Dramatic intervention

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Susannah Kirkman visits a school specialising in Asperger syndrome to find out how the arts are used to combat bullying

"Kids with Asperger syndrome don't always understand when they're bullying people," says 15-year-old Eryk, a pupil at Grateley House School.

"You have to explain it to them because they find it hard to sense the emotions of other people."

An anti-bullying day at Grateley House, near Andover, which specialises in Asperger syndrome, holds particular challenges as many of the pupils have already been bullied at their mainstream schools, yet they find it easy to slip into the role of bully themselves. To deepen students'

understanding of what bullying means, staff have decided to use drama, music, creative writing, art, ICT and the Korean martial art tae kwon-do, with the students sampling the different activities.

The day starts with an assembly, where staff explain about different types of bullying - verbal, physical, and ignoring - and how the victims feel.

Later, some of the students improvise a short play about bullying with a group of friends. One boy is regularly stealing another's dinner money, but the situation is defused when the victim explains what is going on to the whole group.

People with Asperger syndrome are often highly intelligent and articulate, but they sometimes don't understand irony and humour because they interpret language literally. They may have difficulties with social relationships, communication and empathy, and like order and routine.

Drama teacher Paul Murray says that acting is far more effective than sitting around talking as it develops pupils' empathy: "Their diagnosis says they're not supposed to have an imagination or be empathetic towards others, but their acting is no different to anyone else's. Sessions like this challenge the expectations we have of the students," he says.

Meanwhile, in the creative writing class, 14-year-old Abbie is describing her emotions: "I feel like bullying when people have hurt my feelings," she says. "I think, 'It's not fair that it's happening to me, so why don't I do it to someone else?'"

In the art studio, Eryk is designing an anti-bullying poster. He thinks that being friendly to those being bullied, reporting it to those who can help and refusing to join in can all help.

"It's very important to understand how other people feel," he says. "I was always bullied at my mainstream school because I was different from all the rest. People are very good at working out your weak points and taking advantage of them."

An important aspect of empathy is recognising the meaning of different facial expressions, something which is difficult for anyone with Asperger syndrome. In a communications session, pupils are invited to describe the emotions - anger, anxiety, loneliness - on several masks and then to make their own, showing a bully or someone being bullied.

Speech and language therapy play a vital role at Grateley, teaching students how to communicate through their expressions and talk.

According to Jane Emery, who teaches PSHE, pupils who are unable to express their anxiety or anger bottle up their emotions until they find an outlet in bullying. Their difficulties can then be compounded by a fear of losing control.

Building self-esteem can help. "Tae kwon-do gives you more confidence, which means people are less likely to bully you," explains 16-year-old Joe.

"It also helps you to learn respect for each other."

Tae kwon-do is already part of the Year 11 PE curriculum, but Lester Culley, the head of PE, has brought in a tae kwon-do specialist for the day so that all the pupils are able to master a few basic moves and look at the philosophy behind it.

"They learn that, in this sport, other people are always equals; the instructor has told them about one of his black-belt pupils, who is in a wheelchair," Lester says. The students have to follow each other's movements carefully, everybody gets their turn and no one is eliminated.

Working in pairs, practising high kicking movements, they are developing mutual trust.

Teamwork is also on the agenda in the music studio, where pupils are composing anti-bullying raps to be compiled on a CD. Underpinning the whole day is the school's ethos of care and mutual responsibility. All students have individual sessions with their key worker and the school has a full-time assistant psychologist. Classes have two tutor sessions every day, which include regular circle time.

"If anything has happened, we sort it out straight away," says Jane Emery.

"If we see anything which concerns us, we pick it up on a day-to-day basis and deal with it."

Fifteen-year-old Vicci, who ran away from her previous school says:

"Everyone gets days when everything's wrong, but staff here listen to you and they do point things out to you."

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