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It’s quite alarming the way school bullying is increasing! The uprise in the growth rates of the phenomenon led to numerous studies on it, all demonstrating that children with Autism stand as the most victimized lot in schools and classrooms. Their high vulnerability of being bullied exists because of social skill deficits as experienced in Autism. Available scientific evidence hints of a strong link.

Autism Bullying Problems

What is the relationship between Autism & Bullying

Autistic children are plain vulnerable to bullying attacks! Social cues are difficult for them to interpret while understanding others’ intentions are often impossible. Children with ASD fall victims to the so-called ‘covert bullying acts’ more often, as their normal peers are more efficient with manipulations thereby exposing the ASD-individual to unnerving situations.

Typically, children with autism or related disabilities are 2 to 3 times more likely to get bullied than other typically developing children. Kids with Autism Spectrum are even more vulnerable due to differences in cognitive abilities, communication skills, social impairments and motor skills. Any attempt initiate inclusive instructional settings for Autism in the classroom can be like a catch-22 situation or like a double-edged sword as students with ADHD and Autism struggle to truly “belong” with their peers.

Bullying and Autism – Facts & Figures

autism and Bullying statistics

©Autism Speaks

In a recent survey conducted by Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, these alarming facts and figures have emerged.

  • 65% of parents who have school going children with Autism reported that their children had, in some form, been victimized by peers within the last one year
  • 47% reported that their children had been hit by peers or siblings
  • 50% reported that their children were scared to go to school or to talk to certain peer/s
  • 9% were bobbed by a gang and got hurt in their private parts
  • 12% indicated their child has hardly been invited to a birthday party in the last 3 years
  • 6% were almost never picked in school/class teams
  • 3% had lunch alone every day

3 Categories of Bullying faced by Children with Autism

There are 3 main types of bullying that a child with Autism faces on a day to day basis:

  • Exploitive: Where a child or his/her condition (or its features) are being a subject of ridicule in where the child is most vulnerable i.e. in social settings. This could be in class, social media or even the playground
  • Manipulative: Cases where the child is coerced or controlled at an emotional, or at times, at a physical level[/fusion_li_item]
  • Conditional Friendship: Where friendship with a mate, or in a group, comes at a cost of being bullied periodically.

How are Children with Autism being Bullied

how children with autism gets bullied

how children with autism gets bullied

Various forms of bullying is predominant in school and play settings. The particular forms of bullying that apply to children with Autism or ADHD are the following:

  • The child is made socially isolated or made to feel excluded
  • Verbal abuse or aggression. This may include taunting, inflammatory/derogatory comments of calling names
  • Mental torment by propagating lies or rumors[/fusion_li_item]
  • Racial or sexual abuse
  • Cyberbullying – on social media, phone, internet
  • Physical abuse, including but not restricted to kicking, hitting, punching, spitting or shoving
  • Having possessions, like money or stationaries being taken forcefully or vandalised by the aggressor
  • Being forced or threatened to do an activity or to abstain from it

Parties involved or impacted by bullying

From a broader social perspective, many people have a role to play in the bullying or the issues arising from it:

  • The victim, who is usually subject to the ordeal
  • The bully, who is responsible for the victims condition
  • Bystanders, who may have an active or passive role in any bullying event
  • Educators, who may or may not be aware of the bullying circumstances faced by the Autistic child but may observe changes in the child’s behavior
  • Parents and caregivers who may face the direct consequence of prolonged episodes of bullying

Signs of Bullying in Children with Autism

As a parent/caregiver/educator, you may not always be at arms distance with your child. As far as bullying is concerned, children with Autism may take a long time before they open to their parents about the mental agony they are going through. The reason being, in their mindset they are usually aware that they are a bit different – at times lacking is essential skills that other children take for granted. Hence, they come to accept that other kids will take them for a ride.

signs of bullying with Autism

It may take months or years of torment for them to speak up or finally break down – this is usually a tipping point where they can not withstand bullying any longer. However, as parents, you could read these implicit signs of bullying:

  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Emotionally sensitive behavior
  • Sudden routine change, for example diet or sleeping patterns
  • Reluctance or unwillingness to go to school
  • Unexplained cuts or bruises
  • Damaged books, torn clothing, etc
  • Sudden decline in academic performance or inability to maintain focus
  • Scared to open up or discuss
  • Effects of Bullying on an Autistic Child

The effects that Autism and Bullying may have on a child could be quite devastating. Here are some of the short term and longterm adversities.

Short Term Effects

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxious of settings in which bullying may occur
  • Falling ill more often
  • Lower grades than non-bullied peers
  • Suicidal tendencies

Longer Term Effects

  • Reduced occupational opportunities
  • Lingering feelings of anger and bitterness
  • Interpersonal difficulties & Trust Issues
  • Loner attitude
  • Self-esteem problems
  • Tend to become a bully himself/herself

Strategies to handle Bullying of Children with Autism

It’s important for educators and parents/caregivers to help students learn handle bullies while they are young. They need to acquire certain self-advocacy skills that would help them to avoid situations with bullying.

Research shows that the responsibility shouldn’t just lie with the victim. Successful interventions are those that foster environments of respect and tolerance in classroom and play settings. Heavy handedness is required from the school administrators to ensure that bullying becomes unacceptable in schools and that instances are rare rather than being commonplace. Adults must also be trained on how to recognize the early signs of bullying, analyze strategies that has worked and ones that hasn’t worked in school settings, and to advocate for their children in the time of need.

Can SEL Help to Solve Autism Bullying?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assists children in developing essential skills to effectively handle school, personal development and relationships. High-quality SEL programs may lead to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional behavior, in self confidence, and in classroom interactions. Such programs may lead to substantial decline in behavior problems and emotional distress such as stress and anxiety – all of which are direct or indirect consequences of bullying.

What do you need to Combat Bullying?

Specialised intervention! It should focus on social skill training. The practice has strong potentials to reverse devastating trends as this; equipping children with social skills shall be immensely valuable for them to figure out coping strategies.

Factors that Work or Doesn’t work against Bullying

What Doesn’t Work

  • Accept bullying as normal and temporary phase
  • Focusing only on Physical abuse
  • Individual Counselling (wither victim or bully)
  • Hard-line zero tolerance approach
  • Sporadic or isolated efforts (like lecture)
  • Adults taking over the child’s problem

What Works

  • Change in school climate
  • Educating bystanders on their role
  • Safety net programs
  • Active parent/caregiver involvement
  • Fostering supportive relationships and educators
  • Establishing Peer Support Network

7 Essential Strategies to handle Bullying & Autism in Classrooms

Bullying can be dealt against by applying the following 7 from the vast spectrum of social skills.

  1. Emotional perception: This is about recognizing own feelings as well as others’.
  2. Emotion regulation: being able to manage one’s own feelings.
  3. Social interferences and cue-deciphering: To determine the next step.
  4. Growing multiple perspectives: To see situations from multiple angles and empathize accordingly.
  5. Solving conflicts
  6. Firmness, confidence and assertion.
  7. Problem-solving: Through appropriate behaviours as situation demands.

Skills Manifestation during an episode of Bullying

In this post, we will talk about the main strategy – Emotion Perception: We will discuss how this skill manifest during the fully cycle of bullying i.e. before, during and after.

Autism Intervention for Bullying

Before: You can’t predict bullying. But, it can be detected if a child can learn this social skill. It helps to recognize who is angry and at whom, take the perspectives of a situation; recognising another’s intentions and responding appropriately. Interpreting social cues appropriately helps in drawing conclusions about types of behaviour that leads to bullying, within social situations.

During: Victimisation releases a wide range of negative emotions, controlling which and moving away from the scene of incidence are skills that ensure safety of the victim. Emotion regulation helps to control anger; conflict resolution skills resolve conflicts, possibly satisfying both the conflicting parties. This requires confidence in addressing others. Being firm and assertive in response to negative comments involving appearance or competencies can stop conflicts from forming. Added with problem-solving skills, the victim can choose an appropriate behaviour according to the situation, from simply protesting to seeking adult help.

After: Bullying leaves devastating impacts. A child’s – not just the ASD-type – emotional well-being can be traumatized to quite an extent and feelings of exclusion may arise and set in. Confidence-building programs, therefore, must have follow-up activities focusing on helping children to generalize across incidents. This gives them ideas about making correct responses in similar situations in future. Nurturing these social skills shall help to overcome any negative feeling that might be experienced post bullying.

Problem-solving skills to choose appropriate behaviours under different social situations, perspective taking and a broader empathy – all get together to help children adapting to the environment and build new friendships. This enhances their self-esteem. Emotion regulation helps to cut down on negative emotions from previous experiences and keep encounters positive with peers.

Tips for Parents to Handle Bullying

Parents of children with Autism needs to act on the first hint of bullying. Rhetorical or pedantic suggestions to your child to toughen or “man” up is never going to work. Here are a few tips:

  • Visit the school often, primarily as an observer (volunteer, or be there for another purpose)
  • Have frequent conversations with your child: Ask questions like, Who do you sit with at lunch? Do your friends have special names for you? Why? Which friends do you talk to during the day? What’s your least favorite class?
  • Have open communication channels with teachers and other students who might be across how your child is doing in school, ask them questions on the classroom interactions of your child.
  • Talk to school authorities about characteristics of autism and problem of bullying: What is the districts’ SEL? If there is none, why not?
  • Discuss with teachers to understand your child’s specific strengths and challenges
  • Increase awareness among ancillary personnel like campus security guards, lunchroom monitors, etc. Share this Autism Awareness PDF with them.
  • Explore the possibility of including bullying in your child’s IEP
  • If need be, exercise the complaint process; it is your right
  • Social skills goals should definitely be included in the IEP
  • Request inclusion of self-advocacy skills goals in the IEP
  • Buddy up your child with a friend: it’s important that you identify at least one good friend who accompany your child during less structured environments like lunch, PE, recess, etc
  • Include peer support be written into IEPs if your child does not have any friends
  • Mentor your child, remind him of his strengths and the fact that he/she is, by no means, inferior to any other child – help improve his/her self-esteem

In Summary

Identify, as well as provide explicit instruction(s) on the main social skills stated above. On a step-by-step basis, they provide considerable and more effective support to ASD children coping with bullying. The targeted social-skill training can incorporate and benefit further from using a wide range of methods.

Group-based or one-on-one, specialised interventions can also be peer-mediated. To prompt learners making social inferences and solve social-interaction problems, role-playing and picture-based social situation scenarios can be good practice props.

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