Bullying is an issue for all adolescents and teens, but none more so than those on the autism spectrum who often experience abusive and antagonistic behavior from peers nearly half of the time. That’s about twice as often as bullying experienced by average adolescents, according to the National Bullying Prevention Center.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) typically include difficulty recognizing social cues and processing behavior generally understood by peers. These individuals may also act or react in ways that are not considered typical for their age group, opening them to taunts for being different. Not only do these factors allow a bully multiple opportunities to intimidate or tease a classmate but the social challenges mean the student with autism has a more difficult time addressing the problem by approaching adults and seeking help.
A Significant Issue With Many Roots
As one young woman writes, “One of my biggest weaknesses is in theory of mind. I fully believe what people are telling me is what they believe and their actions will be reflective of their words. When this does not happen, there is incongruence and this event is very confusing to me. I don’t understand how someone could say they care about me, yet their selfish actions hurt me. I will become physically uncomfortable if someone does something against his or her word. However, I do believe the best in people so I give more chances than I should to people.”
As those on the spectrum succeed and are included in more mainstream education and out-of-school activities, bullying actually increases, studies show. Unfortunately, some of the progress made by mainstreaming people on the spectrum can be undone by bullying, which creates barriers to educational advancement. Most dangerously, suicide has become normalized as a reaction to being bullied, both by the perpetrator and the victim, according to several reports.
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Why Children with ASD Are Easy Prey
“Given the ‘invisible’ nature of autism, especially higher-functioning forms (Asperger Syndrome), and the characteristic social deficits that impact the ability to read social situations and recognize malicious intent or exploitation, children with ASD are easy targets. Once they are singled out, a lack of self-efficacy (inability to stand up for themselves, lack of confidence) and low tipping point for frustration make it a situation ripe for exploitation,” writes Dr. David Camenish of Seattle Children’s Hospital/Research center. “Eating alone, not being picked (or being picked last for teams) or not being invited to birthday parties are not uncommon experiences for children with ASD. These experiences can further erode self-confidence and self-efficacy and signal vulnerability to others. Further increasing the opportunities to be bullied are failed efforts to be included that may lead to a higher tolerance for being treated poorly (in exchange for acceptance) and negative attention.”
Imagine the challenges a teacher faces when trying to mainstream ASD students in a busy classroom: making accommodations without obviously singling out those with special needs. In this article, teacher Laura Preble describes the issues surrounding overcrowded classrooms, which result in students and teachers feeling discouraged when they are unable to function at their highest levels due to competing needs of dozens of students. Such issues common to mainstream education may compound the issues of teachers dealing with ASD students, particularly when a concern of bullying is raised.
“When a teenager with Asperger’s says, ‘I don’t want to be changed. I want people to accept me as I am,’ he is expressing a sentiment shared by every other human. The difference is, the teen with Asperger’s may have Asperger-driven behavioral issues which make that dream much harder for him to attain,” says John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, My Life With Asperger’s.
Robison adds that generalizing about the needs of those on the spectrum is not productive, and that individuals should be treated as such. One-size-fits-all approaches to issues like preventing bullying do not work for all, he argues.
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Stopping Bullies: What Works
Traditional means of thwarting bullies, such as self-advocacy steps suggested by the National Bullying Prevention Center may be especially challenging for students on the autism spectrum. They want to fit in, yet want the antagonistic behavior to stop. A lack of communication skills, a root symptom of most spectrum disorders, may create barriers to seeking help.
And the barriers can become insurmountable.
“Mental illness can also be more common for people on the autism spectrum, with higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression. These issues may well have developed from experiences of bullying, at home or the workplace, and from being seen as ‘being a bit odd’,” writes Michael Richards, an Edge Hill University lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care.
However, educators who face bullying issues frequently in the school setting where adolescents are prone to the behavior may be constrained by the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which is the legal framework for getting special education accommodations. The IEP standards may limit educators to seeing a one-size-fits-all approach, ultimately an unsatisfying solution.
Some surveys of students and results of studies suggest that student intervention in bullying is the most effective way to defuse situations and support all students, particularly those on the spectrum. The Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Voice Project found that personal intervention by other students, including helping the victim get away, calling the victim, spending time with the victim, seeking adult help on the victim’s behalf, and confronting the bully were reported by victims to be the most helpful actions.
This article was featured in Issue 80 – Conquering Challenges With ASD