Bullying is never OK. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to be bullied than typically developing children. Here’s how to spot the signs that your child with ASD is being bullied and what you can do about it.
Bullying and children with autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at particular risk of bullying, especially in mainstream schools. Bullying can be bad for their self-esteem, mental health, social skills and progress at school.
Bullying is when children tease other children over and over again. Or when they tease because they really want to hurt someone’s feelings, or make sure that someone is left out of games or activities.
Examples of bullying are:
- saying mean things, calling people names or spreading nasty stories about them
- leaving people out of activities
- hitting and pushing people or taking their things.
Spotting bullying can be hard, especially with children with ASD. They might have limited speech or not know how to communicate their experiences.
Also, children with ASD might not always realise when they’re being bullied, particularly with more indirect bullying. And sometimes children with ASD might think a child is bullying them when the child is actually just trying to talk or play with them.
Signs that a child with autism spectrum disorder is being bullied
There’s no single way to tell whether children are being bullied. The way children react depends on how bad the bullying is, as well as on their personalities. But there are some signs you can look out for in your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Your child might:
- have unexplained bruises, cuts and scratches
- come home with missing or damaged belongings or clothes
- come home hungry.
Your child might:
- not want to go to school
- be frightened of walking or catching the bus to school
- start doing poorly at school
Your child might:
- have nightmares
- cry a lot
- get angry or aggressive more than usual
- have mood swings
- not want to talk about what’s wrong
- feel anxious
- seem withdrawn
Your child might:
- say she feels sick or has a stomach ache
- have changes in her eating or sleeping patterns
- start to bully others.
If you think your child is being bullied you might need to talk to your child and then to his school, teacher and peers.
Talking to your child with autism spectrum disorder about bullying
You could ask your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) if something or someone has made her sad. If your child has limited speech, you could ask her to draw pictures, or point to pictures or drawings to show you what’s bothering her.
An emotion timeline could help you work out how your child was feeling during different activities in the day. You can create a timeline by listing the day’s events in chronological order. Give your child pictures of happy, sad and angry faces. Starting at the beginning of the day, say the name of the activity, and get your child to choose the face that shows how he was feeling at that time.
Working with your child’s school on bullying
If your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is being bullied, get the help of your school as quickly as you can. Schools take bullying extremely seriously. Your child’s teachers will be trained in spotting and handling bullying. They’ll work with you to try to prevent further bullying.
Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher, or the school administration, school welfare coordinator, or specialist support staff. Remember that the meeting is likely to go well if you’re assertive rather than angry.
At the meeting, you can explain how the issues are affecting your child, and get the school’s perspective. By working with school staff, you can identify the times, places, students and activities that are more likely to put your child at risk of bullying.
You can also ask about the school’s strategies for managing and preventing bullying. For example, it might have:
- safe lunchtime options for children with ASD, like library, chess or gardening clubs
- supervised safe places for children to go if they need to
- a member of staff that children know they can report bullying to, and a bully box to use if they don’t want to speak to someone
- a program to promote awareness of ASD
- programs to help children with ASD develop play and social skills
- cooperative group activities that include children with ASD socially
- a buddy system.
Before you end the meeting, make sure you have a plan for how you and the school are going to manage the situation.
Supporting your child with autism spectrum disorder at home
Your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) needs lots of support and love at home if she’s being bullied at school. She also needs to know that the situation isn’t her fault and that you’ll sort it out.
If you can, it’s important to help your child understand what bullying is. For example, you could use role-play or cartoon strips to show your child the difference between bullying and accidents or misunderstandings. Social Stories™ might also help.
It’s also important for your child to be able to get away from bullying. You could give him a list of rules to follow – for example, smile, talk, walk and tell an adult. A prompt card can remind him of what to do and who to talk to if he’s bullied. You could include words for telling the teacher, or a note to give to the teacher or put in the bully box.
Check that your child knows where the school’s safe places are. A school map showing the safe places could help your child visualise where to go.
Working on your child’s social skills can help her know what to do in a different situations and give her ways to cope. For example, you could make sure your child knows to say ‘Stop – I don’t like that’ and to find a teacher if she’s being bullied.
Supportive friends can protect your child from bullying too. By organising playdates or other social activities, you can help your child develop friendships with children at and outside school.
What to do if your child with autism spectrum disorder is bullying others
Sometimes the social and emotional difficulties that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience mean they might behave as bullies.
Here’s what to do if you think your child is bullying others:
- Make sure your child knows what bullying is. Help your child understand that calling people names or not including them could be bullying.
- Identify what’s causing the problem and try to find out why your child is behaving this way. You might need to help your child find other ways to behave – for example, asking an adult to help him join in activities. Your child’s class teacher, specialist support teacher or a psychologist could help you with this.
- Talk to the school (or wherever the bullying is happening) about its approach to bullying. Ask what you can do from home to support this approach. Call the school regularly to check how your child is behaving and to see what else you can do to help.
- Help your child develop her social skills. This will help your child understand social rules and how her behaviour affects others. Speak to the professionals who work with your child about any programs that could help your child.
- Reward your child for positive social behaviour like taking turns. And give clear consequences for bullying – for example, if your child isn’t letting someone else join in, he might have to miss out on the activity himself.
Some children bully because they have been bullied. Listen to your child for clues that she might be being bullied.