Prospective parents are often surprised by how quickly we are willing to accept their children. We encourage the child and the parents to visit, and we want to make sure that we can keep the new child safe, along with all of our students. But we believe that most children will fit well into a school that offers structure, consistency, academic remediation and challenge, increased movement, and direct teaching of social skills.
Occasionally we accept a child who has been labeled a bully by another school. While many children exhibit “bullying” behaviors, very few do it because they are inherently mean or even disturbed. The social world is a complex one, and kids make many wrong guesses about how to navigate that world. Research shows that children with social skills deficits recognize those deficits and want to improve them, and we’ve found that to be true. We all want friends and we do what we think will work to form healthy relationships. If we misread social cues and misunderstand social expectations, we will appear socially awkward and perhaps even mean. This is hard for all kids, but especially for those with autism spectrum disorders.
I was reminded of this the other day when Sarah came to me complaining that Toby was throwing things at her and calling her names during movement time. I asked Toby to come see me, and we sat in my classroom and discussed the situation. His version was exactly the same as hers and he smiled in pleasure as he recounted it. “How do you think Sarah felt?” I asked. “Happy that I wanted to play with her?” he said. “Hmm,” I answered. “This is what Sarah’s face looked like when she told me about this.” I pantomimed my best sad face. He was puzzled. I pulled out a blank behavior map, something we fill out with a child when he is not understanding why a behavior is inappropriate and what effect it has on others.
As I took him through the map, asking him to describe his actions and their effects on others, I could tell he was thoroughly engaged. He really didn’t know how Sarah had felt. He had heard someone say that often when boys like girls, they tease them, and he didn’t realize that wasn’t a desirable thing. He was following the wrong script. He needed a new script, so I turned the paper over and drew a cartoon of Toby and Sarah. Toby was throwing his juice box at Sarah and calling her names. Sarah had a thought bubble that said, “Toby is saying mean things and throwing things at me. He must not like me.”
Our second cartoon had Toby thinking, “I want Sarah to think I am nice. I will talk to her about dogs because I know she likes animals.” He was very interested and asked several good questions. Then we role-played how he could talk to Sarah in a way that would not make her think he was weird. We made a copy of the behavior map to go home with him. Like all our kids, he has great parents who took the time to go over this with him again.
The next day, I was on the playground and observed Toby approach Sarah. I had earlier told Sarah what Toby and I had talked about and what I had advised Toby to do; I watched with interest. “Hi Sarah,” Toby began. “Do you have siblings?” Sarah answered in the affirmative, and Toby asked a couple of follow-up questions. They parted and I called Toby over. We discussed how well that interaction had gone and I gave him a bonus point for doing such a good job. His face glowed with pride.
Toby is an active participant in one of our four social thinking groups; he loves Michelle Garcia Winner’s Superflex superhero, who helps kids practice flexible thinking. He will also have a series of sessions with our speech-language pathologist who will help him feel more integrated in his body and who will help him in his social interactions. Our weekly Diner’s Club will help him with mealtime etiquette and conversation skills so his classmates will enjoy being around him at meals. A twice-a-week reading tutor helps him with reading comprehension, an area that also calls for a child to understand charactors’ actions and motivations and to make predictions about those. And direct teaching by all our teachers, along with feedback every fifteen minutes, will support the things he is learning.
Sarah was not ignored in all of this. We became even more vigilant than before. She was listened to and we helped her understand Toby’s motivations. We coached her on what she could do if this happened again. And she also got a bonus point for being patient and giving Toby a second chance.
Saying Toby is a bully because of his social thinking deficits is like calling a child who is behind in reading stupid. Neither deficit should be ignored and the skills necessary to shed those labels need to be directly taught. The label itself is a harmful one and does nothing to help a child gain the skills he needs.
Is Toby a bully? We say no.