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Thursday, 18 December 2008

Bullying and Aspergers

Bullying is something so pervasive in our society that almost everyone has some experience with it. As such, I was not surprised to read a Family First release claiming that New Zealand kids almost top the world in the most bullied stats, suffering bullying at a rate of almost 50 per cent above the international average. The release refers to a Herald article on the report at the source of the stats and touches on some of the strategies schools are adopting to overcome bullying and the criticisms the new government minister, Anne Tolley, has made of them;
The previous Government has made half-hearted attempts at addressing the issue, with a series of checklist cards released last year. But it's action we need. And holding up a card while you're being bullied - well, that's not going to work.
All year we have battled bullying as our 13 year old son, Christian, has completed his first year in high school. Christian has Aspergers Syndrome and has a very high IQ when it comes to analytical and spatial reasoning, genius level - he is amazing, but struggles with what he calls "the irrational and inconsistent way adults relate to each other." The textbooks say he has a 'social disability so struggles with social issues' but having raised Christian I am not sure that "disability" is the right term, I would say he is just more perceptive than most of us.

When he was 4 he asked me why adults lie to each other so often. I asked him what he meant and he said that they say they like someone's dress or their cooking but they don't really. He explained, that when someone gives him a present for Christmas and they ask him if he likes it he gets in trouble if he tells them he doesn't, that it is a dumb present.

Further, when you go to someone's house for dinner you always ask what you can bring even though you know that they will answer they don't want you to bring anything. When you get to dinner you offer to clear away the dishes and to wash them but you know when you offer that they will tell you not to. Your offers are token gestures that you don't really mean and worse than that, every adult you say them to also knows you don't really mean them because they know that you know that the correct answer is to refuse the offers of help but if you don't offer you are not a good guest. Why is it good manners to lie and pretend to be sincere? Isn't telling the truth more important than hurting someone's feelings or not being a good guest?

Christian gets bullied because he is different and at times annoying to the other teenage boys he goes to school with; he finds teenagers as frustrating to understand as most adults do and often says things deliberately designed to expose the stupidity of their reasoning and he still has not mastered a good way to express frustration publicly, so he can make irritating noises at times when he is not sure how to respond appropriately.

His take on the anti-bullying strategies the ministry has in place is perceptive. During children's programming after school there are TV commercials about bullying put out by whichever government Anne Tolley was referring to. Christian says of them:
The ads on TV tell you what bullying is and that you should not have to put up with it, but what they should be doing is telling people not to bully in the first place. Their focus is wrong.
Christian has made the same observation and criticism of his school's attempts to manage the bullying he has suffered all year. The school's focus was all about what Christian could do to minimise the bullying. Yes, he is annoying and he should work on that and yes strategies should cut both ways; Christian accepted all this but he still felt that the primary focus should be on the unacceptability of the behaviour.

Christian was not bullied as horrifically as the cases that make the news but this year he has been hit, shoved, knocked to the ground, attacked with a screw driver, shoved into a wall, been surrounded by a group of kids unable to escape, had his property taken, been made the butt of school jokes and filmed on someone's cell phone camera having his pants pulled down which led him to weeks of internet searching after school for the footage. He has come home with cuts, bruises and has lived in fear of returning to school and with self-doubt. Yet no one got stood down or expelled for hurting him all year and to our knowledge, no one's parents were contacted over their treatment of him. There were very few repeat offenders over the year, it was more there was a culture of bullying that many kids engaged in.

The school, following the ministry's guidelines, instead had multiple meetings with us and worked hard with their staff putting strategies to protect Christian in place - they even waived their policy of waiting for a year of knowing the child and put him in one of the top streams mid-year after I suggested that the brighter kids might not respond with their fists so readily. The kids did get detentions, were talked to and told off and made to apologise and most did not re-offend against Christian but none of these, we and Christian felt, were sufficient consequences as none of them countered the culture problem the school and Christian faced.

What we want is an end to the focus on what the victim should be doing and the need to understand the bully and a return to the message that bullying is unnaceptable and will not be tolerated. Zero tolerance sends a very loud and clear message but zero tolerance is not govt approved. Let's hope that that changes under National.


  1. Hi there,

    Sorry to hear your son has been bullied. Asperger's isn't an easy thing to live with and for others someone with it seems to be wierd or different. I have it myself but was fotunate enough that my parents had the foresight to raise me as normal and not treat me any differently. My youngest daughter has autism and will be facing a similar situation with children teasing her when she attends High School later on. I agree with you bullying should stopped at the source. Great post and well said.
    All the best for your son and your family


  2. Why is it bad manners to lie and pretend to be sincere?

    In the context of your post, do you mean?

    Why is it good manners to lie and pretend to be sincere?


    Why isn't it bad manners to lie and pretend to be sincere?

  3. The question that I have is how can bulying be stopped?
    I have worked in a variety of schools and almost all have identified bullying as a problem. From my experience this is the easy bit. The difficulty is in implementing a workable solution.
    The simple answer is the tired ‘have zero tolerance’. Once again my question is what does that mean? Does it mean that if a child comes to you complaining of being bullied you immediately give the initiator a detention, stand down or withdraw him from school? Which one of these solutions fits the criteria of 'zero tolerance'?
    A draconian style works when your child is being bullied but doesn’t fit well when it is your daughter doing the verbal bullying.
    The ‘zero tolerance’ line has been used to death and it clearly doesn’t work in our state funded school system.

    For more on this topic..

  4. Hi Shem

    I guess what irritates me about this kind of response is this: Suppose my son was regularly punched, hit, had his pants pulled down and displayed on you tube while in *my* care what would happen? I would be investigated and probably prosecuted for child neglect and abuse.

    A few months ago my son came home with a split lip and bruised face, when I refused to send him back to school until I had received assurance that the matter was dealt with. I was the one breaking the law and potentially subject to prosecution.

    Why is the government not subject to the same standards when I put my child in its care?

  5. Thanks Bethyada. Fixed now. I read and re-read that part to make sure I had got Christian right - even so I was simplifying his point which was far more nuanced and complex - but I just missed that.

    My brain is so not functioning right now.

  6. Matt I am sorry to hear about your situation. From what you have said I would have serious concerns about the leadership, teachers and processes at the school your son attends.

    From my experience bullying usually begins with smaller/milder bullying, if there is such a thing!!! If that behaviour isn't dealt with then it usually get worse and worse. Schools need to step in at an early level but this can be difficult, as I have outlined in my post.

    Bullying at the level you desribe here is criminal and I agree with your statement.
    Matt one of the issues schools have to deal with, and I know as I have been a DP dealing with these issues, is that although the behaviour may be criminal every child in NZ has a right to an education. So the situation that arises is a child's behavior may be shocking but a school has few options to deal with them. Matt, this is just the tip of the iceberg... DONT GET ME STARTED!!!!

    On a personal level my concern is where does bullying like that develop from? Where does treating a person like that stem from? The root cause must be dealt with.

  7. Matt I am sorry to hear about your situation. From what you have said I would have serious concerns about the leadership, teachers and processes at the school your son attends.

    But this is a problem at virtually every school. It wasn't all that long ago that I was in high school, and I remember it well. In third form I went to St John's in Hamilton, where I experienced just the sort of abuse as Christian does, for just the same reasons. I was fortunate in that my dad taught there, and so I had some level of immediate protection. Since bullies are cowards, they were unwilling to do what they really wanted to do.

    From my experience bullying usually begins with smaller/milder bullying, if there is such a thing!!! If that behaviour isn't dealt with then it usually get worse and worse. Schools need to step in at an early level but this can be difficult, as I have outlined in my post.

    I would tend to agree. The problem, though, is not "at school" pe se. The problem is that school is regarded, in New Zealand, as essentially a replacement for the care of the home. Parents seem to believe that it is the job of the state to teach and discipline their children. Well, it isn't. The fact that bullying is so prevalent at school is largely, I would argue, because children are not given adequate—and adequately enforced—boundaries at home. If their own parents won't discipline them, why should they respect the mediocre, limp-wristed discipline of their teachers?

    On a personal level my concern is where does bullying like that develop from? Where does treating a person like that stem from? The root cause must be dealt with.

    I see we're on the same page then (:

    For my own part, I will not be sending my children to school if I can help it. I don't think my opinion of the value of schools in New Zealand could be lower. I learned virtually nothing in high school that I didn't already know, or couldn't have taught myself online (I went to primary school in South Africa). Most of the knowledge that has actually been valuable to me I learned at home with a computer, after 3 pm.

    If I do end up sending my children to school (and this applies particularly if I have boys; I currently only have a daughter), I will ensure that they are prepared to defend themselves, since the school will not. My understanding of what it means to be a man, from Scripture, is rather different to the state's immasculated notion of manhood. A man, among other things, is capable and willing to protect his person and his family from harm—physically if necessary. An obvious extension of that is that a man, as a father, is capable and willing to teach his children to protect themselves from harm also—physically if necessary. And, if he has boys, they will one day need to be able to protect their families, and so it's incumbent on the father to help them learn to do this, as much as it's incumbent on him to help them learn anything which is integral to manhood. (Incidentally, I teach martial arts.) Not that I am advocating violence by any means—if my children started a fight without thoroughly good cause I should be sorely disappointed in them. But being shoved against a wall, smacked in the face, pushed around, physically abused—attacks on one's person warrant a counter-attack in self-defense, and once you're committed to protecting yourself, the only reliable way to do this is by hitting your attacker with the ground. This is especially true if there are several of them. Fortunately, bullies are almost invariably cowards, and once you've demonstrated that you're willing to defend yourself in more than the poncing nancy-boy manner advocated by the state, they tend to leave you alone. (In my case, I didn't know any self-defense at that time; but accidentally starting a rumor that I was going to blow up the school worked fairly well.)

    I'm probably coming on a bit strong, but I guess that reflects my views.

  8. I am with you Dominic. If Matt lands a full-time, permanent job then I will quit work and Christian will come home. He clearly needs to be removed from the situation and the problem will follow him if we simply shift schools - and which school? He is a genius, he should be in an academically good school and we have limited options in our area.

    The only reason our kids are in school is because Matt is not properly employed in his field. While this situation remains I can out-earn him so I work full-time.

    To get permanent work in his field Matt must take all the part-time and fixed-term positions that arise which means he cannot home-school. Also, he is studying to get a teaching diploma as of March - not because he wants to teach secondary but because its a better alternative to not working in his field than what we are currently doing - so he will not be around because of that too next year.

    At this stage though, the kids have to stay in school and we have to try to manage the bullying problem.

  9. Hey Madeleine; I hope I didn't come across as criticizing your choice of having Christian at school. I understand that in your situation, home schooling isn't really an option.


  10. Oh, Madeleine, how I feel for you and your family-- most especially Christian. I was bullied in school 30 years ago, and that kind of fear and humiliation doesn't go away... I try to tackle school bullying in my young adult novel, Grumble Bluff, in a non-threatening way-- and address it in the sequel even more. I hope that I can have a small impact on both bullies and victims. I firmly believe that we need students-- peers-- to take an active stand on this issue, because they have influence on others their age... wouldn't it be great to have it become "cooler" to be kind and tolerant of people's differences, than it is to be mean and disrespectful? Good luck to you, and my best to your son. Karen Bessey Pease, author of juvenile fiction,

  11. Dominic you raise some interesting points about the value of education and schools.

    As a teacher I firmly believe in the importance of an education. For my mind too many young people dont give their best at getting an education and regret it later on.

    I sit firmly on the fence when it comes to the debate of home schooling v 'normal' schooling.
    As a Christian I believe we need to be in the world as much as possible. I am not implying those that home school aren't 'in the world' - just that we need to have Christian students in our schools and teachers in our classrooms.
    I also believe schools provide an important social/ sporting/cultural development for students that is difficult for non school children to have.
    On the other side of the coin homeschooling, if done correctly, usually produces brighter students and helps students at the other end of the academic scale. Homeschooling also means that children dont have the same degree of pressure on issues such as bullying, drugs, sex etc.

    I guess when my children are school age I will have to make a choice of a state school, a Christian school or home schooling.

  12. Shem the choice is simple. The call to care for, instruct and educate our own children is prior to the call to care for our neighbours. You can't send your kids out to get burned in the name of trying to help someone else's.

    Make the best call for your kids and your family, for their education, care, future and safety. There are plenty of children, families and communities you can still interact with even making the choice to home school, plenty of non-Christians home school.

    My preference is home schooling over private schooling and private schooling over integrated schooling and integrated schooling over state schooling. However, our family situation, our physical location (the lack of good, affordable private schools in our area), our income means I cannot right now make my top choice so I make the best choice I can and I try really hard to make the best of it by supporting the kids and us through it.

  13. Totally agree Madeleine

    I have mention to my wife about home schooling a couple of times but she is against it as I would probably get the work done by 10 and then take the boys to the beach.

    I am interested in your reason for putting private schools above integrated and state schools. In your opinion what do they do better?

  14. Private schools have more freedom to operate independantly; they are further out of the state's reach than integrated schools so the parents and the communities running them get more say in how they operate.

  15. I can relate to this. My oldest son who is 13 years old also had/has mild aspergers and has been bullied at school. We've not only had to teach him how to stand up for himself but we've been to his school and had a few meetings with the principal and some of his teachers. Since then it's been alot better, and now that he knows he can defend himself alot of the boys are leaving him alone.
    I'm sorry your son is going throgh this, it's not fun at all.

  16. Thank you so much for your post. My 7 year old has AS and I blogged about a situation we are in with bullies just the other day. It helps to read the view of fellow Christians. I love that the internet is full of life affirming Christians sharing their journey. Thank you for sharing yours, it has helped me more than you know!


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