This week over at Autism Daily Newscast there’s a guest post written by an ABA practitioner named Karen Kabaki-Sisto on ten “perks” of having your autistic child bullied. It’s written to and for parents (as opposed to autistic children, or school staff.) So I’m going to respond to Ms. Kabaki-Sisto directly, as the mother of an autistic child and student.
While you open by saying that the harms of bullying cannot be brushed aside, for the purpose and duration of your listicle, you did just that. The first “perk” you mention is the creation of “autism-friendly programs” in the school, such as workshops (for peers or teachers isn’t entirely clear.) But a child being a victim of bullying is not required for the implementation of such a program. So this is actually something schools should be doing well in advance of any peer abuse, to prevent it from happening at all. This is not then a benefit of bullying, but a consequence of insufficient planning.
The second “perk” of bullying you mention is team work. “Working together as a team in partnership with you as the parent, the school’s teaching staff, aides, principal, counselors, and psychologists will provide the safest environment for your child to learn and enjoy.” There is no reason to tell parents this is the automatic guaranteed response the school will have to their child being bullied. Bullying is an issue of school culture. From my experiences as a mother and as a former bullied child, I can say that while I didn’t change much from year to year, or develop tremendous social skills to explain the difference, some schools were much better and some much worse. When schools are proactive, bullying isn’t even an issue. If bullying is already happening, chances are you’re in a school that won’t care and won’t act to resolve it.
The third “perk” you suggest is Autism Awareness. But autistic adults have told us, countless times, that they want acceptance, not awareness. Anti-autistic hate groups like Autism Speaks have made sure everyone knows that autism is prevalent, and according to them, something to fear. Increased awareness in the absence of acceptance can lead to *more* bullying, not less. Making peers aware of a child’s differences without teaching them to accept those is not good anti-bullying.
The fourth, uniquely autistic “perk” of bullying you offer is increased verbal and communication skills. This is not necessarily true. Bullying is not actually known to be an effective teaching style, especially for children with communication impairments. Assuming that bullying and having to report bullying will fix these communication challenges, rather than making reporting more difficult and allowing bullying to go on longer, is not based in reality.
Your faith claim is that bullying builds strength. Again, reality and research don’t back you up. Bullying has long-term negative consequences and no real positive ones. It’s a form of peer abuse and a reflection of the school’s culture. A school where bullying happens is unlikely to be a school that takes bullying seriously, or works with a bullied child in constructive ways. When my son was being bullied by peers, that bullying was supported by teachers and other school personnel. The solution was to move and change schools, not to build connections with the culturally damaged school.
The sixth “perk” of bullying is paradoxically “more friendships”. In reality, bullied children are less likely to trust peers and will struggle to make friendships. Additionally, bullies tend to pick on children who already lack friends, as they won’t have allies. The experience of being bullied in no way at all guarantees or even increases the likelihood of forming good friendships. When my son started attending a school with an anti-bullying culture, he quickly formed friends with the other students.
You say the seventh “perk” of bullying is “overall well-being” in direct contrast to virtually all research on the health impacts of stress and loneliness. Apparently the not-actually-guaranteed increased speech skills from perk four are awesome enough to mitigate all the negative effects of being verbally or physically tortured by a peer while your parents were away and unable to intervene, and teachers chose not to.
Your eight ridiculous claim is that bullying leads to healthy relationships. “Ways to deal with bullying also help your child deal with sibling rivalry, ‘stranger danger’, or any other personal threat.” Yet again, a child being the victim of bullying is not required to teach social skills or safety standards. There is no reason to wait until your child has been harmed and abused to address other personal threats.
The ninth “perk” of bullying is a bit amorphous. You claim that being bullied will increase communication and survival skills, make my child more aware of people around them, make them a “conscientious citizen and good Samaritan“. You don’t mention that being bullied may make a child more fearful or aggressive, that heightened arousal is the far end of increased awareness, or that communication and survival skills are not in any way at all guaranteed to increase as a result of bullying.
Your tenth and final “perk” of autistic child bullying is the entirely baseless and unsupported claim that “Ironically, and in spite of the bully’s goal to do the opposite, your child will grow self-confidence and self-preservation esteem.” Except, even with strong parental support, even with moving the child out of the bullying school and into an anti-bullying school, even with therapist support, a child who has been bullied is an abuse survivor, and carries all the scars of that with them.
I understand the impulse to find a silver lining, but you mustn’t forget the cloud. Bullying is abuse. While many abuse survivors find strength in their recovery, or find ways to turn the harm done to them into good they do for the world, the price is simply too high. Preventing abuse should always be our goal. Asking child victims to turn abuse into a positive is asking too much. We should protect our children. That means schools need to implement effective, evidence-based bullying prevention and response systems, and parents need to watch out for signs of abuse like depression, avoiding school, faking illness or injury, and self-harm. It’s our job to look out for them, not their job to make the best of a bad situation we can fix for them but won’t.