Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Autism and School Bullying
What can parents do when their child is away from home?

by Carrie Bishop

October 01, 2013

For parents of children with autism, bullying is a constant concern. And the brief time kids spend passing in the hallway can be a prime opportunity for bullies to take advantage of their victims. Short of a hall pass, can parents gain control over the bullying issue in this environment?

Dr. Paul Law, the Director of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) at Kennedy Krieger Institute, says that some problems – like wandering and bullying – are issues that parents of children with autism will always have to consider. “These are pervasive issues that every parent should be aware of and have a strategy for.”

Pervasive is right. The IAN, which is the nation’s first online autism registry with participants from 47 states, has found that 63 percent of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are affected by bullying. This statistic comes from a survey of parents that included 1,167 children with autism, and reflects only the bullying events of which the parents were aware. The real statistic is likely much higher.

In a separate study published earlier this year, the IAN further found that about 70 percent of kids with autism who are bullied experience emotional trauma as a result of being bullied. The study included parents of 1,221 children with autism and found that over a one-month period, 38 percent of these children were bullied and 28 percent frequently so. Nearly 14 percent were scared for their own safety. Additionally, 18 percent of these kids were triggered into fighting back, with 40 percent having had an emotional outburst that resulted in disciplinary action from school staff. Nine percent of the children with autism were reported as acting as bullies.

What can parents do to confront bullying head-on? Dr. Law’s strategy is basic: establish good parent-teacher relationships. “It requires awareness and a good relationship between parents and teachers. This is not an insurmountable problem. Practical approaches can deal with it,” he said.

Law suggests parents routinely raise the issue in their child’s individualized education program (IEP) meeting. “There should be certain issues screened for as part of every IEP and this would be one of them.” Currently bullying is not a mandated topic, but parents can see that it becomes a routine part of their IEP meetings.

The point of this formal effort is to keep a child’s focus on school, and not become preoccupied with a bullying issue. Bullying can affect kids directly and indirectly and ultimately keep kids with autism from focusing on the academic and social skills work they are meant to tend to while at school.

Cathy Pratt, Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, says parents do have some rights when it comes to bullying. If a child with autism is bullied and it’s not taken seriously, it’s a violation of the child’s free appropriate public education. “The difficulty is it’s not just about bullying an individual child, but about the school culture as well. There are increasingly more states and districts looking at their practices related to bullying.”

Dr. Noha Minshawi, Clinical Director of the Riley Hospital for Children Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Indiana University Health, agrees. “One of the things we really encourage families to do from a young age is to try to talk to their school about ASD and educate kids about it,” she said. This includes letting the school community know that kids with autism may seem different either socially or behaviorally. “It’s important kids learn what it is and what it isn’t and understand different ways a person with autism may act versus other people.” It is Minshawi’s hope that through greater understanding, kids with autism will be less isolated and less bullied.

Truly this goes for any child. By working with educators, parents can help create a school culture that is safe for all kids, despite any differences they may have.