Autism and Bullying – A Special Concern
This autism anti-bullying guide was prepared by the professional staff of Action Behavior Centers in Austin, Texas.
Facts and Statistics
Bullying can affect children, teens, and adults of all walks of life. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, can be particularly vulnerable to bullying.
In fact, the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) conducted a large survey of nearly 1,200 children with ASD (ages 6 to 15), finding that an overwhelming 63 percent of the sample had experienced bullying.
Bullying occurs among children in all grade levels, but the data showed the most severe bullying tends to affect those in 5th to 8th grade.
The researchers also talked with parents about common behaviors associated with ASD to see whether certain behaviors correlated more strongly with bullying. According to the results, the behaviors most closely linked with bullying were:
- Poor hygiene
- Frequent meltdowns
- Rigidly sticking to rules – i.e. enforcing adult-made rules that most other children wouldn’t
- Inflexibility or rigidity
- Continuing to talk about favorite topics when others are visibly bored or annoyed
Effects of Bullying on Children with Autism
The Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs (NATTAP) published an article on bullying and students on the autism spectrum. Some of the effects of bullying detailed in the report include:
- Lowered self-esteem
- Hesitancy or refusal to attend school
- Emotionally sensitive behavior
- Changes in diet or sleeping patterns
- Decline in academic performance
- Inability to concentrate
If a parent suspects their child might be dealing with bullying at school, it can be challenging to figure out what first steps to take. The Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) – Master’s level clinicians with decades of experience with children with autism – at Action Behavior Centers have some anti-bullying tips to share.
First and foremost, it’s important for children on the spectrum to identify how the actions of their peers have made them feel. Sad? Frustrated? Angry? Confused? Embarrassed?
Many children with autism struggle with emotional regulation, so a critical first step in handling bullying is to talk through whatever may have happened at school or on the playground and help children pinpoint their emotional responses.
Discussing facial expressions, body language and bullying tactics
Alongside difficulty with identifying and understanding emotions, children with autism may struggle with understanding bullying or that it’s even happening to them.
First, talk about what bullying is and some of its common forms: name calling, making fun of how someone looks or talks, stealing lunch money, pushing, hitting, spitting, spreading lies and rumors about someone, and cyber bulling through text messages or the Internet.
Discuss the facial expressions and body language that commonly hint that bullying might be taking place – scornful or condescending facial expressions, pointing and laughing with other friends, or physical aggression, to name a few.
Since many children on the spectrum have social deficits, it’s valuable to help them understand the social cues that could point to bullying.
The next step is to encourage self-reporting. Bullying can’t be addressed if a child internalizes everything instead of telling a parent, teacher, or caregiver that something hurtful occurred.
Ask for a copy of your child’s school’s bullying policy
Since bullying laws vary from state to state, schools will have different anti-bullying policies in place. Ask for a copy of the anti-bullying policies at your child’s school. An important part of this process is being aware of how your child’s school deals with bullies and the rights of children who have been victimized
Figure out where to report bullying
Bullying can’t be stopped if it goes unreported. Find out who handles bullying cases at your child’s school in case you ever need to report an incident. Getting disciplinary action from a school or a bully’s parent can deter future incidents from occurring.
Create a bully-proofing plan
Talk to your child about handling bullies in a cool and collected way. Perhaps a firm “Stop doing that!” and walking towards an adult could do the trick. For a bit more discretion, coordinate with your child’s teachers and set up a private code word or gesture to signal that bullying or an uncomfortable situation is going on.
Consider designating a ‘safe adult’ or ‘safe space’ that your child can always go to at school to escape bullying.
Autism awareness and acceptance
Urge parents of typically developing children to talk to their children about autism. Having a better understanding of the quirks and behaviors that come along with autism might help children better understand and accept their peers for their differences rather than poke fun or bully.