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Bullying Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Why they are bullied and what to do about it

Bullying Kids on the Autism Spectrum
October 2012

A national survey by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) shows that 63 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been bullied at some point in their lives. According to the IAN, kids with ASD are likely bullied at a rate three times higher than that of their typically developing peers. Intuitively, this is old news to parents of children on the autism spectrum.

Why is that? Dr. Edy Stoughton, head of school for Midwest Academy in Carmel, has some understanding. "Most of our kids with Asperger's who come to this school have had experiences with being bullied. It's rampant. Part of the reason is because [autism spectrum disorder] is a little bit of a hidden disability. Young kids feel a little bad about bullying someone with an obvious disability like one that is physical. Children with Asperger's just act differently and other students don't understand. They just think they are odd," Stoughton said.

Parents tend to learn about a bully situation when their child or a bystander tells them, unless the abuse leaves a visible mark. Many kids are even ashamed and won't tell, or don't want to disappoint their parents. Further, can children with significant social deficits even know when they are being bullied?

Not always, says Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Sometimes a child is blatantly bullied, yet is oblivious to it. Other times the child may think he or she is being bullied, when really that's not the case. Typically developing kids, unlike those with ASD, assess a social situation by listening to what people are saying and looking at facial expressions, body language and a host of things. "Folks on the autism spectrum don't read social cues. They sometimes don't understand the true intentions of what people are doing with them," said Pratt.

To help identify kids at risk of being bullied, the IAN attempted to see if any of the bullied kids with ASD had common behaviors. They found that children with repetitive behaviors like flapping or spinning were less likely to be bullied. Perhaps it's because these behaviors make the disorder obvious so bullies are less likely to prey upon these kids. On the other hand, clumsiness, poor hygiene, rigid rule keeping, sticking too long to a favorite topic of conversation, frequent meltdowns, and inflexibility were all behaviors and traits associated with an increased likelihood of being bullied. Also, kids with ASD who want peer interaction but have a hard time making friends were more frequently bullied than those who preferred to play alone.

If a child reports being bullied, Pratt advises parents to go to the school's administration to check into it. She also recommends parents create a community of support around the child, which includes pinpointing a peer and/or school staff member who can act as a mentor and look out for the child.

Sometimes the best thing is to simply remove the child from the situation, and yes, that can even require a school transfer. In fact, the IAN believes less bullying may occur in smaller school settings. Its survey finds that children who attend regular public schools are bullied more often than kids in other school settings, with special education private schools showing the least occurrences.

Stoughton, who leads a small private school, firmly believes smaller environments are often better for kids on the autism spectrum, particularly if it's a small and positive environment.

"Research shows the most influential thing you can do to help a child learn is to just be in a smaller place. It's harder to get away with stuff when everybody knows everybody else," she said.

Regardless of where the child attends school, creating a school culture where it is not acceptable to bully should be a priority. Pratt believes school leadership must have a clear message that bullying is not acceptable and get that the message through to students. She advises parents to ask their school about their anti-bullying program to learn the process a child who is being bullied should follow, and to see that the student body is being educated about ASD and other differences.

While parents may have to wait to hear from someone else that their child is being bullied or harassed, the IAN survey makes clear that bullying is a real threat to kids with ASD. That is sound information parents can use to help schools bolster anti-bullying programs and potentially ward off a would-be bully.

Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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