Bullying: how it affects autistic children and teenagers
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.
Autistic children 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.
If your child is being bullied, they need guidance, love and support, both at home and at school. Your child also needs to know that you’ll work with the school to prevent more bullying.
Signs that autistic children and teenagers are being bullied
Spotting bullying can be hard, especially with autistic children. They might have limited speech or not know how to communicate their experiences.
Also, autistic children might not always realise when they’re being bullied, particularly with more indirect bullying. And sometimes autistic children might think a child is bullying them when the child is actually just trying to talk or play with them.
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 autistic child.
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- seem withdrawn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 they feel sick or have a stomach ache
- have changes in their eating or sleeping patterns
- start to bully others.
Talking to autistic children and teenagers about bullying
If you think your child is being bullied, you can find out what’s happening by listening and talking with your child. When you know more, you can take action with the school and help your child to handle bullying. Calm and caring conversations with you will also help your child feel loved and supported.
You could ask your child whether something or someone has made them sad. If your child has limited speech, you could ask them to draw pictures, or point to pictures or drawings to show you what’s bothering them.
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 they were feeling at that time.
Working with schools on bullying
If your child 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.
The first step is setting up a meeting with your child’s teacher, or the school administration, school welfare coordinator, or specialist support staff. The meeting is more likely to go well if you can express your concerns calmly, so think about what you’d like to say before you go into the meeting.
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, 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 autism
- programs to help autistic children develop play and social skills
- cooperative group activities that include autistic children 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 autistic children and teenagers at home
Your autistic child needs support and love at home if they’re being bullied at school. Your child also needs to know that the situation isn’t their 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 your child a list of rules to follow – for example, smile, talk, walk and tell an adult. A prompt card can remind your child of what to do and who to talk to if they’re being 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 your child know what to do in a different situations and give them 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 they’re 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 autistic children and teenagers are bullying others
Sometimes the social and emotional difficulties that autistic children 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 your child join in activities. Your child’s class teacher, a specialist support teacher or a psychologist could help you with this.
- Talk to the school 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 social skills. This will help your child understand social rules and how their behaviour affects others. Speak to the professionals who work with your child about therapies or supports 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, your child might have to miss out on the activity.