Warning: long post. I need to talk some things out to myself, and you get to listen in.
Safety Guy had a really rough time at school last week. I'm not sure there was a single underlying reason, but he was frustrated, angry, touchy, and generally off-kilter all week. He lost his temper twice in school, and served two detentions for inappropriate language and disrupting class. Almost all of his angst revolved around school, and the students he spends the most time with, although we'd also had a tough weekend at home before that. I was maxed out and not coping too well myself. Whatever the reasons, it was a long, long week emotionally for all of us. He couldn't calm down or back down, and it was a toxic combination.
Safety Guy has a bad case of what a friend of ours calls TTP (The Third Parent), and I call "being The Rules Police." I can't tell you how many times I've had the "you're not in charge of your friends or your sister and they won't listen to you" conversation with him. (I can guess, though: dozens of times. At least. Maybe hundreds by now.) I can see where sometimes he puts himself in situations where he's almost guaranteeing that some of his class-mates will react negatively to him. Most often it's when he's trying to be the "classroom police." Do you see a pattern here?
SG has this inborn urge to tell everyone around him what the rules are in any given situation, and to tell people when they break the rules. Of course, his classmates don't take kindly to that approach. Some of his classmates don't listen to adult authority, so why should they listen to Safety Guy? Authority - the crux of so many of Safety Guy's aspie issues. I gather this isn't an uncommon young Aspie thing, that they feel and act as if they are equal to everyone around them (including adults and authority figures). They don't see why they shouldn't be listened to by everyone else. They act as if they have the right and obligation to inform everyone around them of "the rules" and how the rules should be obeyed, as if they're the enforcers and we have to listen to them because they're undeniably RIGHT. It's certainly frustrating in a family situation, when SG tries to tell his sister what to do, and tells his father and I off, as if we were his equals instead of his parents. You can imagine how well this goes down at school, when he tries to take his teacher's place as the authority figure in class.
You can see where this leads to trouble, I'm sure.
There's another issue going on at school, too: bullying. Sometimes some of his classmates just get on his nerves, and that's not bullying. That's just LIFE, and we've had umpteen billion discussions about how to deal with life's ongoing frustrations and stupid little aggravations. That's something everyone has to deal with.
But the bullying is NOT something SG brings on himself. Yes, he can be the annoying self-appointed "Rules Police." Yes, he's hypersensitive to auditory stimuli, and his classmates know that very well. Sometimes one of them will do something quietly annoying (like finger-tapping, or whispered snide comments) just under the teacher's radar until SG snaps. Of course, when he tells the noisy person to be quiet (often quite loudly), he comes to the teacher's attention in a negative way and is asked to not be rude or interrupt class. Often he'll react strongly to the perceived injustice of being "yelled at" (his words, no matter how calm his teachers are) when the other person provoked him, and he'll make the situation worse. But that subtle, annoying auditory provocation IS bullying, no matter how SG reacts.
When the teacher catches kids provoking him she calls them on it. SG has an awesome teacher, by the way. But a couple of the students know exactly which buttons to push to set SG off, and sometimes do so just for the heck of it. When pushed too far, SG will yell at his classmates and use offensive language, interrupting class and disrupting everyone within earshot. Then SG is in trouble for his offensive language and noisy outburst, whether or not he started the problem.
I have to back up the schools handling of the situation in general, although I am very frustrated with some of the students' behavior toward SG. Safety Guy has to have some consequences for his actions when he's disruptive and offensive. We can't just let it go every time, even though early in the school year there was a "grace period" as he got to know the new teachers, classes and routine, and they cut him some slack. Now he knows everyone and is comfortable enough to act out more - be more "himself" and less uncertain about how teachers will react to him. Of course, the answer is still that the expectation is appropriate classroom behavior no matter what provocation to lose his temper is involved, or no matter if he's just having a bad day and flies off the handle at someone for no particular reason. It's public school - there are rules and consequences for breaking those rules, for the good of everyone there, including SG.
But he's not stupid, and he's said to me many times, "Why do I get punished when they're the ones bullying me, and they get nothing?" When the provocation is obvious, the other students do get in trouble and have to face their own consequences. But that's between the teacher and the other students and their parents; SG may or may not be aware of the other students' detentions or conversations with the principal. And if SG doesn't see/hear of the other person's punishment, he thinks that the other student just got away with their bullying while he's the one being punished for standing up for himself. It's a tightrope walk, helping him take responsibility for his own actions while trying to help him deal with the bullying that provokes him.
(Another mantra in our house is, "YOU are responsible for YOU, not for your classmates or your sister." Repeat.)
It's a constant balancing act for me, as a parent and as a substitute teacher in his school. I know his teachers. I know his classmates. Some of the students have difficulties at home that SG cannot understand, or doesn't even know about. Sometimes he does know about their home issues. I can't (and don't) defend the bullies' actions, no matter what their home life is like. But Safety Guy doesn't deserve to be bullied, no matter how differently he thinks, or how he reacts to auditory stimuli, or how he sometimes misunderstands social situations. I find myself constantly trying to sift each situation to see where SG has stepped over the line in his behavior, and where and how the other students are involved. Sometimes SG is 100% at fault, losing his cool at someone who wasn't targeting him at all (overheard and half-understood conversations are not an unusual thing for SG to overreact to, for instance). Sometimes it's 50/50, and both SG and his classmate are at fault, being typical 8th graders who sometimes don't know when to back down or be quiet. And sometimes another student has baited SG into losing his temper - bullying - but by his outburst, SG also earns some kind of disciplinary action from the school, like detention for yelling and swearing at the teacher who was trying to intervene in the situation and get SG to back off and calm down.
It's not unusual now for other students to tell me when SG is having a bad day, whatever grade I'm subbing for at the junior/senior high. I have to tell them thanks for their concern (if it is concern - some kids hope I'll lose my cool and go rushing to "deal with him," while some genuinely care), but the teacher or the office will call me if they need to talk to me. It makes subbing feel like a minefield when he's having a bad day, like I'm just waiting to have his teacher come talk to me during a free period - never a good thing to see her in the middle of the day when I'm not expecting her. . . .
I never feel like I win or he wins or his teacher or classmates win completely in these situations. As soon as he loses his temper, we've all lost to some degree.
So what does the title of my post, "superhuman," have to do with all of this? Well, I often think that students with Aspergers or similar autism-related issues are unfairly expected to show almost superhuman self-control in the face of provocation that seems trivial to the average, neurotypical person, but is overwhelming to them. Instead of being given some extra personal space or greater intervention to head off bullying situations, it seems like I often hear (from professionals and many others as well), "He just has to learn to deal with it." Yes, he does, but then again, no, he shouldn't have to. Why should he deal with it in such constant doses beyond his ability to cope? Everyone has a breaking point; why push him past his constantly and then punish him for breaking? There has to be some middle ground, where he can stretch his coping skills but not be bullied. Who ever really thought being bullied was the best way to learn coping skills? And yet, that's how it sometimes comes across from well-meaning people who say, "He just has to learn to deal with it."
Safety Guy feels like he has to be SO controlled, SO on top if his emotions, no matter what anyone else does around him, that when he finally loses control it's often much worse than you'd expect of an average, neurotypical student having a bad day. But that's the point, isn't it? He's NOT neurotypical. He has Aspergers; he is autistic. His disability IS primarily in the realms of social skills and emotional control, and immaturity is part and parcel of the particular difference in the way his brain is wired and the pace at which it's developing. He's 14, he looks 17, and he's emotionally closer to 11. People expect him to act older than he is, he's in 8th grade (a hellish year for most people when they're honest about it), and he has the coping skills of a much younger person. He has to exercise MORE self control to appear even close to average than the average student does under similar circumstances. He has to exercise EXTREME control under trying circumstances, and when he snaps at the end of his rope, it's ugly because of the built-up tension and frustration he feels, and his difficulty dealing with emotions and expressing them appropriately. Then he's just chided for losing his control, instead of also being encouraged that he kept his control for so long and being built up to handle the next situation even better.
Discipline and build up, discipline and build up. I often think the school struggles with the building up part, because it takes TIME that just isn't there sometimes, and SPACE, which is at a premium in the physical structure of the school. And if there's one thing aspies seem to crave, it's mental and physical space. SG gets space with his iPod and his music, and very recently his teacher started allowing him to use it during a resource class to "tune out" his peers while he does seat work/homework. It seems to be helping. When I sub and I'm free during his lunch period, he has lunch with me instead of in the cafeteria. Every little bit helps.
Safety Guy says he feels like a doormat if he doesn't say something to the bullies when they pick on him. He doesn't want to appear weak in front of his peers (and a couple of them don't hesitate to call him weak to his face, which just throws gasoline on the fire). But when he tries to handle the situation appropriately, often his peers ignore him and continue their baiting and picking. They have no idea the strength it takes for SG to ignore them. It's just not FAIR (says the mother who understands completely that life isn't fair, but who still cries inside for her son going through the torment of bullying).
I confess I would also like to go all mama-grizzly on the butts of the bullies and their parents.
Safety Guy needs structure. The school does pretty well with that. He needs discipline. Ditto. His resource teacher, regular teachers, counselor, and both principal and assistant principal are wonderful with him, and show great judgment about when and how to deal with his behavior. They work with and around his autism diagnosis as much as they can. But I wish that more could be done to head off the problem situations before they become BIG problems, and that's out of my control. It's often out of his teacher's control, in the sense that she didn't get to choose her students. They've been grouped together due to similar needs. They've been together for several years or more now; they'll most likely be together all the way through high school. SG's classmates have a range of different needs, and wildly differing social and emotional issues, and home lives all over the map in stability and support. SG's teacher can't control the personalities, baggage and special needs of her students. She has to manage every one of them to the best of her ability to meet their needs individually and as a group, educationally and socially. I really respect her for what she does. The Lord knows, it's a tough job, so I'm not complaining about her at all. I just wish that SG wasn't in such close proximity to the same kids all the time, day after day, year after year. They know each other too, too well.
Our school district clusters the special needs students with resource teachers that follow them through their days and provide extra help for their academic subjects. There are only three resource teachers for the junior high; one for 7th, one for 8th, and one for a self-contained class. SG is too advanced academically for the self contained class. In a perfect world, there would be two resource teachers per grade, so that the students could be divided up and recombined each year as needed to balance needs and personalities. Sometimes people just rub each other the wrong way - that's true for everyone from birth to death. But this isn't a huge school, space is limited, and so is money. Staff and budget cuts over the past decade have eaten into the special education program as well as the regular education program. There isn't any extra to go around.
So the situation will continue much as it has, with all of us (parents, teachers, students) coping as best we can. I really worry about SG for the rest of this year. I keep telling him that it gets better in high school, because there are a few more choices as far as electives, and he may not spend quite so much time with the exact same students in the exact same classes. I certainly hope it works out that way, for his sake mostly, but for my family's as well. Because what happens at school doesn't stay at school, and what happens at home doesn't stay at home. And we're all in this journey through autism together.