“Differences”, Primary Schools and Bullying

This week, I have heard the facepalmily avoidable story of unpleasant bullying of a nine year-old child, both at school and Cubs by the same child.

His school thoughtfully brought in a visitor to talk about “differences” this week. Wonderful idea in principle. However, poorly executed in practice because it has caused a bullying situation.

The visitor talked about the way people look different and see things in a different way. She talked about how some people need to wear glasses, others hearing aids, others are in wheelchairs, some need ear defenders, etc. She talked about kindness and acceptance. And then… she singled out one disability – autism.

The presenter gave the blinkered examples that if you say to a person with autism that it’s raining cats and dogs, they will believe that cats and dogs actually are falling from the sky. She also said that people with autism see things in a different way.

The same day, after going back to class, a child told this boy – who has dyspraxia and auditory processing disorder – “you have autism – hahaha”. The boy said “no I don’t”, so the child continued to say “yes you do! you’re autistic haha”. The same happened the following day at school, and later in the day at Cubs, resulting in his mother having to pick up an inconsolable nine year-old, half an hour early. After half an hour of tears and cuddles, he told his mum that it’s because “X keeps saying I have autism, but I don’t”.

In fact, the child in question doesn’t have autism, (it has been ruled out by a panel including an educational psychologist, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist), but whether he does or doesn’t is not the point at all: I am more astounded at the way the assembly was pitched than the bullying itself – or even the misconception and blinkered “diagnosis” given by the bully. Bullying goes on everywhere and sadly children need to learn to deal with this sort of thing.

My concern is that simply I cannot understand the ethos behind equipping 8-11 year olds with labels for people’s difficulties, hence the tools to come to conclusions that panels of specialists have dismissed. Why would it be deemed necessary or appropriate to mention names of conditions to children of this age? If mentioning names for disabilities and conditions really are necessary, why not go into the difficulties of living with postero-medial bowing of the tibia? Or cystic fibrosis? Or cerebral palsy? Or even dyspraxia – and if you’re thinking “what’s dyspraxia?”, I rest my case.

Adults are narrow-minded enough, and now this narrow-mindedness is being rolled out to children in assembly format too. In my opinion, singling out any condition like this is both discriminatory and inappropriate.

Differences, whether cultural, how we look or how we act, are VERY important to talk about. And yes, we need to be aware of autism and the sort of behaviours that may accompany it – BUT these behaviours can accompany any number of other conditions – not just autism.

What I’m saying is: It is really good to talk about differences, but for this age group, we should not need to give those differences a name. After all, a school works with a child’s NEEDS rather than their diagnosis – that should be the case.

I would go further and say that by highlighting differences to children who have them may even empower them to behave differently. For example, if I told my child “well, you have dyspraxia so you don’t have to do PE”, he’d probably love me for it – and it would validate his low self esteem when it comes to sports even further.

Of course, I’m a neuro-developmental therapist, who sees hundreds of children and adults of all kinds. I do not “do” labels at all – I look at the whole person and how we can remove challenges by developing the brain. I also have a child with hemisphere dominance, sensory, emotional and social communication challenges that have reduced dramatically through my work with him, so I probably have much greater perspective on inclusion and “differences” than the person who gave this presentation.

This week has been a real eye-opener in terms of how narrow-minded and ignorant people really are about disability and differences. It seems more work needs to be done to get muggles and schools to understand this.

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