Throughout elementary school and middle school, I experienced severe bullying due to my sensory issues and social awkwardness from autism. One of my favorite TV characters was Screech from the comedy show “Saved by the Bell.” I could relate to the goofy character, portrayed by Dustin Diamond, who like me was a target for bullies.
My life’s experiences with bullying have taught me five powerful methods to be “bully-proof.” Research studies indicate children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than those without a disability. Children with autism are even more vulnerable due to difference in communication abilities, motor skills, and social cognition.
1. Teach your child to recognize and understand bullying.
Many children with autism may fail to realize that they are being bullied. Anthony Ianni, who has autism and played Division 1 college basketball at Michigan State University, told me during a phone interview that when he was a child, a bully he thought was a friend tricked him into sticking his tongue on a frozen, metal pole.
A bully may harass your child by manipulating him to do things he does not want to do. He can even get him in legal trouble or expelled from school. This type of bullying uses conditional friendship. The bully tells your child, “I won’t be your friend anymore unless you steal this video game.” Educate your child to know the difference between a friend and a bully.
2. Teach your child not to react to the bully.
You can help prevent your child from being a human target by teaching him or her not to react to bullying and instead tell an adult. Bullies feed on reaction. If your child does not react, the bully will quickly lose interest and search for another helpless victim. As Richard Maguire, who has Asperger’s syndrome, wrote, “Bullies are inadequate people; they cannot deal with confident people who will not be controlled by them.”
3. Teach your child the danger of cyberbullying.
An example of cyberbullying is a bully emailing a message to your son pretending to be a girl he likes and asking him on a date. When he arrives at the movie theater, the bullies are waiting for him. You can help prevent cyberbullying by monitoring your child’s use of the computer.
4. Prevent bully by having a mentor for your child.
Use the power of bystanders — more than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. Find a mentor or buddy your child feels comfortable with to report bullying. Mentors can serve as a deterrent of bullying, since a bully often preys on a child who is alone.
5. Educate teachers, parents and students on disabilities and acceptance.
Bullies tend to make fun of children they perceive as different. An understanding of disabilities and autism can help create acceptance. If teachers and administration confront bullying, students will do the same. Awareness and acceptance helps students to have the courage to speak up against bullying.
Katie Mecham Celis, whose son has autism, wrote in a post on Facebook, “[Children with special needs] face being pushed away by kids at school, at church and in their own neighborhoods. I know from vast experience with these children and with typical children that when parents constantly teach acceptance and love toward those who are different, bullying happens considerably less.”
I believe these five methods can help protect your child from bullying. As a parent, be proactive and on the alert to the signs of bullying. In my book, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom,” I have a chapter devoted to helping parents with bully-proofing.
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