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Autism and Bullying: Three Steps to Stop and Cope With Bullying

Toni helps autistic teens and adults reach their employment and relationship goals. She is the author of the book Autism Translated.


Every kid who took music lessons in 5th grade got a plastic recorder and theoretically learned to play it. I liked mine and graduated to the flute and piccolo the next year. I quickly discovered I could play by ear. At home I drew out the bars in pencil with a wooden ruler one line at a time so I could write down the notes that played continually in my mind. I was infused with their vibration. The music spoke to me and I spoke in turn through the melodies born freely from my imagination. Thoughts and feelings that escaped words became song and took on a life of their own.

It might have appeared strange that a child who loved music so much would dread going to band class but my sensitivities to sound were not compatible with 6th grade boys wielding noisy horns and drums in between songs for “fun”. I would flinch as the sensation traveled from my ears across my skin in painful vibrations. I finally reported my discomfort to my mother in the hopes that she would excuse me from the class. She did not. Instead she told the teacher who promptly called me out in front of the entire band. I could hear the other kids making snide comments and felt my face turn hot with shame. If I could have shrunk into nothingness at that moment I would have sacrificed my life to prove black holes exist. It wasn't the first time I'd been picked on, nor was it the most ferocious, but this was the first time an adult could be implicated as the ring leader.

My story is not unique. Experts who have tried to quantify bullying estimate that 22% of all children reported being bullied during the 2013 school year and one study found that children with developmental disabilities including autism are two or three times more likely to experience it. I'm willing to bet that these number are low. Those who are the most likely targets of cruel behavior are also the most likely to remain silent, either because they are not verbal, they do not recognize the behavior as unacceptable or they appear vulnerable in some other way. As an autism consultant, most of my clients report being bullied at least once in their lives oftentimes with the support or backing of an authority figure and many of those express traumatically reliving these events to the point that their lives are significantly affected by these memories. They report feeling “stuck in the past”. These individuals also often have diagnosis of depression and addictions.

Perhaps what stands out most significantly as the common thread in these stories, is the guilt and the “baddness” that people take onto themselves as a result of being bullied. They feel somehow that they are the ones who were wrong, that they should have done something different to prevent or respond to the events.

So What Exactly IS Bullying Anyway?

What separates bullying from normal child's play or other kinds of aggression? To be defined as bullying, aggressive behaviors must include:

  1. An imbalance of power and
  2. The behaviors must happen more than once or at least have the potential to happen again.

While it is easy to identify physical bullying where someone is hit, spit on, tripped, held down or has their possessions taken from them, there are other more subtle forms of bullying as well and these forms of aggression can be highly manipulative and hard to catch.

Bullying is NOT Just Physical Aggression

There is also potential for verbal, social and cyber bullying.

Verbal Bullying Includes:

  • Threats of harm
  • Name calling
  • Teasing and
  • Inappropriate sexual comments.

Because there is a fine line between friendly teasing and hurtful teasing, it can be hard to recognize when someone has crossed the line. Is the boy who asks the girl with down syndrome if she wants to go on a date in front of his friends for a laugh just kidding or is it bullying?

And what about autistic kids who have difficulty interpreting jokes and knowing when someone is joking with them or crossing the line and making fun of them?

Social Bullying Includes:

  • intentionally leaving people out
  • Telling lies or spreading private or embarrassing stories about someone
  • Publicly embarrassing someone

Cyber Bullying Includes:

  • posting embarrassing pictures or video
  • sending hurtful text messages or emails
  • spreading rumors or posting mean statements on social networking sites
  • posting fake profiles and websites

Cyber bullying is a relatively new problem as it relies on the use of some form of technology to occur. A person can be exposed to this type of mistreatment round the clock even when they are alone. Cyber-bullies can post harmful information anonymously and once this information is online, it is extremely difficult to eliminate.

Signs of Bullying:

There may be no outward signs of bullying and kids on the spectrum may not to talk about being bullied for several reasons.

  • Kids on the spectrum have a hard time reading social cues. They may not realize they are being mistreated or that their boundaries have been violated in the first place
  • They may lack the expressive language to talk about what happens
  • There may be processing delays so that it takes a period of time for comprehension to occur
  • They may not know how to ask for help
  • Even in cases when children do realize that they are being mistreated, they may feel humiliated and not want people to know what is being said or what happened
  • They may fear further bullying in retaliation for telling
  • They may fear punishment from adults for not handling it on their own.

One or more of the following signs of bullying may be present:

  • Changes in sleep patterns or an increase in nightmares
  • Unaccounted for or damaged possessions (including clothing, homework, books, jewelry)
  • Skipping classes, not wanting to go to school, tardiness, decline in grades or decreased interest in school
  • An increase in headaches, stomach aches or other physical complaints
  • Unexplained injuries

Fining Parents- A Bad Idea

Expecting Kids to Defend Themselves- An Even Worse Idea

With recent legislation which fines parents of children who are caught bullying there has been ample discussion and awareness of the longstanding problem. But making parents pay for their children's behavior reinforces the idea that kids who bully do not have to be accountable for their actions because someone else is.

And those who expect kids who are already vulnerable in the first place to defend themselves, demonstrate a lack in understanding of the fundamental problem: Bullies pick on those who are unable for a variety of reasons to defend themselves in the first place either because they lack the physical strength, cognitive awareness or the expressive ability to report the incidents and stand up for themselves.

Bullying by it's very definition requires an imbalance of power. This means a bully isn't going to pick on people who are capable of defending themselves. Furthermore, encouraging a child to defend themselves can ultimately end in that child being hurt, expelled or in legal trouble.

An Unexpected Solution

Step #1: Give Power instead of Taking it Away

Bullying is an attempt to feel important and powerful by exerting dominance over others so children who feel a sense of internal power or control do not instigate bullying.

Children who show a tendency to pick on others or point out other people's flaws or differences should be quickly identified by the adults in charge of any group. These children can then be given an informal leadership role to harness their energy towards something more positive. They typically already have leadership status among their peers so giving them a leadership role actually gives the adult the opportunity to establish the group rules and have buy-in from the students.

Here is an example of how this works:

"James, I need your help. I've noticed that you are very observant. In this classroom we need to make sure that everyone has the chance to participate and be treated fairly. Some kids need more time or help. Can you help make sure that all of the kids have a chance to participate?" This clearly establishes the teacher as the authority along with the expectation that all children should be treated fairly.

It also gives the individual positive reinforcement for a behavior that is incompatible with bullying. In short, the students who are most likely to pick on the other kids are enlisted as peer mentors and their energy is harnessed for the productive purpose of inclusion. I have used and seen this process utilized in formal and informal groups of all ages and found it to be effective even with teens as a preventative measure.


Establish a Healthy Culture

Step #2: Teach Empathy and Neurodiversity

Acts of violence require the perpetrator to see the "victim" as different, less than, inferior or dehumanized. When a person empathizes with another, bullying is simply not an option. Therefore, regular group discussion about bullying and the effects it has can go a long way.

Openly exploring individual differences and common human experiences creates a culture of acceptance and appreciation for uniqueness. This is where the concept of neurodiversity comes in. Neurodiversity simply means that people are wired differently. Having autism or ADHD or any other neurological variation for that matter does not make a person inherently disordered or pathological. It simply means that by virtue of being outliers on the bell curve, life can be challenging because societies are constructed to accommodate the needs and abilities of the majority.

Hector Salazar's elementary school program "Autism 101: Angelo and Friends" offers an example of how neurodiversity can be incorporated into school culture at an early age. Students are taught about autism in a brief interactive lesson. Then they have the opportunity to meet with and ask questions to a panel of young autistic adults. Students ask questions like "what does autism feel like?" and even seek advice to deal with their own issues like worrying about tests and trouble sleeping. Teachers have reported that students who have participated in "Angelo and Friends" are able to advocate for their autistic peers and put a stop to bullying by other children as soon as it starts.

Damage Control

Step 3: Protection vs Re-traumatization

If someone has experienced bullying, thinks perhaps they have been bullied or an authority figure suspects that bullying has occurred, the first priority is to figure out what happened by questioning witnesses separately. It is especially important to make sure that the person who has possibly undergone bullying is not expected to confront or publicly point out the perpetrator(s). There are three main reasons for this privacy:

  1. To avoid re-traumatizing person in a situation that appears sanctioned by the authority figure doing the questioning
  2. To ensure witnesses feel safe enough to give an honest account of events
  3. To minimize the likelihood of further bullying as retaliation for speaking up.

I often encounter situations where an administrator thinks they are doing a good thing by facilitating a meeting between the alleged bully and the person who has been subjected to mistreatment and I have yet to see a case where this works out well for the person who has experienced the mistreatment. They report shutting down, feeling ganged up on and rendered powerless.

Once an act of bullying has been confirmed it is absolutely critical that the school administrator follow through with consequences according to policy. This re-establishes the imbalance of power by sending the message that:

  1. there are consequences for unacceptable behavior
  2. the authority figures involved will not tolerate further mistreatment of another person.

It also sends the message to the individual who was subjected to the bullying that that they have a right to a safe environment and the responsible adults will ensure that environment to the best of their ability.

How You Handle Bullying DOES Make a Difference

If we teach our children that it is not o.k. to bully or be bullied this lesson affects relationships through the boundaries they are willing to set into adulthood to protect themselves from financial, emotional and sexual exploitation.

Recently, a student asked one of our mentors in the "Angelo and Friends" program if he had ever been picked on and what he did to address the problem. His response is worth repeating: "I was picked on in school. I finally had the courage to speak up and told the teachers what was happening. The kids got in trouble and I learned that I don't have to put up with people mistreating me".

Children either learn that they have a right to be treated with respect or they don't. It's up to the adults to set the standard.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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