Why Are Children on the Autism Spectrum More Vulnerable to Bullying?
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Considering the deficits in social understanding that children with ASD have, it may be that their “bullying” is different than that displayed by typical children who, according to research, generally use aggression to increase and maintain social status in the peer group. Some parents taking the IAN survey who reported their child had “bullied” noted that the motivation behind the behavior had nothing to do with becoming top dog:
- “My son doesn’t realize he is bullying. He is trying to get other kids to pay attention to him so he does it by grabbing their ball away from them or getting ‘in their face’ when they say to stop.”
- “He has very set rules of behavior that he expects all to follow. He doesn’t see how his reaction to perceived slights or rule-breaking is sometimes bullying.”
- “Our boy wants what he wants when he wants it. He may take an object from another child or scream when unhappy— but any purposeful cruelty, he would never do.”
Individuals with ASD usually do not have the social awareness to stay quiet or even lie when called for in social situations. Unfortunately, their complete honesty was viewed as bullying in some cases. (Imagine a very honest child saying, “You’re really fat,” or “I don’t like you and I don’t want to sit by you.”)
One key issue was the aggressive behaviors or meltdowns, which many children with ASD have, and which are all too easy to induce. Parents were asked if another child, who knows what bothers or upsets the child with ASD, had ever used that knowledge to trigger a meltdown or aggressive outburst on purpose. Fifty-two percent of parents said “yes.”
In some cases, bullies got the child to fall apart emotionally. “Often kids try to upset her because they find it funny when she gets upset and cries. She is overly emotional, and they seem to get a kick out of this,” one mother shared. In some cases, bullies provoked much more aggressive meltdowns, with immediate consequences for the child originally bullied.
Said one parent, “I’m so glad you asked about other children knowing how to press buttons. That has happened with my son with ASD.... Being in a class of gifted children has costs and benefits—kids are more intuitive, which means they can excuse a lot of unusual behavior, but it also means they know exactly how to elicit behaviors when they feel like it. It’s never okay for my son to hit, but what happens is kids pick at him until he pops, and oftentimes his target is the teacher! His stress builds up as the kids mess with him, then, if the teacher reprimands him, he loses control, scratching, pulling clothing and hair, and trying to bite the teacher.”
An Urgent Problem
Bullying is extremely common in the lives of children with ASD and occurs at a much higher rate for them than it does for their typically developing siblings. It is crucial that educators, providers, advocates, and families be aware of this and be prepared to intervene. Children with ASD are already vulnerable in multiple ways. To have to face teasing, taunts, ostracism, or other forms of spite may make a child who is already struggling to cope completely unable to function. If a child is anxious, or dealing with issues of self-control, or unable to focus before there is any bullying, imagine how impossible those issues must become when bullying is added to the mix.
Cruelest of all, bullying may further impair the ability of a child with ASD, who is already socially disabled, to engage with the social world. “The bully made life a complete hell for my son,” said one mother who withdrew her child with ASD from school. “He came home from school crying every day and begging to never have to go back.”
When many are advocating for “inclusion” (that is, educating children with ASDs alongside their typical peers), this is a major problem. A child will clearly not benefit from inclusion if bullying is permitted to occur.
Protecting Children on the Autism Spectrum
IAN’s research findings illustrate that children with ASD are especially at risk of being bullied. It should therefore no longer be possible for schools and other programs serving these children to behave as if each case of bullying were an isolated incident.
At the level of policy, advocates can now fight to improve the lot of children with ASD in whatever setting they are educated, especially inclusive settings. Institutions should be on the alert, working toward prevention, and with a plan to follow the instant a child with ASD is bullied. The potential damage that can occur to a child’s self-esteem, ability to connect with others, and academic achievement is crystal clear. So is the fact that progress achieved through treatments, like occupational therapy or social-skills training (most of which are delivered at school), can be undermined.
In the short term, a parent supporting a child who is being bullied in a school may want to write a letter documenting not only what bullying has occurred and its consequences but also that children with ASD need extra protection from bullying. Such a letter should go to the principal, to the people in charge of special education at the school and at the district level, and to the superintendent of schools.
Another strategy is to call an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting to discuss the child’s struggles because bullying is impacting his or her ability to achieve the goals outlined in the IEP document.
IEPs, as legal documents that are taken very seriously. Bringing up bullying in an IEP meeting lends the topic much more weight. It has another advantage, as well. Generally, there will be a number of school staff present, with varying degrees of authority. Instead of discussing the bullying with one administrator or teacher, who may or may not take the matter seriously, the issue is raised in a more formal setting and with multiple witnesses. It may even be possible to address the bullying, or to document that it has been a problem, in the IEP itself. The matter is far more likely to be given the consideration it deserves when this is the case.
Making a Difference
The IAN Research team is so pleased that the results of our research on bullying and children with ASDs became available at the same time The Bully Project and the Bully film brought to light the dire consequences of bullying for all children. What families were telling us about the bullying experiences of their children with ASD is now revealed as part of a widespread bullying crisis that affects children on the autism spectrum at extremely high rates, threatening to undo all the good that parents, teachers, therapists, and all those who care are trying to do to support these children. There is now solid evidence that these children need special protection and real hope that they will receive it.
Connie Anderson, Ph.D., has a son on the autism spectrum and is the community scientific liaison for the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), an innovative online project of the Kennedy Krieger Institute that is supported by Autism Speaks, the Simons Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health. It brings together tens of thousands of people affected by autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and hundreds of researchers in a search for answers.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis (Weinstein Books; October 2012; $15.99, bn.com).