Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a perceived power imbalance. The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) has found that 63% of all children with autism have been bullied at some point of their lives. The study further noted that these children with autism, whom are sometimes triggered into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by ill-intentioned peers, are three times more likely to be bullied than their unaffected siblings.
Children with autism or special needs (whom are often the target of bullying), may lack the necessary social and communication skills to effectively inform parents and educators when a bullying incident has occurred. Due to this difficulty, parents and educators are often unaware of the bullying and are thus unable to prevent further incidents from occurring. In order for children with autism to feel safe in a school setting, they need to know they are supported, accepted and loved as bullying is a behavior that some children may not understand, especially at younger ages.
Bullying is a serious matter and adults must remain attentive and get involved if they believe their child is being victimized. Getting involved may be as simple as discussing what has happened with the child and the school. In more extreme scenarios, the child may have to transfer to special needs school or begin homeschooling for a bully-free environment. When neither of these is possible, parents must work closely with the school to make sure bullying prevention is a top priority in all areas of the building, particularly on the playground or in the lunchroom.
What does bullying look like?
Bullying can take various forms, including manipulation, conditional friendships, and exploitive. While these are the three main types of bullying, there are several forms and signs that parents and educators should watch for closely.
- Verbal Aggression: For a child with autism, this may consist of other children taunting another child for not being able to play basketball, or perform other tasks at the same age. Verbal Bullying include:
- Other derogatory comments.
- Social Bullying includes:
- Creating lies and false rumors about the child with autism
- Conditional friendships
- Exclude children with autism on purpose
- Cyber bullying (through electronic technology)
- Embarrassing child with ASD in public
- Physical aggression includes:
- Make mean hand gesture
- Taking or breaking things
Signs your child is being bullied
Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs.
- Not wanting to go to school
- Emotionally sensitive behavior, anxiety
- Changes in eating habits
- Sleeping disturbance
- Torn clothing, damaged books or other items
- Unexplainable injuries
- Decline in academic performance
Should your child begin to exhibit any of the behaviors mentioned above, it is important to contact the school staff immediately and determine if any of the bullying has been observed. Parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help children prevent bullying by speaking about it, creating a safe school atmosphere, and building a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.
What parents can do to prevent bullying?
- Talk with school staffs about features of autism and the problem of bullying. Clarify that you will be involved in helping the team prevent your child’s victimization because of their disability.
- Be sure that social goals and building self-advocacy skills are included in the IEP to avoid scenarios of the child being isolated by their peers.
- Teach your child about friendships and how real friends should provide mutual trust and support so they know bullying is always wrong and must be reported.
- Monitor your child at school as often as possible (being a classroom volunteer), and keep an open line of communication both with your child and his or her teachers. Also talk to other children in the class and ask how your child is doing both socially and academically.
- If a bullying situation does occur, make sure document and report the event. Remain calm and persistent, and point up to the school that your child will be unable to make progress on their IEP goals because of bullying incidents.
National Autism Association. (2010). “A&S Bullying: 5 Things Parents Can Do”.
Kennedy Krieger Institute. (2012). “New Data Shows Children with Autism Bullied Three Times More Frequently than Their Unaffected Siblings”.
Autism Speaks. (2015). “Combating Bullying”.