Autism & Bullying: What Parents Can Do

Autistic students are bullied three times more frequently than their neuro-typical peers, according to a study released last month by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN). Most of the reported incidents of bullying included taunting, teasing and name calling. About 30 percent of incidents included physical aggression.

“These survey results show the urgent need to increase awareness, influence school policies and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying,” said Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Taking Bullying Seriously

Parents of children with special needs are often overwhelmed with meeting their child’s health and educational needs, and may overlook bullying, or brush it off as a necessary evil associated with childhood.

Erika Anderson, Executive Director of Education with A.C.E. Teaching and Consulting, cautions parents of special needs children to take bullying seriously.

“Constant bullying at school can develop into a never-ending cycle of loneliness. Children who struggle to communicate with peers are more reliant on their parents and teachers getting involved and helping,” Anderson said.

The first step in addressing bullying is identifying it, so it can be dealt with before the victim’s self esteem is severely damaged. According to Anderson, parents of middle school aged children should be especially vigilant, as self esteem is fragile during early adolescence, causing bullies to be especially aggressive, and victims to be especially vulnerable.

Students receiving state aid for therapy often experience a decline in eligible services as they transition out of elementary school. This disruption may further aggravate the student, making him or her an easier target.

The American Autism Society recommends that parents teach autistic children how to recognize and report bullying, keeping in mind that some subtle forms of bullying such as mocking or deliberate exclusion may not be easily understood by the victimized child. Parents should also be observant of any sudden behavior changes or outward signs of stress.

Talking to Kids with Autism & Asperger’s About Bullying

According to the IAN study, students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome represented 61 percent of the students across the spectrum who reported bullying. Children with Asperger’s likely face increased risk because they are frequently integrated into traditional classrooms, and other students may not associate their quirks with a special needs diagnosis

Anderson does not recommend that parents attempt to suppress a child’s quirks, beyond recommended therapy, to protect him or her from potential bullying. She cites a child with an age-inappropriate fixation on the television character Barney as an example of a child whose parents may be concerned.

“Don’t take away everything that makes your child happy to prevent bullying. Learn to accept your child. Kids are going to think he’s different even if you take away Barney. Focus instead on helping build his self esteem so he can cope,” Anderson said.

If bullying is identified parents should begin by talking to the victimized child. Explain that it is not his or her fault, and that some children put others down to try to feel better about themselves. It also may be helpful to point out that bullying can happen to anyone, whether or not they are autistic.

Getting Others Involved

The next step is to arrange a conference with school personnel, ideally the school administrator, teachers, and special education aides who work with your child. Make sure they are aware of the bullying, and are willing to observe your child throughout the day and intervene when necessary.

Anderson said she has acted as an advocate for children under her counsel, accompanying them during lunch and recess, and helping to facilitate appropriate communication with peers. If the school allows it, a special needs therapist familiar with the victimized child may be a valuable resource in helping him or her feel more comfortable around peers, and vice versa.

As much as parents may try to resolve bullying, the problem is often so ingrained in school culture that a parent acting alone struggles to overcome it. Teams of parents and teachers often bring about the best results. Organizing anti-bullying workshops in the schools with role playing activities can make entire communities more aware of bullying and its repercussions.

In some cases, parents may need to look outside the school environment for opportunities to build a child’s self-esteem. Play groups composed of other children with special needs can help autistic children initiate friendships and become socially engaged. Volunteer work establishes a sense of pride, and helps the child recognize his value as a community member.

When to Consider Alternative Education

When bullying is relentless and severe, parents may consider removing children from traditional school settings in favor of private schools for students with special needs, or home schooling. While such a drastic change may be necessary to protect a child who isn’t getting adequate help from school officials, it does not always eliminate the problem.

Bullies exist within the population of special needs schools too, and children can encounter bullies at parks and other social settings. Parents sometimes prefer alternative education options because of the extra supervision provided by special needs teachers or parents themselves. The IAN study indicates that victimized children may find some relief in non-public schools, as autistic children in private schools or other alternative settings reported 50 percent less bullying than their publicly educated peers.

No matter the environment in which the child is educated, parents should remain vigilant in watching for signs of bullying, while still ensuring the child is socially active. The old notion that bullying is a normal, character-building part of childhood is irrelevant in today’s reality of increasing childhood depression and suicide rates. This especially rings true when the child is autistic and may not be able to appropriately cope with stress brought on by bullying.

Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Counseling.info Editor on April 13, 2012 at 05:00 AM

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