What is bullying?
Bullying is an aggressive and unwanted behaviour among school aged children which occurs due to real or perceived power imbalances.
Some examples of bullying:
Saying mean things
Spreading nasty stories or rumours about others
Intentionally leaving people out/Ignoring them
Telling other children not to be friends with someone
Threatening or humiliating them
Spreading rumours about others
Intentionally embarrassing someone in public
Hitting, pushing, kicking people or other physical acts
Spitting at others
Taking or interfering with money or other items
Showing mean/rude hand signals
Individuals with autism and bullying
Individuals with autism are easy targets for various reasons. They communicate and interact with others differently, and often find it hard to read facial expressions and body language. This means they are unable to tell when someone is hurting them or being friendly. They may also misinterpret the intentions of their peers.
As they sometimes prefer to play alone, they become easy targets in the playground. The lack of social support around them could make it easy for other children to pick on them.
Furthermore, children with autism often have behaviours that may appear odd (stimming - eg. hand flapping or making inappropriate comments), causing them to be even more ostracised.
On the other hand, children with autism can also display bullying behaviours. For example, when a game does not go the way they want, they may become aggressive and attempt to control the situation. They may also become frustrated when they get outcasted in the playground and resort to bully tactics.
What can I do if my child is being bullied?
Some children with autism have difficulty talking face to face. It may be easier to write or draw about the incident. Your child may not recognise that they are being bullied. Help them understand the difference between bullying and being friendly. Explain that bullying is when the behaviour hurts or harms someone emotionally or physically.
Try to speak to them without upsetting them and getting angry with them. Listen attentively and assure your child that you believe them. Let them know that it’s not their fault and they are not alone in the situation. Maintain open communication with your child. Talk to them daily and show interest. How were your classes today? Who did you sit with at lunch? Who did you play with at recess?
If your child cannot express or find it difficult to explain, you can talk it over with the teachers in school to better understand what is happening. Some children may be reluctant to have their parents intervene. They may fear the social stigma that their parents fight their battles. However, it is up to you to decide to intervene on your child’s behalf with school teachers to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Do not intervene by talking to the parents of the alleged bully. Their parents may be defensive and offended when their child is being accused of bullying, resulting in unproductive conversations. Allow the school teachers to manage the communication with the bully’s parents. Explore with your child what induces bullying. The possible reasons may be they provoke the bully by annoying them. Thus, your child can learn not to do so.
Teach your child to make eye contact, walk tall and speak assertively to the bully by saying “stop” and walk away from the bully. Help them to recognise situations that may result in bullying, such as at the playground, after school, and during recess. Teach them to be wary and stay close to adults in such circumstances.
It may be beneficial for your child to engage in social skills and communication training to help them identify when someone is being nasty or nice. You can also teach your child strategies to deal with bullying using tools such as Social Stories, Social Thinking, and Scripting.
If possible, your child may try to stick with a trusted classmate at school. Having another friend reduces the occurrence of bullying. If your child has difficulty making friends but themselves, try to facilitate a friendship with a mature and understanding child who can befriend and assist if bullies attempt to tease or hurt them. You can facilitate a friendship by taking both of them on shopping trips or movie dates or inviting another child over for a meal or some games.
In conclusion, it is challenging to deal with bullying against individuals with autism. It can be devastating and challenging when your child gets bullied in school. However, communicating with your child, getting help from the school community, and teaching your child strategies to reduce bullying can help your child in school.
Written by Carabelle.
Autism Society of North Carolina. Bullying. https://www.autismsociety-nc.org/wp-content/uploads/Bullying-Toolkit-web.pdf
Myaspergerschild. (September 2017). How to intervene when your child is being bullied at school. Retrieved August 5 2022, from https://www.myaspergerschild.com/2017/09/how-to-intervene-when-your-child-is.html
National Autistic Society (2022). Dealing with bullying - a guide for parents and carers. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/bullying/bullying/parents
Stop Bullying (2022). What is bullying. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying/what-is-bullying