How We Can Help Minimize Bullying for Autistic Kids

I get the call, “Mrs. Sanford, there has been an incident at school.” My heart sinks as I hear that my 6-year old child with autism has been the target of bullying by her peers. We immediately convene multiple meetings to address the issue and to ensure this type of behavior does not happen again.

In recent years, incidents of bullying in various degrees have filled our news and social media venues. In the essay, “Uncovering the Hidden Causes of Bullying and School Violence,” published in “Counseling and Human Development” in February, 2000, Barry K. Weinhold stated that, “bullying is the most common type of violence in contemporary US society.”

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can unfortunately experience bullying even more than their neurotypical peers. For example, one study found that a total of 63 percent of 1,167 children with ASD had been bullied at some point in their lives. Another study found that those with Asperger’s syndrome were bullied more than children more significantly impacted by autism.

The Bullying-Autism Connection

So, why is there a connection between autism and bullying?

1. First, those who bully typically have been bullied themselves in some form. So, bullying others becomes a coping strategy for managing their own unresolved pain.

2. Because of theory of mind or “mind reading” challenges and social skill difficulties, our children with ASD become vulnerable targets for bullying. For example, they typically struggle to infer the intentions of others, or have difficulty reading body language and other nonverbal cues. Those who bully find it easy to take advantage of these weaknesses.

How Can We Help?

There are several strategies to help decrease the incidence of bullying for our children with autism.

1. Celebrate acceptance.

Encourage teachers and schools to honor students who are doing the right thing.

2. Explicit teaching.

Use concrete examples such as videos, social stories, pictures and “comic book conversations” to help our children with autism distinguish between bullying and non-bullying behaviors.

3. Establish a safe zone. 

Determine one or two people at your child’s school who they are to go to after an incidence of bullying (school counselor, librarian, paraprofessional, etc.) Role playing in advance with this individual and your child can be helpful.

The reality of bullying is far too familiar to families impacted by ASD. As a clinician and autism parent, I have experience from two perspectives. I believe we can, and we must, do more to address bullying at various levels. Let’s do what we can to see change for all, especially for our children with ASD,.

A version of this post first appeared on Sanford Autism Consulting

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