How Autism Grew my Faith

A new book from Stephanie C. Holmes. Available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.
3 Topics now available on DVD
Stephanie has collected her teachings on Aspie/NT marriage into a 5 part DVD series. Also available is "Moving Beyond Surviving to Thriving: ASD issues that impact marriage & Family" and "Spectrum Teens and the Issues they face".

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Are special needs kids targeted by bullies?

What if your child or client received a text or Facebook message that said, “You should just have one of your seizures and die” or “No one likes you, why don’t you just kill yourself?”  Isn’t this just teasing?  I hear parents and professional say, “Being bullied or teased is  part of life, it makes you stronger.”  Is that true? Who do bullies target and what are long-term effects of being bullied or socially isolated or rejected?

I was dumbfounded and shocked by the story of Shea Shaehan, an 18 year old student with the mental capacity of an eight year old, who received texts similar to that described above. Although I suppose I shouldn’t be, my own special needs daughter, as well many clients on the spectrum report bullying.

What is bullying anyway? The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Department of Justice (DOJ) state, “Bullying may be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.”    Who do bullies target in general? Kidshealth. org said, “Bullies often pick on someone they think they can have power over. They might pick on kids who get upset easily or have trouble sticking up for themselves.  Sometimes bullies pick on someone who is smarter than they are or different from them in some way.”

When in developmental study do you we know children start to look for personal identity? When do cliques and groups tend to form? What grades in school would none of us ever want to do again in life? Middle- school.  Middle- school is the time bullying tends to escalate.  Even neuro-typical kids struggle with issues of “Hey, we were friends in 5th grade, what happened to make us not friends in middle school?”  That is a common issue. But for special needs children it is not just a separation of groups or cliques, it is often time they are targeted for bullying and harassment because of their differences.

How common is it really?  According to National Bullying Prevention , statistics show 60% of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly as compared to only 25% of the average student body population.  Dr. Tony Attwood said his studies show between 70-75% of teens on the spectrum report being bullied.

Why is bullying a big deal? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger right? Isn’t that what we are taught?

A study called “The Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult, Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcome” written by D. Wolke & W.E. Copeland and released in the journal Psychological Science this past October does not think it is simply a rite of passage adolescents go through. Their study found:  “Victims of childhood bullying, including those that bullied others (bully-victims), were at increased risk of poor health, wealth, and social-relationship outcomes in adulthood even after we controlled for family hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders. Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs.”

Some argue that a child or teen with a disability is already “set up” to feel different and already will struggle with anxiety or depression so how do we know bullying adds additional stress for negative outcome affects?  Psych Central released an article last year by Dr. Rick Nauert in April of 2012 titled, “Special Needs Don’t Depress Kids- Being Bullied or Left Out Does.”  The study by Margaret Ellis McKenna, M.D. revealed, “Being left out, ignored or bullied by their peers is the main reason kids with special needs report clinical levels of depression and anxiety.”  Kids with various special needs including physical, mental, or behavioral were included in Dr. McKenna’s study. She found that most persons with disability will not report that the disability or transitions or challenges of the disability itself result in feelings of depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation, how others treat them because of the disability is the bigger factor.

As a mother, minister, and counselor who works with the autism community and others with special needs, I encourage you to openly ask and dialogue with special needs clients. We make many assumptions about how others different than us feel and react to things.  We can simply ask.  Based on the above studies we know that this population has a higher rate of bullying. We also know it has long-term negative effects.  We know that between 50-60% in the autism community alone struggle with suicidal ideation and clinical depression due to reported bullying.  If you google special needs and suicide or autism and suicide the list of stories of teens contemplating or committing suicide is on the rise.  As therapist we can be proactive with this population I our care and ask. Familiarize yourself with your state and school district’s policies of bullying and reporting and preventing bullying.

What did we do? When our daughter was being bullied at school we followed the principle of  Matthew 18:15-17.  Before I jumped in and tried to save the day I wanted her to voice that is was not okay with her to the bully. I had her state to him that his behavior was not okay and name calling and threats would not be tolerated by her. When he continued, we met with her special education case manager and began to document what was happening and the classroom teacher was made aware.  When this failed to stop the bullying I as the parent contacted the parents of the bully. I said that I did not wish for this to be a permanent record issue for him and perhaps they are not aware that bullying someone with a disability is not only, not tolerated by the school, it is a crime.  The parents got involved and had their child avoid my child at school. The football player actually convinced his parents my spectrum daughter was bullying him.  It became he said/she said, but I saw the affects of this bullying on my daughter. I saw her anxiety levels rising and her grades dropping in the class she had to see this boy in every day.  The school was alerted, and had the parents not intervened we would have gone to the school and pressed formal charges.  What happened next made me the proudest mother in the world. After the parents and I talked and we discussed the students should avoid contact with each other, my daughter amazed me. Inspired one day on the way to school by Matthew West’s song “Forgiveness” she approached her bully with hand outstretched and said something like this, “ I don’t know what I have done that may have made you not like me. If I have done something I am sorry. What I really want is to just have peace, can we start over and just live at peace at school?” They shook hands and ate lunch together that day.  The teacher reported a change in atmosphere in the class, and my daughter’s  focus was able to return to her academics.   I was so proud that she “got it” that WWJD was not just a phrase or bracelet , she actually lived by it and did was Jesus would have done in that situation. It was that moment I knew her faith, was her faith. She owned it.  She also felt empowered first to stand up to the bully, and then to have a  “why can’t we all just get along” moment.  He teases her some still, but the harassment and bullying has stopped.  I wish all stories ended this way, but they do not. Countless of teens with special needs feel hopeless and do not know how to deal with bullying.  We need to educate and empower them and their families. We need to show them we care and that God cares and they are people are value and worth, Christ died for us all Jew, Gentile, male, female, ‘neuro-typical’ and differently abled.

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