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Harassment: Ways to Reduce Risk Situations for People With Autism

October 4, 2023

When you’re a parent of a child of any age with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you’re always on the lookout for possible problems. As children get older, problems get more complicated—what used to be unexpected swerves and bumps can become potholes and landmines with serious consequences. Sexual harassment is a land mine.

Harassment: Ways to Reduce Risk Situations for People With Autism

The issue surrounding harassment

Increased inclusion of kids and adults with ASD in schools, colleges, and the workforce combined with society’s increased awareness of sexual harassment and enforcement of Title IX (regulations against harassment) have increased the risk for school discipline and legal actions against those on the spectrum. The number of court actions against individuals with ASD is the same as for people in the general population; being on the spectrum isn’t a protection against consequences.

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Interpreting social cues and anticipating consequences

By definition, kids and adults on the ASD spectrum have difficulty understanding social norms, social cues and the point of view of others. Without these skills, they may not know to avoid behavior interpreted as harassment.

One problem is that harassment is vague; it can be any repeated behavior that makes someone feel stressed or threatened. It’s in the experience of the accuser. Kids or adults on the spectrum can miss other people’s subtle or nonverbal signals that they are not interested in a friendly—or intimate—relationship. Even when someone says “No” or “Please stop,” people on the spectrum might continue because they don’t understand the “why” behind it. The request seems illogical, and people with ASD best understand and respond to logic. They certainly don’t foresee the potentially serious outcome.

This is especially true in the social/sexual realm. Kids or adults with ASD don’t understand that it may be a problem to stand overly close, stare, follow, show up unexpectedly or repeatedly text someone, and that this behavior can be perceived as sexual harassment. Research shows that people on the spectrum continue to pursue relationships longer and more persistently than those without ASD, even with no response or negative feedback.

Responsibility and self-advocacy to avoid mixups

Self-advocacy can play an important role in avoiding misunderstanding. A study of 600 college students with high functioning ASD found that only 10 of them had disclosed their diagnoses. Kids and adults with ASD need to ask friends, roommates or coworkers for clear feedback, explaining that ASD is a communication disorder. It’s important to say, “I don’t always get cues or understand unless something is said clearly,” and apologize when necessary.

Having an autism spectrum disorder does not remove responsibility for behavior. Those with ASD must learn that “no” means stop; getting no answer to an overture also means stop. Physical contact (including a high five, to be safe) needs explicit consent. Even if a hug or standing together for a selfie is given the okay, it’s critical to be aware of bodily privacy.

Why do people with ASD behave in ways that put them at risk?

Sometimes, people on the spectrum want a relationship and lack the necessary skills. They can misinterpret someone who is kind or friendly as wanting a close friendship or intimate relationship. Their efforts to respond or initiate a friendship can be perceived as stalking. A second reason for stalking behavior is when people on the spectrum are obsessed with a person, even with no romantic intent. Another motivator for stalking behavior is seeking revenge for rejection or jealousy. Repeated texting or advances can be an attempt to get an apology or the original desired response. A child or adult with ASD might not understand rules for touching, hugging, or other violations of personal space.

Understanding the reasons can lead to solutions

We have to understand the reason for stalking behavior before we intervene. Sometimes talking to the person can clarify what’s happening, but in other cases, it’s necessary to have a functional behavioral assessment and/or talk to others present in the situation (peers, teachers, co-workers). When we understand the intent of the behavior, we can come up with solutions.

For someone seeking a relationship, it’s vital to learn appropriate social skills for forming a friendship. It’s important to identify appropriate people to approach and to learn conversation skills, perspective taking and reading pragmatic cues. It’s necessary to ask if the behavior is okay (“Can I walk you to class /to your car?”) and that one must be invited to show up at someone’s home or to join them at a social function.

For someone with an obsession or motivated by hurt or jealousy, it’s important to teach self-calming, self-control and strategies to handle negative feelings, redirect thoughts and disengage from the relationship. Boundaries around personal space and privacy need to be taught. Whatever reason motivates kids or adults with ASD, they need to be helped to understand the perspective of the other person experiencing their behavior.

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What can parents do to help a child with autism?

1. Ask schools to use curricula that address ways to understand various types of social relationships and appropriate behaviors.

Research has shown that individuals with ASD learn social skills more effectively in groups with neurotypical peers, along with coaching and feedback outside the group in real-time situations.

Examples include: Think Social (Michelle Garcia Winner) is widely used (it doesn’t include sexual harassment, but that could be added), Circles (James Stanfield company) directly addresses understanding different kinds of social relationships and appropriate behaviors (The company will identify where it’s offered closest to you), A 5 Is Against the Law! Social Boundaries: Straight Up! (Kari Dunn Brown) is an excellent book for schools, or you can use it yourself for teens and young adults. There are few if any social groups for adults; parents might facilitate creating them.

2. Video feedback can help a child with autism self-monitor behavior

ASD children can see their own behavior in a video of themselves, ideally in a real-time setting, and can learn to self-monitor behavior. Practiced self-monitoring combined with self-management skills is very effective.

3. Get professional help in finding strategies

Speech and language therapists teach pragmatic language, those critical nonverbal cues. OT’s can help identify sensory tools for self-calming. Professional therapists can help ASD individuals identify triggers and negative thoughts that underlie behavior and create proactive self-calming, cognitive and self-management strategies.

4. Teach your kids or adults with ASD to use social media

Individuals with autism need to know what can and can’t be said in a text or email, the importance of waiting for a response before texting again, and the meaning of emojis they might receive or use. You need to discuss rules of what should and should not be posted on any social media: Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, Instagram or Snapchat; this should be covered in school as well.

5. Do-it-yourself teaching

Explain social boundaries and those of personal space: Draw concentric circles, the label who belongs in each circle (self, family and closest friends, friends, acquaintances, strangers) and discuss who fits in each circle, appropriate behaviors, proximity, and relationships with people in that circle.

Teach reading nonverbal behaviors by watching TV or movies together and pausing to identify nonverbal cues in scenes. It’s particularly important to identify wanted and unwanted behavior and cues to how someone is reacting.

6. Encourage meditation for self-calming

Regular meditation is scientifically proven to help deal with self-calming and handling stress. Any form of meditation (mindfulness, repetition of a word or phrase, progressive body relaxation, yoga) works. There are apps for mediation, including apps for children.

7. Educating the community

Last, but not at all least, we must educate the community at large about ASD. It’s vital to teach those who might be responding to allegations to recognize those with ASD that unwanted behaviors require education, clarification of boundaries and planning, not legal action or punishment. Responses to behavior in school are legally required to take ASD into account. The general public needs to understand neurodiversity. When parents see events highlighting autism awareness, they need to give them full support. You can bring in local experts as speakers to help local leaders of any community activity better understand ASD.

While you can’t anticipate every possible situation, you can be sure your child is as prepared as possible. You can insist that schools include teaching about harassment and social media use in a social skills curriculum. Use opportunities for coaching at home. Your child is better prepared when basic skills and ideas are introduced early and reinforced at higher developmental levels as he matures. Kids and adults with ASD need to be taught to recognize potential problems and to approach certain situations with caution, as well as advocate for themselves and their perspectives.

With understanding from the community and the anticipation of potential issues and appropriate teaching and strategies, we can remove the landmines from the landscape and create a safer environment for everyone.

This article was featured in Issue 87 – Building ASD Awareness and Communication

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