BY RACHEL CHEESEMAN, FOUNDER OF STREET SMART SELF DEFENSE
Raising a child with autism holds incredible challenges. I know this as truth because I’m an “autism parent”. My son, Blaize attends a local Approved Private School program that exclusively serves special needs children. Toward the end of last school year, my son’s teacher was talking with me about the arrival of a new student in the classroom and about how her and Blaize were getting along very nicely. I said “Oh, that’s great! Is she new to the area?” The teacher’s response was, “No. Her parents transferred her to our school due to bullying in their home district”. Part of me could not understand why anyone would bully a special needs child. And the other part of me served as confirmation to the sad reality of one of my worst fears.
A 2011 survey by the International Autism Network found over 60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied regularly, compared to 25% of all their neurotypical/non-disabled peers. A large portion of this group sampling were in fact kids with autism. The problem with autism is it’s difficult to fully understand social cues and expression of feelings; especially as it relates to others. That’s why it’s so easy for autistic kids to become victimized in mainstream academic programs. On the flip side, kids with autism also struggle with empathy, so they run a higher risk of becoming the actual bully in mainstreamed social circles. All these statistical examples are troubling. Largely because I could see my own son (and other kids just like him) on either side of the equation.
The good side to all this is the amount of increased public awareness education for autism and other disabilities. Most families have someone close to them or a friend with the diagnosis of autism. Although the public-school system has enacted many programs that focus on integration and inclusiveness, there is still much work to be done in the realm of full-scale acceptance as it relates to the general student body. My best advice to all parents is “get involved”. Have a transparent line of regular communication about your child with the teaching staff. Follow up (daily if needed) to monitor your child’s behavior both inside the classroom as well as on the playground. Ask specific questions about mannerisms. Does your child get along with others? Are they aggressive? Do they seem isolated? Do they seek conversation?
If problems exist in any of these areas, parents need to intervene at once. Addressing these issues through your child’s Behavioral Specialist Consultant (BSC) or Mobile Therapist (MT) can be extremely valuable. Don’t be hesitant to create social goals in your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) too. This will help to bring all teaching staff on board to collectively help your child progress toward effective social cue development. My son’s therapist uses cards with various photos of emotional expression; then creates a match game to help make the learning more fun.
Siblings and friends need to get involved too. Form a trusted bond with the affected individual. Assist them in understanding situations where they can misrepresent social cues that may cause them to become anxious or aggressive. By the same token, report behavior that appears to degrade or take advantage of someone’s mental or physical condition. Participate in a community event, such as a walk, with relatives and friends to educate yourself. Working together can increase public acceptance as well as help the affected person thrive with confidence and form lasting friendships!
Rachel Cheeseman is a 2nd degree black belt and has studied the martial arts for the past 28 years. She founded Street Smart Self Defense Academy in Erie, PA 17 years ago to empower women, due to the rape of her sister in her off-campus college apartment. She is a certified instructor for the national full-contact self-defense program called “Model Mugging” and a certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops. Rachel is also a member of and former seminar instructor for the American Women’s Self Defense Association, and she has been inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honors and the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.