How a squirrel can breed understanding: Anti-Bullying Week, 19-23 November
- Children in Need, 16 November
- Anti-Bullying Week, 19-23 November
For years I felt fury and hopelessness, watching my daughters tormented through the day and unhappy and fearful at night because of others' unwillingness to grant them the place in the world to which they are entitled.
I feel murderous, even today, when I remember the years my eldest girl in particular spent being physically and emotionally bullied by other pupils because of her autism. Yet I also recall her first, and happiest, years of school. Aged 5, her peers had nothing but acceptance for her and she was full of confidence and eagerness to learn.
Gradually, as those classmates grew older and less accepting, the verbal viciousness began to have an impact. And by the time she was 10, my outgoing and confident daughter had become withdrawn and listless. Her comments about herself became negative and her belief in her own ability and decision-making almost non-existent. She began to self-harm.
Sadly, my most lingering memory of the schooling of both my daughters - Lizzy, now 18, and Emily, 15 - is the bullying they encountered because of their hidden disability.
I have now campaigned against bullying for four years and have been a parent patron for Ambitious about Autism, a national charity for children and young people with autism, for more than 12 months. So when I was asked to front its new anti-bullying teaching resource I gladly agreed. Bullying doesn't only affect the victim, but the whole family. And it has a lasting legacy.
When I was introduced to Woodfer's World, I was delighted. The resource consists of a CD of four stories about Woodfer the squirrel and a handbook for teachers containing learning opportunities, handout sheets and family activities. The illustrated stories focus on neurodiversity - differences in the way people think about or perceive the world. Woodfer is not labelled as having any condition. He is just different.
Autism is just one example of such neurodiversity, and one in 100 children has the condition. But more than 70 per cent of children with autism are taught in mainstream schools and 40 per cent are bullied because of their difference. The Woodfer stories promote understanding and suggest that we value hidden differences. What a positive way to help children learn about diversity.
When I tried to tackle the problem of Lizzy's bullying with her teachers, it was predictably shelved. Her headteacher proclaimed: "There is no bullying in my school." Her deluded notion was especially damaging at a time when being believed was crucial for Lizzy's self-esteem. It was much easier to deny the bullying than deal with the parents of 14 other children in the class, who angrily refused to acknowledge their child's culpability. I wonder, if there had been something like Woodfer's World then, whether this little squirrel could have made a difference.
In my youngest daughter Emily's case, the verbal abuse she receives over aspects of her disability - vocal tics and hand flapping - might not occur had those who sneer been introduced to the idea of difference at a young age.
All those years ago, we worked together to help Lizzy at home. I suggested she present her typical day by drawing herself surrounded by speech bubbles of what she heard. Phrases such as "you're weird", "you're stupid", "you're a freak" and "nobody likes you" gave her teachers a more tangible understanding of what was going on. She changed classes and she remembers, as I do, the patient teachers who gave her the time she needed to recover from her ordeal and begin to thrive. Those teachers were very keen to understand and learn as much as they could about her neurodiversity, as their training had not covered it.
On her first day at secondary school, I watched Lizzy nervously walk in alone because she had no friends. By contrast, the tormenting gang from her primary strolled confidently through the gates. The bullying started again at this mixed secondary, full of hormones, and we had no option but to move Lizzy to a single-sex independent school after a year. This transformed her life. She was immediately accepted and adored by the girls; it certainly helped that this was an all-girls school. She came home from one school trip saying, "I had fun!"
But neurotypical approaches to supporting a neurodiverse child who is being bullied are not the solution. Being summoned to a headteacher's office and expected to describe the bullying in the same way as a neurotypical child would is an impossible request. A neurodiverse child's communication may include hesitation, lack of eye contact, fidgeting and lack of linear explanation. All of this can, to those unfamiliar with neurodiversity, reinforce that the bullied child is "at fault". Teachers need to take an individual, sensitive approach and involve the child's parents or carers thoroughly.
I hope Woodfer's World will help to create an environment where no child is bullied simply for being different. I hope the resources help to generate vital conversations - in schools and at home - about the issues that unnecessarily hamper the lives of so many children. Woodfer may be different, but like the children he represents, he has much to offer others.
Nicky Clark is a disability rights campaigner and a parent patron of the charity Ambitious about Autism.
The Woodfer's World anti-bullying teaching resource ties into the key stage 2 curriculum and has been distributed free to all 17,000 primary schools in England. It is designed to be a core part of a school's work to promote inclusion and emotional well-being.
Find the Woodfer's World stories and downloads at: bit.lyQcuJrk
Key stage 1: Autism awareness
This collection contains hand-picked resources to help you raise awareness of autism.
Key stage 2: Woodfer's World
Check out the Woodfer's World resources from DWootton_AaA and help younger pupils to understand difference.
Key stage 3: Bullying, a guide
NationalAutisticSociety's booklet for pupils who have autism offers suggestions of what they should do if they are being bullied.