Michelle (msagara) wrote,

Asperger son at school, part 1: What it takes to address bullying

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.
Tags: asperger child

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