Just over a year ago, I was at a park accompanying a 12-year-old girl, G. S. , who has OR SHOULD I SAY WITH high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That day was the first time I witnessed individuals harass, mock, and tease her characteristics and behaviours unique to ASD. This experience allowed me to recognize the lack of awareness and knowledge invidduals still have with ASD. In this paper, I will be discussing my experience with stigma regarding ASD.
This was my first time bringing G. S. , a 12-year-old girl who has high functioning ASD, to the park. With autism, the individual can have repetitive movements such as waving hands around in a flapping motion, rocking back and forth, or bouncing up and down. CITE! The individual can also inappropriately laugh, make loud sounds, and have difficulty interacting with others CITE?. While on the swings, G. S. expresses very happily and a lot of her ASD characteristic shine through. There were two boys also by the swing set that started to mock her movements, sounds, pointing and laughing at G. S. In a friendly manner, I said to the boys, “Hey guys, it’s not very nice to laugh and make fun of other people. ” The boys did not reply, however, they snickered and ran to the top of the slides and continued to watch us from afar. Individuals with ASD interpret and process things a little differently, and being the playful individual she is, she thought the other kids were trying to play with her. Her laughter got louder and her repetitive movements were increased/elevated/eflated, however, the boys continued to mock and make fun of her from a distance. Once again, I politely said, “Can you guys please stop making fun of her, it’s not very nice. ” And they replied by mocking my words. It was clear to me that the boys had no intent to stop harassing us and I was very uncomfortable. I knew I needed to remove G. S. and myself from this situation so I brought her to another area of the park. The two boys continued to move closer to us and this ultimately resulted in having to leave the park, as this was the only way I could see these boys to stop making fun of G. S.
In that situation, my thoughts were mainly trying to figure out why these kids were so mean, however, I realized a big part of their efforts in making fun of G. S was most likely due to their lack of knowledge regarding ASD. I felt frustrated that I was unable to stop these kids from harassing/making fun of G. S. and that the ultimate resolution from this situation was to leave the park. I felt defeated that I was not able to do more for G. S. during this time. My gut feelings were to say something to the kids and to bring it up to their parents who were on the other side of the park. I was able to speak my opinions to the kids, however, I was intimidated to bring this up to their parents. There were a lot of uncertainties regarding how the parents would react, and how I should approach and bring up the topic. I was overall very uncomfortable with confronting the parents as I felt very out of place in telling someone their children were doing something wrong. The two boys in this situation most likely thought they were not doing anything wrong and that what they were doing was funny. From what I could interpret from their behaviours and their responses when I tried to intervene, bullying and making fun of others was something they did often and something they did not get repercussions for.
Therefore, I believe they felt like they were not doing anything wrong, potentially because they have never been told bullying and making fun of others was something wrong. Furthermore, the kids may have felt that no harm was being done because kids may not fully realize or understand the impact bullying can have on others, not to excuse them from their behaviours, however, some kids may not be well educated on topics such as kids with ASD. With relation to this event, my personal attitudes and perceptions of mental illness surfaced as I recognized I didn’t know how to fully help G. S in this situation. I was not comfortable or confident in discussing this issue with their parents, however, I realized there was a serious lack of knowledge/ignorance towards ASD that needs to be addressed. At first I was upset with the kids making fun of G. S, however, with more reflection of my experience, I had to take a step back and understand that not everyone is exposed to ASD in their life. This means that not everyone will be as knowledgeable as I was in that situation, and so it is very important to continue to educate others.
My personal perceptions of realizing there was a lack of knowledge regarding ASD was based mainly around two events. The first event is my personal experience with being in public with G. S and personally witnessing either direct bullying, such as the situation in the park, or simply being able to observe the judgmental behaviours of others with staring, whispering and laughing. The second event is in regards to G. S. ’s mom and her experience with repeated exposures.
Following my experience with the park, I debriefed with her mom. She shared with me multiple occasions of having similar experiences and how often it occurs when they are out in public. She also expressed that she felt others were blaming her for G. S. ’s behaviours and when she would see faces of judgement from others, she felt like others thought she was a bad parent because she couldn’t control her child. She explained that these feelings were much more amplified during the initial exposures of being in public with G. S. , however now, because of how often it occurs, she is used to it and barely notices other people staring. After these two main events, this is when my personal perceptions regarding my recognition for the lack of knowledge individuals had concerning ASD greatly arose. One key external factor that influenced my perception and confirming that the stigma and lack of awareness of ASD is still very much real, is seeing the numerous videos on social media and in the news about kids with ASD being bullied, mistreated, especially from other kids.
An action I would preserve in this event is continuing to advocate for G. S. and removing her from negative environments. This is important because advocacy ensures individuals, especially those who are vulnerable, have a voice. Being able to speak up for those who may not be able to and defending for their rights and safety. Something I would change in this event would be having the courage and confidence to bring up the problem to the parents. I understand that this is a very important subject to bring awareness and that can be done by educating as many people as I can. One situation I could have dealt with better was when I was talking to the boys on the playground. I understand that individuals are more likely to understand when things are properly and thoroughly explained. My conversations with these boys were very limited and I believe if I were to explain why it was wrong to laugh at others and the situation with G. S. , there could have been a chance that the bullying did not continue after the first encounter and did not have to conclude to leaving the park. The other choices I had again includes involving the parents. I could have explained the situation to the parents and the parents could have subsequently explained to the children and thus the bullying would have stopped much sooner.
Individuals with ASD are four times as likely to experience bullying victimization compared to typically developing peers (Schroeder, Cappadocia, Bebko, Pepler, & Weiss, 2014). Children with ASD can have difficulties understanding social cues and participating in social interactions which places them at risk for victimization (Schroeder et al. , 2014). In my experience, G. S. displayed difficulties in social interactions as she did not understand that the other kids were bullying her. Rather she thought they were playing with her, which only led to her characteristics to become more prominent/evident, which ultimately led to the bullying to continue. Bullying is a relationship problem characterized by recurring aggression that occurs within a relationship that involves a power imbalance (Schroeder et al. , 2014).
In comparison to G. S. versus the two boys, there was a clear power imbalance in not only the number of people, but also the intellectual and disability status. Communication difficulties further the risk of victimization for individuals with ASD because effective communication represents protective coping factors during bullying situations (Schroeder et al. , 2014). I believe the fact that G. S. is non-verbal and does not have the ability to advocate for herself, was a contributing factor to why the bullying continued throughout our time at the park, even though I spoke out about it. While the stigma associated with ASD is significant, it is also important to recognize the impact the stigma has on families and caregivers (Kinnear, Link, Ballan, & Fischbach, 2016). Stigma is defined as people identifying and labelling differences they observe in others, as well as stereotyping, people making assumptions about the labeled group and applying those assumptions indiscriminately to all individuals in that group (Kinnear et al. , 2016).
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