How Can I Protect my Autistic Child from Bullying?

Sheri didn’t know what was wrong with her, she just knew that the other kids were calling her stupid. She was only two but suddenly she was acting different in daycare; she didn’t want to talk to the other children and would run away from them instead of playing. She’d hide behind bushes and listen to the painful insults and rejection coming from the other side.

After she had a seizure at the playground, a doctor made the inevitable diagnosis: Sheri had autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It explained why she had no desire to speak or play with other kids her age. But it didn’t help with the bullying.

Through high school, Sheri was always the weird girl. “What’s wrong with her?” people would ask, and even though there was an answer now, it didn’t make life any easier. Bullied out of her gymnastics program, made fun of in class and on playgrounds, Sheri had only a few friends—and they were also made fun of for hanging out with her. She was the easy target in dodgeball and got a bloody nose from it. When she curled up and held her head and yelled for the ball not to hit her, it just made the other kids laugh even more.

Through it all, Sheri only wanted to be normal. But normal was not in the cards. For kids with ASD, acceptance comes hard, and bullying is more common than not.

Being Bullied or Being a Bully; Autistic Kids Are At Risk For Both

Autistic kids have trouble from both angles; they are often bullied because they stand out, and they may also become bullies because of their deficits in empathy and communication skills.

According to a 2010 review of multiple studies of special education bullying, disabled students are at least twice as likely both to be the victims of bullying and to be bullies themselves.

A 2011 survey from the International Autism Network put some numbers behind the problem. The survey found that 63 percent of the ASD respondents had been bullied at some point in their lives. Interestingly, this rate was consistent across both traditionally-educated and home-schooled respondents, suggesting that the issue is a general social one rather than specific to the public school experience.

That rate is somewhere in the order of 15 to 40 percent higher than it is for neurotypical kids, depending on which studies you look at.

No matter what, bullying is bad news for kids who experience it. According to the CDC, victims of bullying are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, and have a harder time adjusting to school… all things that ASD students are more likely to suffer from even when bullying is removed from the equation.

Something less commonly recognized is that bullying has bad outcomes for the ones doing the bullying too. They are at higher risk of having substance abuse problems, additional problems in school, and a greater likelihood for engaging in violence later in life.

Keep in mind that some kids who are bullied go on to bully others in turn. This means issues can be compounded – not only are they susceptible to all the regular risk factors that come with being bullied, but also the risk factors that come with being a bully themselves.

Integrated Classrooms Have Helped Put Bullying In Its Place

Bullying in general is receiving more attention now than it has in the past, which is good news for autistic kids. So is the fact that autism spectrum disorder is becoming more visible and better understood in the public eye. People are now more understanding of the fact that ASD is a condition that comes with social transgressions and often an inability to communicate effectively and with a normal level of awareness of common social queues. This tends to make people more likely to recognize these transgressions as being symptomatic of ASD and more accepting of those differences.

Another factor has been the passage of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 2004, which introduced as law the principle of educating disabled kids in the least restrictive environment possible.

In practice, this has meant that special needs students are now a part of the general education classroom, which has resulted in less segregation within schools. The benefits of this are obvious for kids with ASD who already struggle with fitting in, but it has also given neurotypical kids a chance to get to know kids with ASD so they are less likely to see them as completely foreign and a-typical.

Although on the face of it, it might seem like this would create more opportunities for bullying, in practice it has been found to be a social benefit for the neurotypical students in the classroom. They gain empathy and understanding from their regular interactions with special needs students and are less likely to disrespect and bully them even though there are more opportunities for bullying.

Social Media and the Rise of Cyberbullying

But bullying has also become harder to detect as more and more of the social life of the average American kid takes place online. Cyberbullying is now estimated to represent around 15 percent of all bullying cases, and that number is sure to rise over time. Disturbingly, it is an aspect of harassment that parents are often unable to detect.

Over social media, the sort of denigration and shaming that occurs in cases of cyberbullying is not only more obscured to authority figures that might be able to step in and do something about it, it’s often even more humiliating and demoralizing since it can be more visible to the victim’s classmates than any incident that might happen in the hallway at school.

Identifying the Warning Signs

It’s important for applied behavior analysts, parents and other authority figures in the lives of ASD students to be vigilant about the possibility of bullying occurring either online or in person. Given the difficulty they have communicating combined with the shame of being a victim of bullying, it can be particularly difficult to know when autistic kids are being bullied. Signs to watch for include:

  • Inexplicable physical injuries.
  • Lost or destroyed property such as schoolbooks or clothing.
  • Complaints of illness or feeling unwell that result in absences from school or other activities with peers.
  • Sleeplessness or changes in eating habits.

Although intervention is important, it can also make matters worse. Studies have shown that having peers intervene can have much greater impact on both the bullies and the victims than when an authority figure steps in.

Keeping this in mind, sometimes the best action to take is to continue educating all children about autism and the social problems that come with it and to be unwavering about the principal that all people are deserving of kindness and respect.