Polar Bear Under Siege

Studies have found widely varying rates of other psychiatric problems among people with autism, depending on the population studied and the methods used. Those co-occurring conditions include: depression (affecting 2 to 30 percent), ADHD (affecting 29 to 83 percent), OCD (1.8 to 81 percent), and other anxiety disorders (2.9 to 35 percent).

Look at the foregoing paragraph. Again, please. Now keep those statistics, disparate and divergent as they are, in mind as you read this post and the two or three posts that will follow.

Martin is in a general-education classroom for the first time. The other pupils don’t like him. We know.

Remember when I forecasted that language would come last? I was wrong. Aside from a lingering habit of pronouncing “th” as “f,” Martin’s phonology is solid. Semantically and syntactically, Martin comprehends and expresses himself at or above an age-appropriate level. His language is caught up, except for social/pragmatic language. What actually come last, it turns out, are social skills.

Adrian and I have been worrying about how the gap in social performance is affecting Martin’s self-esteem. Last month, we decided to have Martin start seeing a psychologist, to help him deal with feelings of rejection. I made the relevant inquiries with parents in town, and we were able to find a local practitioner who has significant experience with social anxiety and ASD/ADHD. Adrian and I met her first. We charted Martin’s course from birth (and outrageous unnecessary NICU) to present. We said Martin acts upbeat but we know he’s masking other emotions. I told her about the night Martin asked me whether it’s okay if no one likes him. The conversation with the psychologist made us sad, both me and Adrian. I’m pretty sure, because later I asked Adrian, “Did that conversation make you sad?”, and he replied, “That conversation made me sad.”

Martin visited the psychologist for the first time on a Monday evening. I brought him, and worked in the waiting area while he and the therapist met. At the end of the session, the doctor invited me in and showed me what Martin had created: A castle scene in which a hapless polar bear was beset by a crowd including dragons, knights, and several kitty-cats. The doctor made several statement/questions like, “The horse is the leader, and the unicorn is following, and the polar bear wants to go back inside?” Martin agreed with her. I surmised that her comments were made, at least partly, for my benefit, but if I was supposed to be following along, the doctor had wildly overestimated my powers of intuition.

The whole shebang, to me, seemed like get-to-know-you play, but—something happened. The psychologist unleashed a force. What it was, I don’t know. (Relatedly, who the hell was the polar bear supposed to be?) The next day, Tuesday, this ensued:

I met Martin at the school bus stop at 2:45 pm. He exited the bus and walked directly to me, without engaging other kids. That was usual. He also looked depressed. Really, really in the dumps. He stared at his feet as he walked. I asked, “Are you okay? Did something happen?” He replied, “Oh no, I’m fine,” and followed up with, “I had an excellent day at school. Let’s go home.” On the brief trip from the bus stop to the house, I asked a few more times whether he was upset. Martin continued to deny that anything had happened. I took him to taekwondo and to church Kids’ Klub. No mention of anything.

Adrian arrived home in time for dinner, so we three ate together. Adrian finished first, and then left the table to take a business call.

Martin asked, “Do you and Daddy think I’m weird?”

I replied, “I guess everyone is ‘weird,’ in some ways. We all do things in our own way, and that can seem weird to other people. What makes you ask?”

“Do you and Daddy think I’m stupid?”

“Good heavens, no! What makes you ask that question?”

Martin started to cry. He said, “The kids on the bus think I’m stupid.”

And then—whether because the psychologist unlocked a vault within Martin, or otherwise—stuff got real. Through his tears, Martin described his current social situation:

  • The kids in his class call him weird and unfriendly.
  • No one will play with him at recess.
    • Robert, whom Martin knows from church, was playing a game with friends. Martin asked Robert if he could join. Robert said no.
    • Kids run away when they see him coming.
    • A second-grader from another class seemed like he was going to accept Martin’s invitation to play, until one of Martin’s classmates ran over and said, “Don’t play with him! He’s the weird kid!”
  • Some weeks ago, when Martin got in trouble for telling a girl he was going to “kill” her (at the time, he provided no explanation why), it was because the girl had just said, “Martin, no one likes you.”
  • Even the young parishioners at church Kids’ Klub refuse to play with him.
  • As bad as all that is, the school bus is still worse. Every day the kids make fun of him, for months now. Even the kids he knows from bus stop participate in the bullying. The twins across the street participate. Kids from other classes and grades participate. The only kids who don’t tease him are kindergartner Marcus, third-grader Alice, and fifth-grader Stephanie. The only kid who ever will step in to stop the bullying is Stephanie.
  • This very afternoon, before Martin alit the bus looking so dejected, the kids had invented a chant: “Stu-pid! Stu-pid! Martin is so stu-pid!

Never before had Martin said any of this directly. As realities were pouring out, Adrian realized from his office what was going on and returned to the kitchen. He found me squatting next to Martin’s chair, with my hand on his arm, withholding my own tears as I tried to reassure and let him continue. Martin held court for more than 15 minutes. Twice Adrian tried to hug Martin, but Martin resisted, pushing Adrian away gently because he wanted to keep talking. The conversation was extraordinary. Martin held eye contact, consistently. He spoke clearly. He answered my questions: No, his aide didn’t hear mean things kids said; no, the bus driver never intervened; no, Stephanie hadn’t been able to stop the stu-pid! chant because she wasn’t on the bus this afternoon. Martin also expressed a shocking degree of self-realization and profundity. “They say I’m unfriendly,” he said, “but it’s not true. It’s just that I’m still learning how to be friendly.” “I know those kids are wrong. They just don’t know me well enough.” “The twins were nice when I first met them, and then they turned mean on the bus.”

Finally, as I listened to what Martin has been enduring, I lost my own composure. At that moment Adrian scooped up Martin and carried him from the kitchen, telling him how brave he was to trust Mom and Dad with these stories and how proud we were. He took Martin to the bathroom and ran a warm bath. I remained in the kitchen, crying.

With Martin calmer and soaking in the tub, Adrian came back and hugged me.

I said, “We’ve got to do something.”

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5 thoughts on “Polar Bear Under Siege

  1. Heartbreaking! My son will sometimes explain to others that he has autism and that he can be nervous or overwhelmed. Each school we have attended, I have asked the teachers to educate the students on autism, the sensory issues, etc. what it means to be different and that bullying will not be tolerated. In our case, having him “pass” for neurotypical is not an option, so we stand strong with the fact that is it not okay for anyone to bully a person who is different for any reason. Of course, I would love it if Ethan was far enough along in recovery that it was not obvious that he struggles, and although he is about 80% better than he was,he is not totally recovered. We also belong to a website called Asperger’s Experts where we go over what others have gone through with anxiety, bullying and other issues so Ethan knows he is not alone in his struggles. The choice of identifying as an Aspie is a difficult one, but it has helped my son immensely to find community and inspiration from others who excel and are also on the spectrum. When he found out there is a whole community of people out there like him, the look on his face was priceless. We watched PowerRangers and one of the main characters is on the spectrum, which he loved. He also tells me about other people and characters who have autism and excel in life and feels they are role models. At some point being well for him meant not only interventions like HBOT, supplements, etc. but making sure he knows who he is and feels good about himself. That is just how we dealt with it and I know identifying your child as being on the spectrum is such a personal choice, but it did help for us to open the dialogue at school about not only tolerance but acceptance.

  2. We are dealing with this too. It’s heartbreaking. Earlier in the year, my son told me he wishes he was never born. He is 8 and almost recovered from ASD/lyme/bart/mold illness and so I am not comfortable with labeling him with “autism” when we are so close to recovery. He is too “high functioning” for an autism class or school but too socially immature for general ed even though we held him back a year. I’m sure the flapping and visual stims don’t help either. I wish I had advice but I don’t. Just writing to say that I feel your pain and empathize. I wish you the best.

  3. Pingback: Action Plan | Finding My Kid

  4. Pingback: I Mean, I Just, It’s—Well, It’s a Lot | Finding My Kid

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