“What year did `Taxi Driver’ come out?” Dan Comeau asks his son, Teagen.
Teagen, 13, has never seen it.
He pauses for a minute, but then says, “1979.”
Teagen has memorized an encyclopedia’s worth of trivia about films. It’s one of the classic characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. He and his twin brother, Tyler, of Bridgeport, who entered Bassick High School this August, develop almost obsessive interests in different subjects. But along with their proclivity for learning comes difficulties with social relationships and handling anxiety.
This has made them targets for bullies.
The twins have been harassed on the school bus and picked on and teased for their anxious behaviors throughout their lives. But unlike other students who can more easily verbalize their experience and seek help, the twins — and others with Asperger’s syndrome — have difficulty communicating the scope of their troubles to adults and family members, making it even more difficult for them to resolve problems with bullies.
Children with Asperger’s tend to be bullied once or twice a week, according to a fact sheet by Nelle Frances, an author who writes children’s books about the syndrome.
“Very often (students with Asperger’s) find they’re a little bit isolated from other students,” said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger’s Association of New England. “They have trouble reading people’s facial expressions. They’re a little more vulnerable because developmentally, they’re a little younger and more naïve.”
It’s taken years for the twins to discuss the details of being bullied, but one recent day they opened up.
Tyler does most of the talking for the twins, and Teagen interjects every now and then with his own aside. While Tyler sits on a love seat rattling off facts about the spectrum of autism disorders, Teagen fidgets in his seat and frequently gets up and paces up and down the hallway and back, which could mean he’s “stimming,” which is a repetitive motion people with Asperger’s sometimes reflexively do when they are anxious or deep in thought.
Tyler says he gets anxious when people are yelling at him — his definition of yelling being different than others his age. Teagen, meanwhile, gets anxious when he hears swearing or hears someone describing something disturbing, and he’ll respond with like a low squeak. These are the kinds of behaviors other kids find amusing or odd, and they purposefully try to trigger him, said his dad.
The twins have had multiple bullies over the years, Tyler said. The boys, who grew up in Mansfield, said their first bully was another boy who rode their bus when they were in the fourth grade.
“He used to pick on a lot of kids, but he really liked to pick on us because we didn’t react,” Tyler said.
Tyler and Teagen are slow to make decisions, so they would sometimes linger in the aisle, deciding where to sit. The bully would come down the aisle and slam the twins into the side of the bus.
“He made Teagen anxious,” Tyler said. “Teagen would start making noises and he would pick on him.”
Once Tyler tried to make the bully stop teasing his brother, and the bully took Tyler’s fingers and bent them backwards. Another time, Tyler leaned down to get his backpack and the bully kicked him in the face. Their parents have always told them to tell an adult if someone was being mean to them, but this is difficult for them because of their Asperger’s. The day the bully kicked Tyler in the face, he went to the only adult on the bus, the bus driver, but was unable to form words. The bus driver told him she was going to write him up for crying.
Conveying the seriousness of the bullying incidents to their parents was also difficult. Tyler and Teagen don’t always pick up on inflections and answer questions literally.
At home, their father would ask the twins how their day was. They would answer that someone was being mean to them. “To us, someone being mean was just a minor infraction,” Dan said. “…It took us a while to figure out what was going on. We learned we had to be specific with our questions. We had to specifically ask, `Did anyone hurt you today?’ ”
GROWING UP DIFFERENT
The twins have known almost their entire lives that they are different. At 2-years-old, they completely stopped talking, and six months later they were diagnosed with classic autism.
Teaching children early about their autism can help them fight back against bullies, experts say.
“It’s extremely important when people are struggling with things like social communication, anxiety, depression, misunderstanding peoples intentions, that they are understanding what’s really going on,” Jekel said. “Then they stop blaming themselves and others. They see their life through slightly different lens, and they can really be proud.”
Jekel said administrators have found when students tell their peers as early as kindergarten about their condition, they are more likely to be accepted and less likely to be bullied.
Tyler says he’ll probably tell his close friends about his Asperger’s, but he generally does not like to let everyone know, since they start asking him all sorts of questions.
But not all children are diagnosed early on and that can make things even harder for them when they are targeted by bullies.