Using symbols to help autistic children who are bullied

Widgit resources 2

By Lynn McCann

Autism Acceptance Week is upon us and the best part of my job as an autism specialist teacher at Reachout ASC is listening to the young people I support. Their experience and point of view matters and it is often difficult for them to find the words and explain what is happening to them, especially if they are being bullied, or if we are trying to find out what happened when it may seem like they have been targeted or picked on.

Earlier this year, we worked with Kidscape to look at how autistic children could be better supported when they experience bullying. According to Kidscape, one of the first hurdles that parents faced was getting to know that their children were being bullied. Once that happened, communication with the school and getting all the facts together was also difficult. I wrote this blog about why autistic children are more vulnerable to being bullied.

Autistic children can’t always use verbal language as confidently as typical children, especially when under stress or feeling anxious or fearful. Some autistic children can be helped by using symbols, which decrease the cognitive load of trying to find the words to explain things to you, and gives them time to think and process all that has happened to them. With licence to use the Widget © symbols, we created this set of communication mats to help parents and teachers have difficult conversations with their autistic children and hopefully allow the bullying situations to be sorted out and made safe for the child.

We have been really happy to receive some feedback from teachers and parents.  Here are two stories we’ve had permission to share.

"My 5 year old is autistic and has a severe speech delay, with very limited vocabulary. He had presented as sad and didn’t want to go to school, so I asked him if he was sad. He said yes. A few more questions later and he had mentioned someone’s name in his class. He was doing his best to try and verbalise what had happened, but I couldn’t understand him. We went through the pictures, with me pointing and saying each one and him saying yes or no. He said yes to hitting, pulling and pushing. I asked verbally and using sign for school and home to see where it had happened. He signed school. I confirmed with him, and he gave an action and tried to verbalise scooter. I confirmed a sentence with him that this particular person had hit him/pushed him and pulled him off his scooter at school. He got excited, clapped and said yes! I was able to speak to school about it and make them aware of what had happened. It hasn’t happened since, and they keep a close eye on my son and the other child when they are around each other. My son was not hurt, but school confirmed that he had been pulled to the ground. It had made him sad, and I think it was just down to the other child wanting to go on his scooter and frustrated that he couldn’t. The visuals really helped as we were able to utilise these to get to the bottom of what had happened." - A Parent
"A pupil in Year 8 was getting into a lot of trouble for shouting out and threatening another boy in the class. The other children were laughing at him and he ended up with detention. I was asked to talk to him, and knowing that he found it difficult to talk when he is upset, I used the visuals. He described how this other boy had been following him, whispering into his ear that he was [a SEND related insult] and that he would stab him when no-one was looking. The autistic pupil was so frightened when he saw the boy in his class that he lost it and shouted all kinds of things at him. The subject teacher had insisted that the autistic child had started it. Indeed, that’s all he had seen. Thankfully we were able to find out the truth and the visuals certainly helped. We are dealing with the other boy and his threats now and trying to make school safe again for the autistic pupil." - A SENCO

Any child can find it difficult to talk about things they are anxious or frightened about and bullying is one thing they may find difficult to explain. We’d love you to share this resource around your school, parent groups and charities so that they know it is there for if they might need it.

Let us know how this resource has helped you too.

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