Bullying, Disabilities, and The Empathetic Heart

I don’t have children, but this would very much be top of mind if I did. To raise a child to be sensitive to others, to have compassion and empathetic view, is one of the most important traits they could have.

I’ve had the fortune to participate in a training on bullying and harassment recently (though this is a long-time hot topic for me, and one I regularly talk about with the kids in our Martial Arts classes. I myself was bullied and harassed growing up, and with the prevalence of cyber methods, it is even more insidious for children these days.) The training focused on bullying as it pertains to all children within a school setting (primarily public in this case), but also with some particular data regarding bullying and children with disabilities.

It might seem alarming to some of you that children with disabilities are bullied approximately 1.3 times more than their neurotypical (non-disabled) peers. (George G. Bear. et al. Differences in Bullying Victimization Between Students With and Without Disabilities, School Psychology Review. March 2015, Vol. 44, Issue 1 cited in Rose and Gage, Exploring the Involvement of Bullying Among Students.)

Bullying in and of itself is horrifying, but the prospect that it is happening even more to children with disabilities is difficult to grasp. My passion lies in not only empowering others by helping them to discover their own inner strengths, talents, and abilities, but to equip them with the tools necessary to manage challenging situations. Martial Arts is my current vehicle – as  one of the instructors under my Sensei, I am able to impart values and knowledge to the children during class. Naturally it isn’t always easy to keep the attention (by the way, not AGE-dependent so much as child-dependent…and time of day!) It is therefore crucial to be both consistent with messages, and to repeat them with frequency. It’s amazing to hear the kids respond to “what is our goal with a bully?” with “TO CONTROL AND NEGOTIATE!” (We encourage the idea that we aren’t learning Martial Arts to injure anyone else – the key purpose is to know how to protect ourselves and others, should we need to, but also to use our skills only as a last resort.)

For children with disabilities, the concept of bullying can be more difficult. Cognitive or physical limitations may result in the child not fully understanding that he or she is IN a bullying situation, let alone how to manage the situation if it is happening. I believe in teaching – I believe in helping individuals to understand how to recognize danger, violence, harassment, and bullying before it happens or, if that window is missed, when it is happening. It is only with the knowledge of what is taking place that we are able to do something about the situation.

I also believe it is vital that each of set the example – whether our own children, our nieces and nephews, kids we see in classes at school or in sports…we are always on the radar. Children are constantly watching and learning from our actions as much as our words (I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of a little one coming out with a mouthful of something hilarious after having picked it up from an adult – you never know what they’ll say next, only that they are ALWAYS absorbing.)

Children will pick up our mannerisms, our prejudices, our attitudes, and our approach to people / places / things. As such, we must keep in mind that what we say / do, and the methods by which we manage situations are likely to be adopted (depending on how much time we spend with them.) Takeaway —> Children are hugely impressionable.

EXAMPLES…

  1. In Martial Arts class, I ensure that I hold EVERYONE to the same standards (including myself)
  2. I am always impeccably dressed (gi, belt, tabi, hair tied up, no jewelry)
  3. I ALWAYS show a “Zanshin” or “ready stance” when I am demonstrating a technique with my Sensei…both before and after the technique, to show it is vital to always be ready for a potential threat (or a threat’s follow-up)
  4. When I see someone acting out or in a bullying manner, I very quickly address it and make sure involved parties understand what happened, and why their actions were not acceptable
  5. I treat everyone equally
  6. I speak in a firm but respectful tone
  7. I reward great behavior with positive, verbal affirmations
  8. Likewise, I don’t tolerate fooling around – a Martial Arts setting is not the place!

My behavior and approach will be modeled, so it is important that I lead by example. I do the same when volunteering – we have a few children with autism who like to get particularly rowdy. I make clear when something is not acceptable in explicit terms, and I encourage and reward positive behaviors.

In daily life I also do my best to lead with an empathetic heart. This doesn’t mean I am necessarily more vulnerable to or unaware of realistic dangers, only that I approach my assessments with some level of compassion. (I am not, let’s be clear, referring to a dangerous situation – during such times, we must act without hesitation. This is its own rabbit-hole conversation!) But. . .in regular, day-to-day activities, I do my best to treat others as I want to be treated, and to have compassion for those in need. I am not raising a child of my own, but that doesn’t mean I don’t impact those around me – I want those children to know the beauty of an empathetic heart, and that it is up to us to champion for those who may be unable to do so for themselves. 

There are many bullying situations in which a child may not fully grasp the danger he or she is in (as above.) While there are no definitive statistics, it is clear that many people stand around and do nothing. To me, that is simply unconscionable.

We encourage the children in our classes to – first and foremost – get an adult. That action is doing SOMEthing. If they are in the midst of it, we show them some of the ways they can be involved and stay as safe as possible. But we don’t say “just stand there and stare!” We want them to recognize danger when it occurs, and know that they have safe options to HELP. At the end of the day, those actions can literally save a life. 

Empathy and compassion matter.

Having tools to use in dangerous situations matters.

Let’s do our part to help children to understand what they can do, and to help them grow into compassionate adults – they need never, EVER be helpless.

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Winning The Lottery

If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t necessarily be running out to buy a fancy car, a hundred pairs of shoes, or a giant yacht. I wouldn’t be spending it with total abandon or throwing it around aimlessly, leaving me where I was before…

If it were me, I’d spend it on special needs education (wouldn’t a PhD of a BCBA be amazing?!), Sign Language classes, Martial Arts training…and giving back to others.

But all that said…if there WAS a creepy castle somewhere…there’s a good chance I’d be there with my love, our two black-cat boys, and a smoke machine. Studying for exams, dressed – of course – like Morticia. *LOL* 😉 

A meme that gave me a giggle…

Halloween 24/7. ❤ 

And the real thing…! ❤ ❤ ❤

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Magnify The Strengths

I have the great fortune to work with many individuals with disabilities, and to learn alongside their families and those in special education. I have always lived my life believing that kindness is not only valuable…but crucial. I believe that when we have something nice to say, or we recognize something beautiful in another person, that we should speak up.

Working in this community has extended the importance of this even further. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing the face of a child when they suddenly believe in themselves. When we share a kind word and focus on their strengths (often in spite of great adversity) we have the power to illuminate their world. I take that responsibility very seriously, and frankly…I feel it is an honor to be in such a position. As all human beings, they already know where they struggle…they don’t need to be reminded of where they fall short, but rather to see all the things they do well.

No matter who you are, no matter who someone else is…if you have something kind to say...SAY IT. Don’t hold back because a few supportive words could make all the difference in someone’s day…or in their life. We all remember certain compliments we’ve received over the years, and we remember how those comments made us feel. Share that gift with others that they too may recognize their wonderful contributions to the world.

 

Get Moving! – Self Care Matters

I was on a long road trip this past weekend and delved into a few podcasts, all but one related to fitness as it pertains to the health, development, and symptomatology (physical manifestations, presentations in the academic setting, social interactions, problem behaviors etc.) of various disabilities (including autism, down syndrome, and ADHD.) What I heard, however, was relevant to all human beings as a species – much of it covered material I have always taken as “common sense” (likely a product of an athletic upbringing), but some of it was also a little bit alarming.

According to studies, a wholly sedentary life can be more detrimental to our health long-term than smoking. Uh…YIKES. As I am neither a clinician nor a doctor, I’ll leave the research review of studies and articles (such as this one) to you. One way or the other, though, inactivity is bad news.

While I know some people who’d argue a few minutes out of a lifetime isn’t a big deal, I’m willing to bet there have been moments in all of our lives during which we’d have done anything to gain more time. It can be a frightening prospect when put into that kind of perspective – we are (like it or not) a fragile and fleeting species.

The discussions in the podcasts revolved around how we can engage those that have deficits in joint attention, physical challenges, and slower cognitive processes, as well as those who aren’t particularly interested in the activities to begin with. Again, the concepts were ones we all would do well to live by, particularly that last one.

We have one body this go around and it’s important that we take care of it as if it was as sacred to us as whatever else in our lives we cherish (YES, you DO deserve that kind of love and care from yourself.)

This photo crossed my path the other day and I found it, too, to be both jarring and sad.

I was recently chatting with a 93 year-old friend about aging well – meaning mind, body, and spirit. We were out on the ice – both of us skating – and were nodding our heads that many people resign themselves to a false fate. What do I mean by that? I mean that some people think “active” and “healthy” are reserved for 20-somethings or younger.

B U L L S H I T ! Here’s my buddy George proving everyone wrong by zooming around the ice with me…

As we get older, some change is inevitable – we might need longer recovery, we might need an extra rest day, we might need to tweak our nutrition to suit what our body and minds need with each passing year…but that doesn’t mean we can’t stay healthy overall. 

I always believed in maintenance because a spiral that has delved into the depths is harder to come back from – that goes for every aspect of our being (emotional, spiritual, physical, you name it!)

Goals don’t have to be unrealistic (nor should they be!) – we DON’T have to compete with anyone, let alone a professional athlete, a model, a celebrity, a Roman statue, a meme…! 

There’s also no need to set ourselves up for failure by trying to attain what doesn’t make sense. Not everyone wants to be overly muscular, or necessarily “thin”… It’s about striving for a healthy, fit, and / or active life, which is – YES – more than achievable. Remember, our “healthy” may look differently than our neighbor…but we always know, deep down, if we have attained that. Or not.

When we try to take steps each day to love the one vessel we have been given, we are able to stay in control of what we CAN do…rather than deal with what we can’t because we decided we were too much effort. 

You ARE worth the effort, 1,000%. 

And…you can do anything you put your mind to. Beyond that, treating ourselves with the respect we deserve in order to live and enjoy a healthy life means we may buy ourselves some precious moments that one day we will thank the stars we have to spend.

 

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Autism Humor – Same Old

I have a profound compassion and respect for individuals with autism, their families, and their caregivers. The world in which they live is one that the majority will not only never understand, but one few make an effort to comprehend on a deeper level.

Though many of my own eccentricities and experiences pale in comparison to these individuals, I believe I am drawn to them because I do – on a minor scale – commiserate. There are certain tendencies or challenges that I deal with such as:

  1. Misophonia
  2. Intense preference for / sensitivity to certain sounds (therefore, at times, need for full silence…or music…or earplugs)
  3. Difficulty focusing or concentrating unless under certain conditions
  4. Sensitivity to light
  5. When I was younger, anxiety surrounding social interaction (I couldn’t even ask for food at a snack bar!)
  6. Need for a heavy blanket or pressure when I sleep, or the sense of being in an alcove in order to be comfortable 
  7. When I was younger, I also had trouble making friends – I’m still very much a lone wolf and need massive amounts of space and time to myself
  8. A tendency to take words very literally, and not forget them
  9. Too quiet and too chatty!

And…though I’m not ultra rigid to the point of breakdown, I have a strong preference for routine. When it comes to food, for example, I stick with the same (fortunately healthy) things. ALL the time. In part, its preference. In part, my body prefers it that way, not unlike some individuals with autism.

I used to feel badly about my “quirks” – embarrassed even! But I’ve realized that not only am I not alone in these traits, (and also not less of a person because of them!) but that they afford me the ability to help others who suffer greatly as a result of extreme variations of them. Certain sounds push me to the edge but then I think about the fact that understanding what that feels like gives me an edge in understanding the more extreme experience someone else is having. . .and that means more compassion. Compassion is something this community deserves in spades.

My “quirks” have also taught me the humor of it all. In life we all face challenges, both big and small. If we can find the humor in our situation, we can help others find the humor as well, not to mention keep ourselves on a healthy wavelength most of the time.

The community I have the great fortune to work with teaches me about not taking everything so seriously all the time…about finding the beauty in each of us in spite of some differences (and we ALL have “stuff!”)…and that a positive approach will help us see the gifts we’ve been given…even those born of adversity.

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Surrounding Yourself With Good People

The people with whom you choose to spend the most time can have a huge impact on your life and well-being…

Look to those who love you for exactly who you are. For they are the ones who will have patience, respect, and understanding when you need it most….and, more importantly, at all times.

Look to those who push you to look deeply within yourself at the things that maybe no longer serve you so well – sometimes it’s hard to face ourselves alone. 

Look to those who challenge you to internally and externally step up your game. There are those who will support and encourage you, and remind you of all the “wonderful” you have to offer (and you deserve to be reminded. OFTEN!)

Look to the people who remind you that “failure” means “lesson,” and nothing more. The people who will remind you that have the strength, the courage, and the wherewithal to get up and fight…because you’ve already done it with success so many times before.

And look to those who will not only look for the bright side no matter how grim the circumstance, but who will do everything in their power to BE the “bright” when the lights go out. 

Life is full of ups and downs – when we have the right troops in our corner it’s not only easier to weather the storms, but the joys and celebrations are also multiplied many, many fold.  

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To Give, And To Take

Giving is not about what we receive in return, and ought to be without expectation.

That which we are blessed to receive, however, is worth cherishing.