's why she was there -- she told me).

On the other hand, I'm sure he's now terrified that I'm going to make him read everything.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 14th, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
(He's ADHD rather than Asperger's, but he has OCD components to his personality, and lags behind other kids his age socially and emotionally.)

For a while, ADHD and Asperger's were classed as part of the same spectrum: PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), the catch-all category. And a lot of ADHD behaviour looks similar to the outside world; the first psychologist we went to see wasn't certain whether to class him as ADHD or Asperger, for what it's worth. But the school brought in the board of education psychologist in grade two, and she worked with him for six weeks, testing and measuring various things.

She felt that ADHD was wrong for him because the only time he exhibited behaviour in that range was when he was becoming highly uncomfortable with the test questions.
Oct. 14th, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
Wow. That's a fascinating story.
Oct. 14th, 2010 02:33 am (UTC)
There are parts to that story that sound so much like B it's uncanny. (the preschool thing, for one)

we actually homeschooled B until grade two because I didn't think he'd be able to handle kg and he'd get pegged as the bad kid, especially coming from a home with two young, weird looking parents in an otherwise very conservative neighbourhood. I'd already gotten it from countless other professionals when I talked about his eccentricities and seeked out early intervention and services to help
Oct. 14th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
Your account of the volunteering mother and her role has me in tears.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:17 am (UTC)
It looks like Seanan's entry link is broken or flocked.

Thanks -- I cut off the terminating 'l' at the end of 'html' =/. Fixed now.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - msagara - Oct. 14th, 2010 06:28 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mightydoll - Oct. 14th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:25 am (UTC)
Duh...never mind :-)
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
Thanks to you, and your son, for allowing you to post this. Very powerful story; I'm looking forward to reading more about how you and your family coped.

Casey has a friend at school who has been classified with severe Aspergers, and Casey regularly comes to me for explanations of why his friend acts the way he does, and how to deal with it. He's difficult to have as a friend, not only because of his Aspergers, but also because of how the other kids treat him. Being his friend and sticking with him tends to have negative consequences for Casey as well; it hasn't deterred him completely so far, but he has questioned why he keeps trying. Casey told me this week that he really likes some of his buddy's qualities, and he hopes he can keep looking past the problem parts. :)
Oct. 14th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
Good for Casey!
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:47 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting Micelle.

Oct. 14th, 2010 07:33 am (UTC)
A wonderful entry for me to read this morning. My son as AS and we're currently trying to get the school to understand him and how he is bullied by other children. He went undiagnosed until he was eight - and up to that point we were told he was a bad child, we were bad parents etc - it took endless fighting to finally get a diagnosis for a little boy who desperately wants friends, is terribly affectionate, but cannot understand his peers and how to interact with them.
Thanks for posting.
Oct. 14th, 2010 09:47 am (UTC)
Michelle, thank you for writing this.

My oldest son (who is now nine) also has aspergers and while every child is different (as you well know), it's helpful and worthwhile for me to hear what other parents experience and what their kids are like.

You'll be amused to know that my son is a very outgoing kid, which makes me laugh. Why? Because some teachers assume (wrongly) that all kids with apsergers aren't outgoing. And Nick helps them learn new ways to understand and interact with kids, as much as he learns from them...Which is true for your son as well.

I look forward to reading your next entry....

Oct. 14th, 2010 11:06 am (UTC)
I am so sorry this happened -- and so glad for your son that he did get the support he needed and that the school was able to end the bullying.
Oct. 14th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
There's a great deal here that resonates with me personally. Everyone else started with baby-talk that was "pidgined" together, someone who starts from the "non-normal" perspective, learns a definition for each word and uses that word correctly, so can't understand the pidgin that develops between other children and is struck out of the "blue" by the plan they form all around you. They started by stealing crayons and replacing them with all blues, from every box they had available.
You know something is wrong, you can even conceptualize who did it to you, but you are then accused of "stealing" all of the blue crayons, and because you are different, the assumption is you are the party causing the trouble. The question isn't "did you do this?" the question asked is "why did you do this?" which has no relevant answer. The very definition of the words make it sound like babbling. The only coping mechanism I could come up with was based off the grocery lists with the ready built check boxes that were stored on the refrigerator door.

"Is what they are blaming for your fault?" If yes, admit to it, and apologize. If no, immediately respond with the names of the people who did it. Do not answer why yet.

"Do they believe you?" If the answer is no, ask them "Do you believe me?" If they say no or you think no, "ask them why would I do this?"
If they give you an answer, say honestly whether the answer seems valid or not.

On and on these lists were actually written up, and jammed in my backpack, not because I needed them for reference, but because they were comforting to have near. You did a great thing by observing "peter's" trick, but a permanent solution still has to be built by and around your son to find his way around "the plots" that will be hatched around him.
Oct. 14th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Thank heavens not only for your good parenting, but for the other 'interfering' mother actually being an observant and generous person.

My son's middle school was actually vehemently anti-bullying, and it helped -- once we all figured out that bullying was going on. My son, who is neurotypical, simply held it all inside for years. Like you, I'm very grateful for a principal who -- with many other flaws -- made it absolutely clear that bullying was not the victim's fault and would not be tolerated.
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this and thank you to your son for his permission.

I try to be more vigilant even for bullying that touches kids without special needs, but I bemoan the fact that instruction in the recognition and dealing with any sort of bullying (or indeed any sort of problematic behaviour resulting from various things happening in a student's life) is not part of teacher education over here.

When I see it, there's always a lot of various approaches and sometimes they hit and sometimes they miss - and we teachers can't be everywhere during break or when we change classes (in Germany the teachers go from class to class, not the classes from teacher's room to teacher's room). It is very much left to the single teacher if he seeks further instruction in how to deal with this.

We do get lots of instruction in various methods of teaching kids things and how to keep their attention.
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
My son has aspergers and I appreciated your post, do you mind if I add you?
Oct. 14th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
My son has aspergers and I appreciated your post, do you mind if I add you?

Please do :).

I don't write locked posts at all, and because I also write professionally, I never, ever mind if people are reading me.
Oct. 14th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Drive by observation that I find this notional courtesy on LJ rather amusing. If you're posting in public everyone-and-google can read and search what you've said... forever [1].

[1] For the-wayback-machine-caught-you-during-an-indexing-pass values of forever. http://archive.org
Oct. 15th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC)
My son also went through a lot of this, unfortunately AFTER he was diagnosed with autism. The children were often not a problem, because he became something of a class "mascot". He loved jokes and being silly and the kids adored him and most tried to "take care" of him. The problem came from a teacher who apparently thought she could "cure" him and became overwhelmed with frustration when it didn't work. After my son started acting out THEN people got scared of him. Now, two teachers later when people from that school (where my daughter goes now) see him they always gasp and say Is that really him?" because he is a completely different child. Now confident and capable, if a little shy, he's nothing like the reputation he got because he doesn't have to defend himself from adult bullies anymore. (Funny aside, in the end he outsmarted the teacher and administrators. He learned real quick that if he got a little violent, typically kicking over chairs, nothing that involved hurting people, the teacher would send him out of the room, which was exactly what he wanted. If it lasted long enough the office would call me to take him home, so instantly he learned how to get out of the bad situation--that is how to manipulate all the adults in order to get out of the situation.) I hated being known as the mother of the really bad kid, but in truth he was just standing up for himself in his own way and I'm very proud of him.
Oct. 15th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
I went from silence to short sentences. Never spoke baby talk. Interestingly, my youngest daughter's first and so far only sentence was almost identical to my first sentence.

1966: "That's not good!"
2010: "That's bad!"

Behold an Extreme of Mother-to-Daughter Adventures w/ Mitochondrial DNA, perhaps.

Your son's preschool experiences sound similar to things I endured up until the third grade. Staff that is in tune to the needs of children make a huge, huge difference. I went into teaching because of the positive impact of teachers I later had.
Oct. 16th, 2010 05:18 am (UTC)
That's a pretty amazing story. Could not be easy to go through. I went through some of the social issues with girls (and boys) like that in 6th grade. My mother and I kindly refer to it as My Year in Hell. But it took a viligant mother like you and an amazing teacher to get me through it. I had no idea until years later that my mom had a conference call wtih my teacher every week. And I cried myself to sleep most nights that year but my mother and teacher wanted to help me in the background and help me stand up to the garbage. It worked. After that, even when someone tried to bully me, I just stood there and as soon as they were done, walked away. (Ok, and maybe made a few flippant/sarcastic comments, but I was a teenager and it was always said in a dry manner without they reaction they wanted.) But I just didn't care anymore about anything stupid someone said about me. There was no point. And in a school of 3000, there was no winning. Someone would say something eventually. We were all made fun of by someone. It wasn't right, but it happened. At least, that was my point of view b/c I didn't see any other real bullying.

I think the most important things for a child to grow up secure enough to ignore/face bullying successfully are supportive parents who pay attention to who their kids' friends are and recruit the teachers and school staff if needed. Giving kids confidence doesn't take much. That whole 'unconditional love' thing usually takes care of it. :)

Thank you to you and your son for sharing. -Missy
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )