How to Deal With Bullying Targeting Autistic Children
Every child deserves a safe, healthy place to learn. Autism bullying makes that goal impossible to achieve. Unfortunately, it’s common.
The Autism Society of America says students with autism are 63% more likely to be bullied than their neurotypical peers.
The risk isn’t limited to children with high levels of autism severity.
Researchers say high-functioning autistic children tend to interact with mainstream peers more frequently than other children with autism. This enhanced interaction makes their disability more visible, and it makes them a target for bullying. Children who can speak well are three times more likely to be bullied than those with poor or absent verbal skills.
Parents and teachers play important roles in autism bullying prevention. While they must listen to and support the victims, they must also reach out to perpetrators. Plenty of children with autism bully others, so this issue must also be addressed.
What Is Bullying?
Childhood is a time of experimentation. Children toy with their words, their actions, and their reactions. It’s common for them to harm one another as they determine what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Autism bullying is different.
The Interactive Autism Network explains that all children have hurt feelings from time to time, and most would say their peers can be mean. But bullying is:
- Repeated. The actions happen over and over again.
- Targeted. The victim is specifically chosen for the attack.
- About power. The bully wants to assert dominance over the victim.
Bullying can take many forms. Verbal abuse, physical abuse, and social exclusion are all common techniques used in classrooms all across the country. Some bullies take to the web, and they bully their victims through cruel social media posts, nasty text messages, or online rumors.
Is Your Child a Bully Target?
Bullying is associated with guilt. Some victims hide their abuse for fear of seeming weak or childish. The perpetrators reinforce the silence, and they often threaten consequences if children speak out. You may need to become a detective to help your child.
The National Autistic Society says common autism bullying clues include:
- Dishevelment. Your child may come home with dirty clothes, missing possessions, or bruises.
- Lateness. Your child may try a different route to and from school to avoid the bullies.
- Excuses. Your child may feign illness to stay away from school and social obligations.
- Symptoms. Increased tantrums, stimming, or vocalization could be important clues.
- Behavior shifts. Sleeping late, crying often, or yelling at family members could stem from bullying.
If you see these signs, start a conversation. Ask your child about:
- Nicknames. Taunts could take the form of nasty nicknames.
- Habits. Who does the child sit with at lunch? Or does the child sit alone?
- Friends. Who would your child call a best friend? If the names change each week, ask why.
- Classes and activities. What time of day does your child dislike most? That could be the time when bullying is most acute.
Deepen your investigation by asking your child’s teacher for help. Set up an appointment, and describe what you’ve uncovered so far. Ask what the teacher has seen. Does your child seem popular? Has the teacher seen bullying firsthand? Where does your child spend free time?
If the two of you determine that your child is dealing with autism bullying, it’s time to take action.
Strategies to Reduce Autism Bullying
If your child is a bully target, take a three-pronged approach to address the problem. Start by working with your child. Then, get authority figures involved. Finally, talk with the bully’s parents about long-term prevention.
Bullies thrive in an environment of silence, anger, and fear. The more your child reacts to a taunt, the better a bully feels. The Autism Society recommends teaching your child the CALM strategy:
- C: cool down. Spot signs of stress, and use deep breathing and positive value statements to combat them.
- A: assertion. Use positive body language to express confidence. A therapist can be instrumental in teaching these skills.
- L: look. Make eye contact with a bully. This behavior doesn’t come easily to all children with autism, but therapists can help.
- M: mean it. Non-Confrontational phrases, such as “Stop that,” or “Leave me alone,” should enter your child’s vocabulary.
Some of these steps reduce bullying attempts. Others help to diffuse an attack already in progress. But they might not stop the problem altogether.
Bullying is both damaging and serious. Don’t let it continue.
Anti-bullying advocates say all bullying episodes must be reported. Talk to:
- Your child’s teacher or counsellor. Ask for a face-to-face meeting. Bring along notes about the dates, times, locations, and people involved.
- School administrators. If your teacher won’t take action, move up the chain of command. Talk with officials about your child’s safety.
- Local police. If your child’s school won’t help, the authorities will.
Advocating for your child is critical. Parents who take these steps aren’t nags. They’re doing important work to keep their children safe.
If you know the bully’s parents, bring them into the conversation. Some parents have no idea that their children are acting out at school, and they welcome the opportunity to intervene.
For example, some bullies act out due to poor verbal or social skills. Anger helps them cover up deficits. A child with autism might bully to fit in.
Experts suggest sending an email or calling the offender’s parents. Use a non-confrontational approach, and point out that you’d like to fix the problem collaboratively. Suggest a meeting in which you can share your observations and come up with a plan.
Is Your Child a Bully?
Experimentation and childhood go hand in hand. Children who bully aren’t doomed to a life of aggression. With your help, they can channel talents in a helpful direction.
Bullies sometimes have inherent leadership skills. Find ways to help them use those skills in a new way. Encourage them to coach younger siblings in a sport, for example, or ask them to lend a hand with pet training.
Develop an anti-bullying action plan with your child:
- Analyze. Determine whom your child bullies and where.
- Find major players. Who needs to change to make the activity stop? Who can help? Your child might need a doctor’s help if bullying stems from pain. Or a therapist might help if your child needs to enhance speech or empathy skills.
- Define next steps. What parts of your child’s routines must change to enhance supervision and reduce bullying?
- Set expectations. Tell your child that bullying is never accepted, and explain the steps you’re taking to make it stop.
- Check in. Set a weekly meeting with your child, and ensure that these steps are working. If they aren’t, adjust the plan accordingly.
Reach out for help if you can’t stop the behavior alone. Some children with bullying habits have personality disorders, experts say, and they need to work with counselors to stop their habits for good. Children like this may lack innate empathy, and they simply don’t understand the impact of their actions. Counseling could be critical, so they change course early in life.
How Can Schools Help?
Parents and children can take action to prevent bullying, but teachers and other school staff also have a role to play. You’re on the front lines of child/child interactions, and you’re an important role model for your students. What you say and what you do matters.
Experts say bullying episodes often happen in:
- Crowded hallways
- School buses
Your students may be angels while sitting at their desks, but they may show much different behaviors in these other spaces. Add them to your patrols if you can.
Intervene immediately if you see bullying. Don’t talk to the children together, experts say. Speak with them separately about what happened. Try to understand how the episode started, and support both the bully and the victim. Ask for your school counselor’s help if you’re not quite sure what to say.
The more you know about bullying, the better. Researchers say teachers with high levels of knowledge about bullying intervene more often than teachers who don’t understand the concepts. If you need more help, ask your school to send you to training courses to beef up your expertise.
- Bullying Prevention. Autism Society.
- Why Autistic Kids Make Easy Targets for School Bullies. (September 2012). Time.
- Bullying and ASD. (March 2012). Interactive Autism Network.
- A Bullying Guide for Parents. National Autistic Society.
- Signs Your Child is Being Bullied. Stomp Out Bullying.
- 5 Things Parents Can Do. National Autism Association.
- The 3 Rs for Bullying Prevention: Recognize, Respond, and Report. (Winter 2012). Autism Advocate.
- Special Needs Kids and Bullying. Stomp Out Bullying.
- What If Your Child Is the One Showing Bullying Behavior? (2015). Pacer Center.
- There Are No Bullies. (Fall 2013). Teaching Tolerance.
- How Parents, Teachers, and Kids Can Take Action to Prevent Bullying. (2011). American Psychological Association.
- 5 Ways to Prevent Bullying in Your Classroom. (October 2019). PBS.
- Helping Students Who Bully. Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network.
- The Teacher’s Role in Preventing Bullying. (August 2019). Frontiers in Psychology.