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'Sociable Kidz' program helps vulnerable children combat bullying

From Kiran Chetry and Dana Garrett, CNN's American Morning
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social skills to combat bullying
  • Two 11-year-old autistic boys say they are often targets of bullying at school
  • Mother: "You just want to run and protect them or run to the school and scream at someone"
  • Program co-founder: Autistic children can have difficulties responding to bullying
  • Children role-play and practice statements in front of a mirror in the program
  • Bullying
  • Autism
  • School Violence

(CNN) -- When educator Susan Hendler asked 11-year-old Colin Horton how his week at school went, she heard some troubling answers.

"I keep getting bugged by this kid at school," Colin said.

"And what is he saying to you?" Hendler replied.

"He keeps saying swear words at me, and he keeps trying to punch me in the face."

Colin and his friend, 11-year-old Michael Cohen, are no strangers to bullying. But the two also have something else in common -- both have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

"In school we get picked on so many times," Colin said.

"Beaten up, bullied and -- most of all -- name calling," Michael added. "It usually happens at recess."

So the two are now enrolled in a program called "Sociable Kidz," which was founded by Hendler and fellow teacher Monica Weber to try to give children the tools they need to face bullies at school.

"It's a very safe environment, and they know, 'OK, I'm not the only one that's experiencing this,'" Weber said.

Hendler said autistic children can be particularly vulnerable to bullying.

"A lot of children who are on the (autism) spectrum just tend to take it," she said. "Or they'll fight back, but physically fight back. They just don't have the skills or techniques. They don't know what to do."

The bullying has been unnerving for the boys' parents, too.

"You just want to run and protect them or run to the school and scream at someone," said Michael's mother, Eileen Cohen.

But at Sociable Kidz, children practice role-playing exercises and rehearse statements to help improve their defenses.

"I don't really like what you did, so I want you to stop," Michael said into a mirror.

"Excellent!" Hendler responded.

Students speak in front of a mirror "because sometimes when you're talking to somebody, you don't know what you look like," Hendler said. "So they practice over and over."

The most important goal is for the children to gain self-esteem, the facilitators said. Not only will that empower the children to stand up for themselves, it can also help them from being targeted in the first place.

Michael has already used one tool he's learned from the program at school.

"I said, 'I don't like what you're saying,'" Michael said. "'So if you hate me a lot, why don't you leave me alone then?'"

His mother said she has seen progress from the program.

"It's really helped Michael to stop and think before he reacts," Cohen said.

Jessica Horton, Colin's mother, said her son is gaining confidence.

"They're helping him believe in himself."

CNN's Holly Yan contributed to this report

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