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Is Your Child With Autism Being Bullied? Five Ways to Take Action

December 20, 2023

When your autistic child is the target of bullying, your first response is often an emotional one, followed by wanting to act in the most effective, action-oriented way. This article offers a few helpful suggestions.

Bullying and autism

When you discover your child is being bullied, you may be angry, fearful, or sad. These emotional responses are natural for parents who want their child to feel valued, protected, and loved. To become an effective advocate for your child, it is important to acknowledge your feelings, then focus on how to help your child.

Here are ideas with initial steps to guide parents to healthy and safe responses:

Support and empower your child

When you first talk with your child about bullying, be prepared to listen without judgment; provide a safe and supportive place where your child can work out his/her feelings. Children may not be ready to open up right away as they, too, are dealing with the emotional effects of bullying and may be feeling insecure, frightened, vulnerable, angry, or sad.

When your child begins to tell his/her story, listen and avoid making judgmental comments. It’s important to learn as much as possible about the situation, including how long the behavior has been happening, who has been involved, and what steps have been taken.

Make sure your child knows:

  • It is NOT his/her fault. He/She is not to blame
  • He/She is NOT alone. You are here to help
  • It is the adults’ responsibility to make the bullying stop
  • Bullying is never okay, and he/she has the right to be safe
  • No one deserves to be bullied
  • He/She deserves to be treated with respect
  • He/She has the right to feel safe at school

Learn your rights

It’s important to know children and guardians have legal rights when a child is the target of bullying or disability harassment. There are three areas to research:

1. Local: Find out your child’s school’s policy on bullying

2. State: Check your state’s bullying laws. Each state has different laws and policies on bullying, along with requirements on how schools should respond. Check in with your local or state parent training and information center, StopBullying.gov, or email PACER at [email protected] to find out your state’s laws. Also, check your state’s Department of Education website for a state Safe Schools Office, which can be a great local resource to learn more about your state and school’s policy

3. Federal: The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated bullying may also be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion. Parents have legal rights when their child with a disability is the target of bullying or disability harassment

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Report the bullying to the school

Speak with an adult at school who knows your child well and report what is happening. He/She may redirect you to the appropriate person. In some schools, the dean of students or a vice principal is responsible for bullying and discipline issues. The information on who to contact and how the process will be addressed should be available on your school’s website, from school administration, or in your parent handbook.

Keep records and written information

When your child is a target of bullying, it is important to document the events and record what is happening to your child. This record is useful when talking with educators or other individuals who may need to assist you in intervening against bullying. As the most invested party, you should do your best to keep track of events. In this way, emotions alone do not drive the discussion.

Records can help you keep a concise, accurate timeline of events as they occur. You may think you will remember the details, but it is easier to use a written record when trying to recall the specifics later. The record can also help in determining if the bullying behavior has increased or decreased in frequency or duration. The record should be factual and based on actual events. Do not add opinions or emotional statements.

The following tips are useful for recording your child’s experiences:

  • Create a paper file to hold hard copies of everything
  • Document and create a timeline for what your child has told you with dates, times, and all people involved in the bullying. Include accounts of face-to-face incidents or any screenshots, texts, or URLs of bullying directed at your child
  • Note who you spoke to at the school
  • Ask about the timing of the follow-up process, and who will be getting back to you
  • Include documentation of all communication with the school, including emails, calls, and letters
  • Keep a thorough history of any bullying behavior with details

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Create a plan that includes and involves your child

When a child experiences or witnesses bullying, he/she is often left feeling powerless. While it’s never up to a child to stop the bullying, helping children understand and respond to it gives children:

  • The self-advocacy skills to speak up on their own behalf—an important tool in any bullying scenario and in life
  • The ability to express themselves and be heard, knowing they are an important part of the solution
  • An increased likelihood that the proposed solutions will fit the skills and needs of those involved

The “Student Action Plan Against Bullying,” developed by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center and available in four languages, can help guide youth through the communication process, providing them with a structure to share their ideas and opinions about potential solutions to bullying. It can also help them feel more in control of the situation. Because most bullying will not stop unless a supportive and caring adult is involved, it’s important to use the Parent and Educator Guide also developed by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center to support your child while working through the Student Action Plan.

For students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), this can be a helpful tool as part of a bullying prevention plan. Remember, every child receiving special education is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and bullying can become an obstacle to that education.

For more information about how to help your child who is experiencing bullying, visit PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center at PACER.org/Bullying.

Additional resources for readers:

This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills

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