Tag Archives: bullies

Yearbooks As Art Therapy

Those of us who have ever had some type of counseling or psychotherapy know how beneficial it is to be able to talk with a professional about what’s going on in our lives and how we’re handling it (or not). Therapy is also helpful for discussing past events, especially traumatic ones, how they affected us, and how we can work through them. But what if talking is difficult for you? Or impossible? What if you don’t process events and emotions verbally? ASD people encounter just as much, if not more, stress and difficulty while trying to function in an NT world, and many of them have past issues they need to work through as well.

Enter art therapy for autism. When thoughts and feelings cannot be discussed verbally, art therapy works wonders. It helps to stimulate imagination, regulate sensory issues, encourage hand-eye coordination, and express emotions (including stress). Other long-term benefits include developmental growth, recreation, and self-expression. But there can even be profound benefits from just a single session of art therapy. I witnessed this last night with my autistic son.

Ten months ago, I removed Nigel from the middle school where he had been mainstreamed. He had endured daily bullying, both physical and verbal (and, of course, emotional). This put him in a constant state of anxiety and agitation, making him unable to focus and learn, unable even to function. Soon after removing him from that environment, he became much calmer and was able to focus while being homeschooled. On a weekly basis, even though months have gone by since he attended that school, he mentions how much bullying angers him or mentions something in general about bullies. I’ve always assured him that he wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore. But what I didn’t realize was that Nigel had not yet worked through the trauma of his ordeal. He couldn’t really talk about it, other than his occasional comments, and that wasn’t enough. The memories were still painful for him.

Then last night Nigel brought out his yearbook. He showed my boyfriend a picture of a girl he liked, and my boyfriend joked about how he used to draw moustaches on yearbook photos. Nigel laughed and went back to his room. He came out an hour or so later with a Calvin and Hobbes book and showed us a series of cartoons about Calvin’s bully, Moe. In one cartoon, Calvin mimics an ape as he quietly walks behind Moe. Moe and CalvinNigel couldn’t stop laughing at the cartoon. He went back to his room and came out a few minutes later with his yearbook, showing us how he had used a ballpoint pen to make the face of his worst bully into an ape face. He laughed some more and went back to his room, where he proceeded to laugh non-stop for over an hour. Finally, his laughter subsided, and I went to him to suggest that he get some sleep. He proudly showed me his yearbook. Each page of every grade level had several ape faces drawn over the bullies, both boys and girls, who had tormented him. I fought back tears and didn’t want to count how many faces he had drawn on; there were many. I couldn’t bear to think of how horrible it really had been for my son, day after day. I’ve always known that the decision to homeschool him was the right one, but now I had validation. And it sickened and angered me.

But Nigel had found a way to work through his anger. He devised his own art therapy. He scribbled out his anger while eliminating the bullies’ facial features, and then he laughed while adding humiliating details like hairy necks and stupid grins. And he felt better. As I said good night to him, he told me, “Now I can sleep without thinking about the bullies.”

I’ll try to do the same.


Over the weekend, I did some looking around online at autism sites written by “auties.” (I’m still getting used to that word, which is why I put it in quotations. It took me eight years to come to terms with using the word “autistic,” so “autie” will sound different to me for a while.) I was sad to see that many of them are quite bitter. I can’t say that I blame them, because with the harassment and ignorance that Nigel has dealt with, I’m sure there are plenty of other auties who have experienced the same treatment. And as they head into adulthood, that’s a lot of accumulated years of negative exchanges.   

I found a bumper sticker that says: “Cure Neurotypicals now!” And in smaller print below: “Offended? Good. Now you know how we feel.” Meant to be funny, I presume, with an ounce (at least) of seriousness. But some of the web sites I viewed over the weekend seemed just plain angry. I want to tell the authors something, with all my heart.

 I’m sorry for how you’ve been treated. You have every right to be angry. But holding on to that anger will only make you feel worse. Remaining angry will not alleviate the anger. Remaining angry will not punish the people who hurt you. Remaining angry will only hurt you. Please, for your emotional well-being, channel your anger into something positive, like creating an online support group for others who have experienced the same thing. You will know you are not alone, and you’ll feel at least a little better.

Nigel gets angry about bullies. Most likely, as he gets older he will experience more bullying and more ignorance. I don’t like thinking about what he has gone through, what he will continue to face, how things will be for him in high school, possibly college, a future workplace, and the general community. I hope that I’ve given him a strong enough base of love and self-worth that he can successfully let go of his anger and not allow it to consume him.

I don’t want Nigel to feel bitter when he’s an adult. I want him to feel cherished, appreciated for who he is, and important. I want him to feel loved.

Wondering Why

Writing this week about my son’s experiences being bullied has been evocative for me, and a bit difficult. I relived a lot of the feelings of anger and desperation I felt, wanting to make it stop, wanting to shout out to the world that this shouldn’t be happening. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. But it does. And it probably will continue to, even with widespread awareness.

Why is this so? What causes kids to bully other kids? I struggled to understand it as a young child, when I witnessed developmentally disabled kids at my elementary school being verbally bullied. I knew that I would never do that to anyone. And as I got older, when I was Nigel’s current age, I suffered emotional bullying at the hands of some girls at my junior high. The scars are still with me. Maybe that’s why I became so angry about what was happening to my son. But wouldn’t any parent feel that way?

I still wonder why some kids are bullies. Perhaps there will never be a definitive answer. Most likely the reasons are different in different situations. I wonder if the kids do it because they themselves have low self-esteem, or are bullied at home in a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself. Or maybe it’s hormones. My mother used to tell me that the girls were mean to me because they were jealous of me. Of what, I could never fathom. I was quiet, introverted, and sensitive. I was a good target, a sure thing. And they got to me every time.

Autistic kids are good targets. They have odd ways, and some of them get frustrated easily. They are trusting. And some of them will do anything for acceptance, even if they are laughed at. And unfortunately there are NT kids who will exploit all of that. They don’t care about making someone feel bad. Maybe they weren’t taught to care. Who knows?

The National Middle School Association Journal provides some additional findings from studies: bullies need to feel in control over someone else, bullies tend to have lower academic achievements, bullies tend to be depressed, and bullying is most common in seventh grade. Most disturbing of all is the overwhelming belief that victims of bullying actually brought on the bullying. This was from a school-wide survey taken at several different schools!  How can we even hope to work against widespread beliefs like that?

We will probably never really know the individualized, complex reasons why bullies do what they do. But one slightly reassuring fact (per my internet research) is that bullying is much more common in middle school than in high school. That means that things might be better for Nigel when (and if) he attends the local high school in a little over a year. I’m holding out for that.