It is often said that prejudice is being down on something you’re not up on. I’ve been reflecting on this lately in context of research conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, which found that children with autism experience bullying (which is really a manifestation of prejudice toward people with disabilities) at a staggering rate: 63 percent.
According to recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control, one in 59 are diagnosed with autism. That statistic, coupled with the fact that in New York state, students have the right to receive an education in the “least restrictive environment,” means that more and more young people with autism are attending school with their neurotypical peers — so this is a topic that must be taken seriously as we ready our youth for the return to school.
Many students with autism attending “mainstream school” are so high-functioning that their peer group may not even realize the mild or profound communication, sensory processing, or socialization challenges that they encounter every day. They may not understand that small nuances in communication, such as metaphors, can be very confusing. They cannot imagine just how overwhelming poor acoustics in certain parts of the school can be. They may not realize how difficult it is for their classmates with autism to understand social cues or make friends, not to mention navigate romances or cliques.
Sometimes it is because neurotypical peers don’t fully realize these differences are out of that person’s control that they’ll poke fun and engage in outright bullying — inflicting tremendous emotional or physical pain on the student with autism. Bystanders may even allow it to happen, not knowing themselves why these students seem so “different,” how hurtful bullying can be, or how serious the consequences. Because of an underlying lack of education about what autism is, a student who deserves the same opportunities to enjoy safety, security, and well-being can become humiliated, lonely, depressed, and, in the most painful cases, suicidal.
It’s up to us as adults, professionals, and parents to empower students with the knowledge needed to become part of the solution to this bullying crisis. Help them understand how autism presents so that they know what to expect, but that it’s a spectrum and might look very different from one person to another. Help them understand that people with autism may have challenges that are difficult to comprehend, but they also have unique strengths, just like every other human being. Help them understand that people with autism might have a harder time connecting socially, but that we all need friends. Help them understand that they can lead by example — showing support and compassion – and in doing so, they will not only help the individual with autism, but will help the rest of their classmates and themselves enjoy a more positive, productive environment as well. Help them understand that bullying, harassment, and discrimination come with very serious punishments.
Before they go back to school, give students what they need to be “up” on autism — and bullying in general — so that they don’t pull anyone down, including themselves.