Having long suspected that children on the autism spectrum are especially vulnerable to bullying when compared with their neurotypical peers, the Interactive Autism Network recently conducted a national survey investigating the bullying experiences of children with ASD. The results are striking: of the 1,167 survey participants, who were children with ASD aged 6 to 15, 63% had been bullied at some time during their lives. Furthermore, 39% of the 1,079 children attending some kind of school outside the home had experienced bullying within the past month, over three times the 12% rate experienced by their siblings without ASD (of which 795 were surveyed).
For children with ASD, especially those in regular public school situations, bullying is unfortunately a real and present threat. Common ASD behaviors, such as a focus on rigid rule keeping or frequent emotional outbursts or meltdowns, often act as an attractive signal to bullies who target people who are “different.” Many school environments are not friendly or safe for children with ASD, and teachers and staff are not often trained or prepared to help protect children on the autism spectrum from aggressive behavior from others or to strongly enforce anti-bullying policies. The consequences can be serious: not only can children with ASD who are the victims of bullying experience increased stress, social anxiety, depression, or self-esteem problems, but the effects can spread outwards and cause feelings of guilt and anger in their families, friends, and witnesses of the bullying.
Furthermore, for parents or caregivers of children with ASD, it can be very difficult to determine whether or not their child is being bullied, as some of the common signs of bullying, such as feelings of anxiety, may already be displayed to a certain extent by children on the autism spectrum. However some of the major warning signs, in children both with and without ASD, include: the presence of any physical injuries that the child is reluctant to explain; a sudden decline in school performance; increased attempts to get out of going to school, for example by having a headache or a stomach ache; changes in usual routines; nightmares; withdrawn behavior; and a refusal to talk about what is bothering them.
To help break the cycle of bullying, parents, teachers, and children need to work together to prevent bullying before it starts. Here, education is the most valuable tool: parents can talk to their children with ASD about what bullying is and what they should do if they feel they are being bullied; teachers and students can learn together about the nature of ASD; school administrators can post and discuss the school’s anti-bullying policy. And all adults should make sure they know the federal and state laws applying to disability harassment, and should explore the many resources, from books on ASD acceptance to peer support websites, that are available. The more we know and the more we communicate, the closer we are to making bullying a thing of the past for children with ASD.