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.”