Friday, 18 April 2014

A Sister's Reaction to My Brother's Bullying Case


In 2012, I moved to Japan for further studies. At that time, I left behind my family, including my little brother, who was turning 8 at that time. That same year, I received a message from my mother, telling me not to worry, but that the teachers had caught my brother attempting to jump from the fourth storey at school.

Apparently, my brother's classmates had told him that if he jumped they would be his friend. He believed them.

About a year later, my brother was diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). To put it simply, my brother has poor social skills. He does not know how to act appropriately in different social contexts in terms of saying the right things, making friends and so on. To put it simply, he does not know how to interact with others. My brother loves and wants to make friends, in fact, he wished he could be popular with his peers but he does not know how to go about doing it.

Every day, my brother goes to school and tries to make friends. And every day, he has to learn to shrug off the bullying and teasing that goes on. His coping mechanism is to erase negative experiences from his memory and that is how he kept himself happy and still look forward to going to school every day.

As a sister, my heart breaks to know that my brother has to go through these. Pretty much ever since he started Primary school, he has been a victim of bullying. He was hit with brooms, spat on the face, scratched, had his stationary taken and placed all over the classroom, and so on. For example, one of his bullies is a boy named T____. When my brother rode the school bus, T____ would bully him. Now that we've taken my brother off the school bus, he still seeks out my brother to roughhouse him, chase him, spin him around a play equipment in the school playground until he's dizzy and wants to vomit, use his knuckles to pressed on his head and so on.

My brother fears to offend people and put up with these, thinking he can gain their friendship in return. But it is not to be.

The latest incident, and the trigger for this post, involves my brother and self-harm. A classmate named E_____ suggested to him to make a Youtube video beating himself up to get subscribers. And of course, he did so as he wants to stop E from annoying him since E would check with my brother every other day if it had been done. Yet, after my brother asked him how was the video, E told him it was terrible. By then, E has told several other friends to watch it but now claimed that he himself was traumatized by the video and my brother had asked the other boys to watch it. Of course, my brother was absolutely sure he told no one except E. At first, we didn't know what happened because my brother deleted the video on his iPad immediately after he posted it to Youtube. We only found out what happened after the school called. And at the suggestion of the teacher, my mother deleted the video from Youtube.

(*Note: This incident is still disputed because in my brother's first version, E threatened him and asked him to make a Youtube video beating himself up. I'm not sure if his story changed due to question from the teachers [considering that long-term memories are malleable], but the 'official' explanation is the one above)

At first, E apologised to my brother. But after the weekend, a teacher came to his class to speak to both of them. According to my brother, he had to apologise for involving E, E's name should not even have been mentioned. He has to keep far away from E, if he ever goes near E, he would be in trouble. But what I've found out, is that my brother was made to apologise because E____'s parents were angry that a "stupid suggestion" by their son was followed, the fault does not lie with their son but by the boy who is stupid enough to act on his suggestion and that they do not want their son to be associated with my brother.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

The victim was made to apologise to the bully and made to keep away as though he was the one doing the bullying.

From where I stand, the school's response was, not the best, to put it nicely. When the video first surfaced and my parents were notified, the teacher also called attention to a few videos posted by my sister which does not help my brother nor put him in good light. To be honest, they were just videos of my sister teasing my brother by getting him to sing and dance (which he likes to do). Personally, I think this is a red herring. This is not about my brother's ASD, it is about the bullying and my brother's need for acceptance that drove him to make a self-harm video and uploaded it on Youtube. In it, he clearly stated at the beginning of the video, "My friend E, from my school, ACS Junior asked me to make this video. So here it goes.... (He starts beating himself). At the end, he went near the screen & called out, "Subscribe...".

I'm really upset at the way the school handled this. From what I've heard about the second (and to date, final) meeting with the school about what happened, E____ felt guilty for what he said. Instead of turning this into a teachable moment about how careless words can hurt others (literally and figuratively), his parents chose to teach him that it's not his fault. And the school backed them up.

So in other words, if I'm being called names, told to go and die or to cut myself, and get so emotionally disturbed that I actually harm myself, the one at fault is me. I have traumatized others but I, myself, is not traumatized by the experience since I have ASD?

The school does not feel this is bullying but on the other hand, they are worried that my brother may seriously harm himself in future as he badly wants to be accepted by his friends. So they recommend that he leave ACS(Junior) for Pathlight where social skills is part of the curriculum. They foresee that the bullying will get worse for my brother when he attends secondary school.

There is such a thing as friendly teasing and then there's bullying. Personally, I think that this bullying, but according to the school, this is not a bullying case. This is my brother not knowing how to respond to situations appropriately.

And that is why, my brother has been throwing up, having tummy aches and claiming to be ill to be fetched from school during school hours. He even cried to his OT (Occupational Therapist) when his OT talked about the incident with him and said that since E____ knew he has told, he may get beaten up. Of course if this is not bullying, and my brother isn't traumatised. He's just acting out. You know, like how little boys with autism do.

I call bullshit.

In defence of the school, they have raised some good suggestions, such as seeing a neuro-therapist. I agree that my brother needs to learn how to get along with others. But I also think that it takes two hands to clap, and that it's never too early to teach children how to get along with others. In other words, both my brother and his classmates need to learn how to accept one another. This is what an inclusive classroom is all about.

And really, the suggestion that my brother goes to Pathlight brings out conflicting emotions in me. I do want him to be happy, but if my brother goes to Pathlight, he can never go back to a mainstream school (or so I'm told). And I don't know if it'll help him learn to get along with others, or give him a space to hide and escape the need to learn.

To me, there is only one solution: teach the boys not to bully (and teach my brother how to behave). The rest are, at best, stop-gap measures.

I'm writing this post because I've had to watch my brother being bullied from afar for too long. I'm told that ACS(Junior) has a good support system for special needs children. If that's the case, why is my brother the victim of persistent bullying?

Is it because it's an all boys school and "boys will be boys"? I believe that no matter what your gender, bullying is never ok. And the school should be proactive in nurturing a supportive environment for all the students.

By the way, I belong to the AC family as well (I was in a different AC school). My cousins belong to the AC family. Many of my friends belong to the AC family. I believe that on the whole, the ACS schools are good schools. I don't want to bash the school in any way. But I do want the school to realise what's going on. This is an area that can and should be improved upon. No matter what your age, no matter your gender, no matter if you have autism or if you're neuro-typical, bullying is never alright.

AC, you are better than this. As a school, you can stop bullying. There are measures you can take. I do believe in you. I believe that the AC family is a family.

Right now, I'm hoping for three things. The first is that my brother's bullying issues will be solved soon. The second is that my brother's case is atypical, meaning that bullying is not a frequent occurrence at ACS. There has been a rise in autism diagnosis, and I think that even if my brother is transferred to Pathlight, it doesn't mean that the problem is solved. It just means the problem is swept under the rug until the next autistic boy, or perhaps a normal boy who doesn't fit in, comes along.

The third thing I'm hoping for is an older sister's selfish prayer. I hope that my brother will be safe, healthy and happy when I return to Singapore. Not just when I return this year, but when I return next year, the year after that and forever after.

[Names have been redacted to protect the privacy of those bullies.]
Note: I wrote this post because, well, because I'm in Japan and this feels like the only thing I can do. If anyone who reads this post decides to stop bullying the next time they see it, or decide to befriend a bullied person, then I consider this a success. And if you're being bullied and feel like you have no one to talk to, leave me a message/Google+ private share/etc. I'm here if you need a listening ear. 

Note (2): Hi guys. If you read the blogpost when you first came out, you may notice it was more emotional. My mom advised me to change some parts just in case this affects my brother negatively at school, so it's now more objective and calmer. If you want the original post for comparison, do drop me a mail. 

UPDATE: You can find the follow-up post here

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