Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Today I read an article on bullying that, judging by the comments under the article, upset some people. The article implied that individuals who are bullied sometimes bear part of the blame for being bullied. Many of the commenters felt that this perspective was unfair, they felt that bullied children are innocent victims and the fault lies with the bullier.

Children with autism are often at the receiving end of bullying. I have heard that the more severely affected children are left alone; it is the "higher functioning" children who suffer most. Well-meaning parents and professionals work hard to minimize bullying of children with autism, educating other children and staff about the disorder, counseling children about inclusion and acceptance of differences, emphasizing kindness. So far, so good. But what's the missing link here? The bullied child himself.

Allow me to share my perspective on this topic as it relates to autism. My son is one of those individuals on the "higher end" of the spectrum. He has been bullied. He also has been a bully. He would not consider it bullying. He would consider it "making people do what they are supposed to be doing to follow the rules." Controlling. Annoying. Bossing. I could excuse his bullying because of his disorder. But I don't believe there is any excuse for bullying, period. Autism nonwithstanding.

Relationships and social interactions are dynamic. Do something that I perceive as annoying, even slightly, and that changes the way I treat you. If I even observe you treating others in a way I perceive as annoying, bullying, controlling, etc., that changes the social dynamic between us. Our perception is our reality.

We had an incident in school in which my son came home and told me some boys had bullied him in school. From his story, he was standing innocently in the lunch line when a boy in front of him told him he was going to stick his head down the toilet. I asked him if he thought he had done anything to provoke the boy and my son said "no." I contacted the school and had the social worker talk to all the boys, on the assumption that my son's behavior also had played a part in the incident, while not by any means excusing the behavior of the other boy. Sure enough, when my son came home from school after the meeting with the social worker, he now remembered that he had been bossing some kids in line right before the boy's comment. The boy had reacted out of frustration at my son's bossing of the other kids. It was not clear whether my son has been less-than-truthful with me before, or whether he had honestly forgotten his part in the incident. At any rate, all parties apologized to each other, and hopefully we can put that one behind us.

My role after that incident was to help my son slowly understand his role in the relationship dynamics that sometimes end up in bullying. We did talk about it, and the conversation ended by him saying "I think I need some lessons in how not to be controlling of people." Yeah, Matt. Great idea!


  1. I read that article too and it had RDI written all over it. We teach kids to wash hands to prevent getting colds and the flu. Why not teach kids to read nonverbals to avoid bullying?

  2. BTW, bravo to Matt for asking for lessons about not controlling people!

  3. Yes, for so many kids incompetence in reading nonverbal cues can lead to bullying, ostracism, rejection. Matt has improved so much in this area through RDI - for example he now notices when people give each other "looks" and is able to communicate with me now JUST through facial expressions- but still has a ways to go. It's really encouraging to see such progress given that he had NO competence in nonverbal communication at age five, save fleeting glances.

  4. Thanks for writing about this topic. My son is also 'higher-functioning' and will be entering kindergarten in the fall. My BIGGEST fear is that he will be bullied and/or made fun of as he will be fully integrated. I know some 'typical' adults who could use some lessons on how to not be controlling! LOL! :-)

  5. Laura,
    What a great first blog. Guiding our children to resolve conflicts peacefully is a mandate of parenthood. You present the dynamics of bullying clearly with both parties playing equally important roles. This is complex and will take time to learn and it is so important to start down that path. I also am touched that the children were supported by the adults as they work to interact in positive ways.
    Looking forward to more blogs,
    Deirdre CC in Santa Cruz CA

  6. I'm totally brand new to RDI, but this topic makes me SO excited to start. I'm concerned that he'll be bullied b/c of his inability to understand other kids. Sounds like RDI not only helps ASD kids relate better, but also helps to resolve conflict when they happen. Laura- you seem very in touch with your son. I'm psyched to form a tighter bond with my son as we take the RDI journey.

  7. Thanks, everyone! Jill, if you or anyone else would like to e-mail me, feel free to do so at my personal e-mail, or my business e-mail, Laura

  8. Laura,
    I just want to comment on the story about school... My son would have probably told the story in the same way. It wouldn't be because he forgot what he had been doing to annoy the other kids. And it wouldn't have been deliberately leaving that part out of the story either. Part of my son's issue is that he does not always recognize what is significant, nor cause and effect. So if he does something that makes someone upset, and they do something to him in return he often looks at the return action as an attack on him. He does not realize that the action was provoked by his own behavior. He would not think to mention to me what he did first because to him it is insignificant. He truly does not understand. If someone else points it out to him what he had done he will agree. But he then needs to be taught about how his actions were perceived by others, how they felt, and how their reaction may have come about.