Henry’s class welcomes a new student today. They have prepared for him all week and look forward to meeting him. At home we’ve talked about how sometimes friends are nervous about a new school and how it would feel good if the new student had friends. Henry has expressed happiness to be part of that. “Maybe he’ll be my new best friend!”
We hear a lot about children with autism being bullied; indeed, they are at a much higher risk. On the other hand, their direct and forthright way of speaking, their insistence on certain behaviors, and their rigid expectations can also be misunderstood and viewed as bullying. We have the responsibility to not only protect our children from bullies, but also to teach them how to be kind.
Here’s what I want you to know:
They WANT to be kind.
The old myth that people with autism have no empathy has been proven wrong again and again. Their expressions are different, but their hearts are as feeling as yours and mine. No hurt is worse than when Henry realizes he hurt a loved one; no joy is greater than when he sees how he helped one. His anguish over making a mistake – real or imagined – creates the most painful moments for me as a mom.
I promise you. They really do want to be kind. And it’s our job as parents to help them learn how to deliver that kindness. This is, admittedly, harder for some of us. Neurological differences and different ways of understanding and processing language make it difficult to convey what constitutes “kind” or “courteous.”
John Elder Robison writes in Switched On about the first time he met his future wife, Maripat, when she arrived at his automotive repair shop:
“I walked out into the yard as her car pulled in – a minivan. As a specialist in luxury cars, we didn’t get many of those in our parking lot. As there was no telling who or what might be inside, I approached cautiously. Out stepped a petite, short-haired woman.
‘What do you want?’ I asked. Neat and trim, wearing dark sunglasses, she did not look very dangerous. Consequently, she merited a pleasant greeting, which I believed I had just delivered. I also thought she was kind of cute, but you don’t say things like that to strangers.”
Notice John was aware he should not tell a stranger she was cute, but not aware that his greeting would be perceived as blunt and inappropriate. Later, upon his “emotional awakening,” he would realize why former clients had perceived him as abrasive, strange, and rude.
Can you imagine what kinds of things little John may have said to a new student in his elementary school class? Can you imagine the kind of pain for all involved?
As parents, grandparents, and educators, we must model for our children how to protect themselves. We must also teach and model the way we treat others, so they do not inadvertently become the aggressor.