Autism and Bullying – Helping Your Kid Cope

Did you know that children and teens with autism are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers?

Studies show that over 60% of children, teens and young adults with autism experience bullying. Among them, high schoolers are more likely to be bullied.

If the rate of bullying among autistic individuals is so high, you might be wondering why isn’t more being done about it? To start with, a lot of parents don’t know that their child is being bullied.

Autism and Bullying

Bullying is a serious worldwide problem that can be described as “an aggressive behavior that is repetitive, intentional, and physically or emotionally hurtful.” Bullying relies on a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim – the latter being unable to defend themself effectively enough to stop the bullying behavior. All kinds of people can be impacted by bullying, but most bullying happens to children or teens in the school environment.

Bullying can include:

  • Name calling 
  • Making fun of or teasing 
  • Spreading rumors  
  • Ignoring or leaving out 
  • Threatening or humiliating 
  • Pushing, pulling, hitting, kicking or other physical acts 
  • Taking or interfering with money or other items. 

In 2015, results from up to 15 studies on bullying published over 12 years were synthesized into three reviews. Overall, these reviews show high prevalence estimates among youth with autism for both general and specific forms (physical, verbal, relational) of bullying. They also showed that autistic youth may be at greater risk of victimization than their typically developing peers or even their peers with other types of disabilities (e.g. intellectual disabilities, ADHD and learning disabilities).

Why Autistic Children and Teens Make Easy Targets for Bullies

Why are autistic youth so susceptible to bullying? There are multiple individual, social and environmental factors at play. Some of the potential reasons include:

Difficulties in communicating in social situations

Many people with autism have trouble recognizing social cues, which can make them appear “awkward” or “weird” to their classmates.

A lack of social support (e.g., a lack of friends at school)

When a student has at least one good friend at school, they’re less likely to be bullied or, if they are, their friend will be likely to intervene.

Difficulties in understanding social interactions 

Problems with social communication often make day-to-day life more difficult for autistic individuals. The biggest issue with this lack of social awareness in the school environment is that many autistic people who are victims of bullies don’t even realize that they’re being bullied.

Eileen Riley-Hall, parent of an autistic daughter and author of “Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts,” recalls an incident with her daughter that happened in elementary school:

“Little boys were getting her to say dirty words and laughing at her. She thought this was a good thing and that they were being friendly, but they were really making fun of her.”

Another classmate reported the bullying and the school informed Eileen, but before that, she had no idea that her daughter was being bullied.

Autistic individuals also often engage in repetitive behaviors and tend to be hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, traits that unfortunately make them ripe targets for bullies who target people they see as different from others.

How To Know If Your Child or Teen Is Being Bullied

Your child or teen may not come to you right away if they’re being bullied. If you’re not sure if your child is being bullied, there are signs you can look for. Your child might be a victim of bullying if they:

  • Come home with dirty, damaged or missing clothes, bags or books, with bruises or scratches, without money they should have or if they ask for more money the next day 
  • Arrive at school or get home late because they have changed their route to or from school 
  • Are reluctant to go to school and/or make excuses to miss school 
  • Seem to be stressed, depressed, unhappy or unwell  
  • Are suddenly struggling with their school work
  • Show an increase or change in obsessive/repetitive behaviors

What To Do When You Think Your Autistic Child or Teen Is Being Bullied

If you find out or think that your child or teen is being bullied, there are a few things you can do to help:

Give Your Child your Full Support

If your child or teen comes to you about being bullied or if you suspect bullying, be sure to:

  • Provide a safe and supportive place where they can work out their feelings
  • Ask them about the bullying (or suspected bullying). Listen actively, without interruption or judgment
  • Give your child your full support and encouragement, letting them know that the bullying is not their fault and they are not alone – you are here to help

Keep a Record of Bullying Incidents

When bullying occurs, it’s important to keep a record of any incidents. These records can be very helpful when working with teachers or others who may intervene. You’ll also want to go over the incidents with your child, to ensure that the records are accurate. 

These records can help you to determine how long the bullying’s been going on and whether or not it’s increased or decreased in frequency. These records should be simply factual – don’t add opinions or emotional statements. 

Report the Bullying to the School

If the bullying doesn’t stop, you’ll want to report it to your child’s school. Try speaking in-person to a teacher or other adult at the school who knows your child well. They might redirect you to the principal or someone else, but making sure someone closer to your child knows what’s going on will give you and your child an ally in this situation. 

Using RDI® To Address Bullying in the Classroom

One of our RDI® Certified Consultants, Kat Lee, witnessed an incident very similar to what happened to Eileen’s daughter. Her client was experiencing bullying in the classroom when a classmate imitated him in a mocking way in an attempt to get him to mimic the imitations. The student, who’d been taught to look to his classmates to figure out what he should be doing in class, repeated the imitations. He had no idea he was being bullied, and the teacher and teacher aides didn’t know at first either. They reported that outside of these imitations, the bully was friendly toward the autistic student.

Kat worked with the teacher and RDI®-trained teacher aides to come up with a plan and talk to the student exhibiting the bullying tendencies about the inappropriateness of his behavior and the situation was resolved.

This is one example of how the RDI® program prepares students for life by focusing on more than teaching “appropriate” social skills. While learning these types of skills can be helpful, the ability to have real, reciprocal relationships is what matters. And those relationship skills eventually lead to life skills – that lead to independence in adulthood.

Do you think RDI® might be right for your child or teen?

Reach out to an RDI® Certified Consultant today.


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