As I was waiting for my airplane to take off at La Guardia airport yesterday, I heard a woman on the news discussing the problems of bullying at school. She was saying the prevalence of bullying was greater with autistic children. I couldn’t hear much more of what she was saying as the loud speaker came on to announce a flight’s impending departure, but it reminded me of the few times I’ve witnessed Emma being teased.
The worst was at the ARC in Aspen, Colorado where she was paddling around with a plastic ball in the swimming pool. I was watching her from a distance and saw two older boys swim toward her. There was something about the way they were looking over at each other, laughing and talking to each other and then looking at her that made me stand up. They began to circle her like sharks and I heard one of them say, “Hey girlie!” Hey! Can we have your ball?” They both began howling with laughter.
Emma, as is her way, ignored them and continued to try and sit on the ball. “Hey! Hey girlie, over here!” the other boy called out. And then he said something I couldn’t understand because at that moment Emma let out one of her odd whooping noises.
The boys began laughing. “What did you say? We couldn’t hear you!” They shouted, doubled over at the hilarity of it all.
“And she couldn’t hear you,” I said to the boys who looked at me with startled expressions.
I was standing directly over them by this time. “Why don’t you tell me what it is you want to say to my daughter and I’ll see if she’s interested in speaking with you,” I said.
“Oh, no, we weren’t talking to her,” the one boy said, putting some distance between himself and Emma.
“Oh, really, because I heard you calling out to her,” I said.
“Yeah, we just wanted to play with that ball she has,” the other boy said, looking at his friend and laughing.
“Why don’t you ask the life guard for another one,” I said. “And from now on, if you want to say anything to her, you can run it by me first,” I added. “I’ll be right here.”
The boys said nothing and about a minute later got out of the pool.
I remember wondering how often things like that happened, when I’m not there to witness it. Fortunately, Emma is never by herself in public, so the opportunities for this kind of teasing are almost non-existent. But what about the bus? I know she’s been teased on the bus, she’s told me as much. But how can we know what really takes place when one of us isn’t with her? We can’t. Emma has given us clues over the years, by repeating things said to her, capturing the tone and accent of the speaker perfectly so that we can often figure out who was saying whatever it was that was hurtful or upsetting.
I remember the bus driver last summer who made her sit in the bus outside her school for over an hour and when she tried to leave began yelling at her. We reported him, but only after he’d spent at least one morning being abusive, and we have no idea to what extent.
There have been only a couple of moments when a child has been cruel to Emma that we’ve witnessed. More often children have been kind or tried to help her, only to have me hovering nearby, uncertain as to their intentions at first. Only once I know she’s being treated kindly do I back off.
It would be lovely to think bullying and teasing would one day be a thing of the past. I’ve never heard anyone come up with anything remotely resembling a solution. Until adults take into account their own poor behavior it seems to me bullying will continue unabated.
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