Autism and Bullying: What Can We Do?
Bullying Awareness week comes at a time when it seems like every child has the potential to be a victim to bullying, particularly with the rise of social media. That being said, there is a particular demographic that has always been the most vulnerable: those with disabilities. A study in 2012 by Kennedy Krieger Institute found that 63% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) had been bullied. Also, according to a recent 2014 study, 1 in 45 people ages 3 to 17 are now believed to have ASD. This is a significant rise from the previous estimate of 1 in 68.
Why are Autistic Children bullied so often?
In order to take preventative measures, we must first understand why it happens. The most outstanding reason is that autistic individuals tend to lack the ability to pick up certain social cues. A subtle hint of sarcasm? Chances are it will go right over their heads. Direct and literal meanings are much better suited for someone with autism. Because of this, the everyday usage of idioms, sarcasm and metaphors are all social aspects of language that become major challenges; and positions them as easy targets for classroom bullying.
It is important to note, those who are most high-functioning tend to be the most susceptible to bullying. They regularly interact with their neuro-typical classmates and do have the ability to participate in the majority of social situations. Therefore, their disabilities are not as blatantly obvious to the average person; which ends up with them being labelled as ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’, to put it nicely. Those on the low-functioning side of the spectrum are often separated from their classmates in special education programs and have more explicit autistic habits that make it clear that they are different.
Lack of perception in social situations creates a context where an ASD child may not even know when they are being made fun of. Their challenge of putting themselves in the shoes of others makes it difficult for them to discern the intent of the individual bullying them and thus, they are less likely to report it to their teachers or parents.
How does it affect them?
Nowadays, bullying is being considered less of a school yard normality and more a form of abuse. Bullying is intentional harmful behavior to someone repeatedly, over a period of time. As a form of abuse, its effects range from depression to severe anxiety to suicidal feelings. Autistic individuals already have a multitude of difficulties in their everyday lives, simply with regards to fitting in with a world that is not designed for their benefit.
To make matters worse, bullies often notice what makes their victims tick, and purposely push those buttons. For example, prodding an ASD individual with a certain sound that triggers their sensory overload, or repeatedly saying a particular phrase that makes them upset. Bullying often results in severe anxiety that can have long term effects into adulthood.
What can we do about it?
While it may be every parent's dream to rid their child’s school of bullies altogether, that is near impossible. What you can do is be proactive in your role as a parent in the school. An active presence can be established by making yourself and your child known to teachers and staff. For instance, writing a letter to the school staff can be a great way to establish a healthy relationship. It may give them insight into the struggles that you and your child may encounter inside and outside of the classroom.
A positive relationship with your school’s staff can help them keep an eye out for your child, and also contributes to setting the tone of no-bullying-allowed throughout the school grounds. Bullies have little power without bystanders beside them to watch idly or cheer them on, so creating an anti-bullying environment will dissuade other children from participating and help report when bullying occurs.
Having an open dialogue with your child about what bullying is, and using specific examples and context to communicate when bullying occurs is also crucial. Because individuals with autism are often unaware of when they are being bullied, they are less likely to report the situation and specifics of the social context when asked about it.
Bullying is a widespread problem that affects families of all kinds around the world. All we can do is educate our children and the people around us to not tolerate such behavior.
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