Prior to my ABI, I could deal with adults who engaged in a wide range of socially unacceptable behaviours. With my career it came with the territory. I would ignore or excuse the negative behaviour and focus on the message the person was trying to share and decipher what response they were looking for.
Living with ABI does not allow me to tolerate much in the way of socially unacceptable behaviour. I’m living too close to my limits. Being neurologically-atypical, my brain very easily goes into a downward spiral due to the neural fatigue triggered by the social indiscretions. I experience additional neural fatigue in trying to make sense of the situation. My body shuts down and makes me unable to function properly for a day or more. Now, for the sake of my own well being I need to keep my distance from people who create these situations.
School yard bullying
I am shocked by the schoolyard bullying statistics for children with disabilities. Students with disabilities experience bullying at 3 to 5 times the rate of neural typical children. (*In one study 63% of children with autism experience bullying compared with 12% for their typically developing siblings.) While I’m still shocked by the apparent lack of empathy exhibited by their peers, my ABI experiences has given me some new insights.
Against the background of my ABI experiences I can understand why for example, students on the autism spectrum are at very high risk of being bullied. It is partially due to the invisibility of their disability. Since their disability is not visible, their atypical behaviour is viewed as abnormal making their peers feel that they are the target of the behaviour.
Neurologically atypical risk
Any child who is neurally atypical is at greater risk of being bullied. This refers to many children who are neurally atypical but have not necessarily been diagnosed. These children often lack the skills to respond in a ‘socially acceptable’ manner. Invariably they are viewed by their peers as ‘odd’. Often they are viewed by other adults as ‘difficult’.
It’s not hard to imagine how social situations with even borderline neurally atypical children can spiral out of control over time making the child a target for bullying.
When I encounter an adult who lacks some significant social awareness I will experience neural fatigue which can induce other physiological challenges. After a few encounters with such people I am inclined to keep my distance in the future. Contrast this with a neurally atypical child who has little control over their environment when they are in a structured setting such as a school.
If I didn’t have the choice of exiting at will from an unpleasant environment I would see a sharp decline in my quality of life. Unlike a student, I don’t need to ‘argue my case’ to remove myself from an unpleasant or ‘harmful’ situation. Often I’m not able to explain myself when I’m dealing with an adult who is socially insensitive. It isn’t till a day or two later, that I’m able to provide an analysis of what contributed to my neural fatigue.
Lacking self autonomy
While I’m at liberty to remove myself from a ‘harmful’ situation, whether with a lame excuse or simply walk out, how does a child in a school setting remove him/herself? There are rules. Rules have consequences. For a child to walk out of the classroom because something changed in their environment resulting sensory overload, or neural fatigue, things can get complicated quickly. If the teacher wants an explanation from the child in many cases the child will be unable. The child might even be in tears because of the overload or fatigue.
After several repeats of this type of behaviour one of two things happen. Either the child is at risk of being labelled a problem child or educational psychological testing is recommended. It is then hoped that the waiting list for testing isn’t 2 or 3 years.
Young children have a very keen sense when they are not being understood or being affirmed, whether by their peers or the adults in their life. When you add lack of understanding or empathy to a child who already has challenges dealing with their physical environment we have a recipe for disaster.
Empathetic adults are essential
It takes an understanding adult to see past each situation to determine which behaviours are a result of the child being neuro-atypical. Add to that the behaviours that arise from the child not receiving empathy due to being repeatedly misunderstood.
It is critical that adults work from a default stance of “the child is not able,” rather than “the child is uncooperative.” The difference in stance might seem subtle but is easily detected by the child and the child will decide whether the adult is empathetic and can be trusted.
How to provide a safe ‘escape’ for neurally atypical children is something that each adult needs to take seriously. It begins by being aware of what situations become triggers for the neurally atypical student. The triggers will be unique to each student so there is no generic list to work from.
Action research tool
Any adult who works with a ‘problem’ child needs to take the time and engage in what is referred to as “Action Research.” When a parent, a daycare worker, or a teacher, takes the time to observe and take notes the effect can be profound. Combining empathy with knowledge will do much to avoid frustration for the adult and disappointment for the child. The notes will often uncover patterns or provide nuances that identifies the subtle factors which are at risk of becoming behaviour ‘triggers’. The beauty of the method is that it is responsive, flexible and produces helpful information in a relatively short time.
* Michelle Diament, March 26, 2012 www.disabilityscoop.com