I can’t say I had the best middle school experience. Fresh off the boat, I was a socially awkward kid with a funny British accent — an obvious outsider at an age when being an outsider was the worst possible sin. I received more than my fair share of bullying, and it stuck with me for years.
Memories of my middle school years came back to haunt me when my son, who has high functioning autism, entered grade six. I worried he’d be the target of bullying, and sadly, I was quickly proven right. Middle school was a trial for him and a source of constant worry for his mom and me.
Autism and Bullying
According to research from the University of California at Berkeley, high-functioning autistic children are at more risk of bullying than kids with severe autism. Children with more restrictive levels of autism usually wind up in special education classes, shielded and protected from their non-autistic peers.
Higher-functioning kids wind up in mainstream classes, where other children are quick to notice social awkwardness, anxiety and “weird” behavior. The University of California research reports 46 percent of middle and high school kids with autism are bullied, compared to 10.6 percent of non-autistic children.
As we feared, Robert endured more than his share of bullying. He was shoved. He was punched. He had his backpack stolen. He was called all manner of names. The bullies knew they could get an explosive response from Robert. Bullying which would upset other kids for a few minutes completely destroyed his day. He was easy pickings, and the meaner kids knew it.
During middle school, Robert had an extremely rigid view of people. One argument, one misunderstanding, and he would refuse to be friends with someone, and glare at them when they met. This both alienated him from possible friends and gave bullies an excuse for their actions.
As middle school progressed, Robert experienced increasing meltdowns in class. It took some investigating to discover these incidents were often caused by other kids. The bullies realized they could trigger a tantrum or meltdown by making very small gestures or comments. To the teacher, it looked as if the problem came from Robert (which, to be fair, it sometimes did). The bully got to disrupt class, and Robert got the blame. He was suspended at least six times for fighting.
By the time he graduated middle school, Robert had a file an inch thick. We were at the school every week, dealing with fights and disruptions. Robert began to exhibit signs of suicidal behavior. When his behavior suggested possible drug use, I admit I panicked and started looking for holistic drug rehabilitation options. As it turned out, that particular problem was due to an imbalance in his prescription medication.
High School Turnaround
When Robert reached high school we worried bullying would continue. For the most part this hasn’t happened. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to his sister. She watched for him in the cafeteria on the first day of school, and called him over to meet her friends in the drama club.
The club adopted Robert, and gave him a place to safely practice social skills. He got involved in set construction for the plays, and then surprised us all by performing the part of the Reverend Hale in a production of The Crucible. I’ve never been so proud.
I know parents can sometimes be over protective of their children, especially ones that have special needs. I was very tempted to pull Robert out of school and teach him myself. However, if I had done that he would never have grown socially and even mature like he has these past four years in high school.
Carly Fierro is a freelance writer that writes about health and family relationships on a blog about holistic drug rehabilitation.