Safe Retreats: A Life Line for Bullying Victims

In my last column, I talked about the realities of being a bullied kid.  Here I’m going to talk about the one thing that helped me the most, something that I believe can work for a lot of kids when we can’t immediately solve the problem of bullying.

The biggest single help I had when I was bullied in school was a series of what I thought of as strategic retreats, hidey-holes, and/or escape routes.  Places I could go of my own accord, was not forced to stay in, where I could be around people who treated me like a person.

I volunteered in the library.  I joined choir and therefore had access to a practice room.  I had a long and helpful relationship with my high school nurse.

That last was absolutely vital.  My high school nurse understood two things: (1) that there were many good kids who would show up at her office with no actual physical illness and (2) a lot of those kids were in real pain.  We really had headaches, we really felt queasy, we sometimes even were really shaky with anxiety or numb with depression.

And my high school’s nurse had a way of dealing with us.  She didn’t label us as malingerers, and she didn’t tell us to get back to class since we weren’t really ill.  Instead, she had a simple rule: if you came in with no illness other than stress and anxiety, you could lie down on a cot in her office for either 20 minutes or until the next bell, whichever came first.

I was one of her “frequent fliers,” and I believe she saved the sanity of many teens, and possibly a few lives along the way. She gave us all a safe space to be for long enough to get our bearings and recover a little from life.  All kids need that, but autistic/Aspergian/ASD kids need it more than anybody.

We need an escape.  We need a quiet place where we aren’t constantly monitored, tested, and punished for our lack of conformity by our peers.  We need a place where bullies are not empowered.

I am definitely NOT talking about a “time-out room” or anything similar.  If you force a kid into isolation, if they have no power to walk away, if they are trapped until a teacher or principal decides they’ve had enough, it’s not a safe retreat, it’s a prison.

If, on the other hand, they have a place they can choose to go when it’s all too much, that’s to everyone’s benefit.  Trust me, we problem kids get monitored and shuffled around all the time.  Kids on the spectrum need a way to take back some control of their (our) own minds at those times when other kids have decided that we are targets for cruelty for their own amusement.

I know there are objections to this.  There is the worry that kids who can retreat on an as-needed basis will take too much advantage of the situation, that it will do more harm than good.

Sure, we all know that kids can’t be given an infinite ability to walk away from all situations, but kids on the spectrum are forced into so many painful situations and activities that there has to be some balance, some retreat, something that gives them a bit of safety and autonomy.  That doesn’t mean infinite freedom to escape everything that is even slightly unpleasant; any system allowing for escape needs limits – but zero ability to escape is actually worse for kids than if they periodically overdo it.

Besides, if a kid has the ability to escape and uses it to try to hide in the janitor’s closet for hours at a time, there’s a bigger problem.  Kids who are scared of any contact with their peers are not going to become well integrated by forcing them out onto the playground.

When I was in high school, the lunch room was an extremely hellish place for us nerds at a time when “nerd” meant only bad things. The cafeteria required extremely advanced bully avoidance skills, and even then it was dicey.  So one day when I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it, I tried to sneak out.  I promptly got caught leaving and was given “cafeteria duty” for a week as punishment.

“Cafeteria duty” meant cleaning up other people’s leftover food and trays.  It’s a nasty task for anyone, but with my sensory issues it was horrific.  It also meant that I had to be at lunch on time and stay past when everyone else left to pick up food with the tough kids, who took the opportunity to taunt me.

Fortunately, the discipline worked and I learned my lesson.  I learned that the only way to be safe was to never show up in the cafeteria at all.

That’s right, I just didn’t eat lunch. It seemed ideal to me: if you skip lunch, you avoid the bullies in the cafeteria, and as a bonus you are less likely to have to use the bathroom.  The school bathrooms are a major bullying site, and getting pinned there by either tough kids or mean girls was so scary it seemed best to avoid them.

If I’d had the leeway to leave the lunch room, if that hadn’t been the one place I couldn’t escape once I was there, maybe I’d have eaten.  It might have even had a positive effect on my “attitude” and attention span during afternoon classes.

The only way it could have been worse is if I’d been caught skipping and forced to attend lunch.  Kids who have no escape can easily develop long-term learned helplessness.

If a child has no safe retreats, learned helplessness can easily result, in which case self-advocacy and independent activities are severely stunted.  We need to empower our kids to find safe retreats and use them. We need our kids to know that they are not forever helpless and trapped.

Dealing with the problem of bullying and changing a school’s culture to defeat bullying can be difficult tasks.  Giving kids on the spectrum the safe retreat spots they need and deserve, on the other hand, is a no-brainer.

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