Anti-Bullying Week is a great opportunity to share stories and open conversation about a very sensitive topic. For individuals on the spectrum, bullying can be more prevalent, more severe and, due to communication challenges, even harder to talk about. This article shares personal stories about bullying to inspire change…
Wanting to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by autistic individuals, I spoke with neurodivergent advocates for this article to hear personal stories about bullying, with the hope it will help drive positive change.
I started my journey by speaking with Dr. Emily Lovegrove (AKA “The Bullying Doctor”) during the Autism Parenting Summit (April, 2021). “Yes they are more likely to get picked on,” was the answer she gave when I asked whether autistic children are easily targeted by bullies.
She explained how we’re all conditioned to search out and identify that which is different. When we get on a bus, we’re most likely to sit next to someone not too different from how we view ourselves. Dr. Lovegrove says kids do the exact same thing. They look for difference, and they often find it in autistic kids who think differently and act differently. The way they act is not weird, wrong or offensive, but it is different from many of their peers, and therefore likely to pique the interest of a bully.
A recent study (Toseeb et al., 2020) found autistic children are more likely to be bullied both by kids at school and siblings at home. This means autistic children do not get a break from bullying once school is out for the day. The study also found autistic children are more likely to be both the bully and the victim when it comes to sibling bullying—in comparison to neurotypical children.
With all of this context in mind, let’s hear from autistic advocates who have experienced bullying during childhood and adulthood.
Autistic advocates share stories about bullying
Ron Sandison is a Professor of Theology, speaker, and author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom.
“During my middle school years, predator bullies’ sonar systems could detect me in a crowd. With autism causing me to display unusual behavior, I was easy prey. During a track meet in my freshman year of high school, a teammate stole a tarantula and placed it in a plastic bag. When another teammate ‘double-dog-dared’ me, I used a shot put to brew up tarantula soup. After the jock who stole the tarantula saw that I had smashed his prize, he struck me with his fist in the stomach. The next day, the jock’s best friend gave me a black eye,” Ron recalls.
When asked about bullying and why he felt he may have been a target, Ron shared: “My autistic quirks like carrying a stuffed prairie dog at age 15 made me an easy target for bullies. I learned to cope with bullying by reading books and running track, and cross country. During my junior year of high school, when I was one of the fastest 800 meters runners in the state of Michigan, the bullying ceased and I gained respect among my peers and fellow runners. When I experienced severe bullying in middle school, I wished my teachers and coaches would’ve noticed and prevented the bullying.”
Ron is not the only child who feels there may be a lack of support from educators. Studies (Yoon & Bauman, 2014) present evidence that teachers are not perceived to be effective at interventions when it comes to bullying. But if children don’t feel confident in their educators’ ability to intervene, how can parents help their children—particularly those on the spectrum who are unfortunately very likely to be bullied at some point in their childhood?
Ron shared some practical advice for parents who feel desperate in the battle against bullying: “My advice for parents who have a child with autism is to find a friend for their child who is a year older and will help prevent bullying, since bullies tend to pick on children who are alone. The peer friend will also help your child learn social skills.”
In sharing her story, autistic self-advocate Angela Chapes bravely admits to being bullied… and being the bully. She shared insight into bullying within the home environment rather than school and recalled how she picked on her brothers, and feels she was also mean to her father. She talked about “wanting to punch her father out” on some days, but because of her mother’s influence she never did. She added: “Dad and I are fine today.”
Being a bully is hurtful not only to the victim, the perpetrator often suffers extensively too. One study (Copeland et al., 2013) suggests individuals who were both victims and bullies experience the most significant long-term effects.
It’s easy to sense the hurt when Angela shares she is on speaking terms with only one of her brothers (with whom she reconciled). She feels bullies have a lot to lose. “You lose your humanity and the other person may be psychologically affected. They may be affected for a long time.”
Angela does not shy away from talking about the hurt she caused. In her own words: “I was a bully: When I was younger I bullied my brothers. I would love to ruin their artwork and ruin their toys. If I thought my brothers were going to ruin my stuff I would cry and scream. I would pick fights with my brothers by having screaming matches. Once, my brothers did not wait for me while we were walking in our neighborhood. I was mad about it and when I got home I pushed my middle brother over in his chair. Luckily, he was not hurt.”
The issues between the siblings seemed to intensify and Angela talks of a situation where she could have, in reference to her brother, “killed him”.
“We were at a cousin’s farm and my brothers, my mom and I were on a carriage. I was being a bully and trying to get my middle brother to jump out of the carriage. Since he was not going to do it I pushed him and he got stuck in the wheels. It could have killed him but he was not hurt. I was very lucky. My mom had a long talk with me about what could have happened. If this incident went another way I could have dealt with a lot of sadness and maybe even the law.”
Angela experienced the other side of bullying too when she was a victim at work—around the time she was diagnosed with autism. She believes she got bullied because she did not stand up for herself: “I was yelled at and made to feel incompetent. I was made to feel like I was trash, strange, weird, and not normal.”
As someone with experience as both a perpetrator and victim, Angela shares her opinion about bullying: “Because of what I went through I don’t bully others or make fun of people. It is wrong. I did it. I have been through it. I don’t want others to feel how I felt when I was bullied. I felt like trash and did not want to be me.”
Angela praises her mother for never giving up on her, for being forgiving, for encouraging better behavior, and for seeing a special spark in her: “My mom never gave up on me, because she saw a spark. She saw I could change at a young age. She saw I wasn’t all terrible. She saw something in me. I was an adult when I realized that.”
In a recent study (Darjan et al., 2020) the authors mention research detailing the connection between bullying and self-esteem; the literature seems to suggest that both “faces” of bullying (the perpetrator and victim) are somehow related to low self-esteem.
Adults such as parents, teachers, and caregivers have a huge responsibility to raise self-esteem in children on the spectrum. For Angela, it was an organization that helped her realize her worth after her mom’s death: “Morning Star, Inc. is a peer recovery center for people with mental illness. People with disabilities can go there too. They taught me I had value. I found friends and peers. I found a job. I became emotionally and behaviorally mature. I gained a lot of confidence and skills.”
Angela found more support on her journey and today she advocates for individuals with autism and other conditions: “Later on, I found two parental figures who saw me for me. I gained more confidence. I can tell them anything. They encourage me. As for bullying in the past—they see who I have become. They challenge the negative views I have from bullying and they tell me I am a beautiful person. I believe them. I have never had friends like these before. I joined Toastmasters International, Autism Society – The Heartland and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I joined them so I could become an advocate for those with autism and mental illness.”
Another autistic advocate I spoke with is Michelle Rebello, who works as Involvement and Engagement Coordinator at Dimensions (one of the UK’s largest not-for-profit support providers for people with learning disabilities, autism, and complex needs).
Michelle talked about the kind of resources which may have helped her as a child: “I wish there had been resources and education tools, such as the KS3 learning resources created by Dimensions, in place to help both students and teachers tackle bullying by recognising ableist language, discrimination, and prejudice. These resources can make life so much easier for teachers who are already so busy providing an education for our children. The ‘Fact or Myth’ exercise for example can help teachers encourage their class to think about how people with learning disabilities and autism might experience the world differently, without the teacher having to give-up their own time fighting to find the right information elsewhere.”
Michelle experienced the effects of bullying firsthand: “I always felt like I was different from the other kids in my class. I was eccentric and could be a bit of a chatter-box, but I also loved to study. My autism was undiagnosed when I was a child, so I didn’t receive any special adjustments or support,” she recalled. “To everyone else I just seemed a bit odd, and unfortunately, I was bullied for that. I am also part Indian, so I used to get bullied for the color of my skin. In the end, I had to move schools and home. It was awful. My experience was a real testimony to the importance of teaching children about difference and acceptance at school so that bullying never escalates in this way.”
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The way forward: accept and celebrate difference
According to Michelle, the way forward into a bullying-free future is for people to work together: “I believe that it needs to be a collaborative effort. Our dedicated teachers and parents need to work together to ensure that autistic children are supported by small adjustments that help them to cope and thrive at school.”
Being different, and getting bullied for such differences is the common thread running through these stories about bullying. Is there a way for parents to ensure their autistic kids do not get bullied because of their differences, which are mostly out of their control?
Michelle says: “It’s important to educate children about why someone might be behaving differently to their classmates, so that children with autism don’t feel singled out. For example, if a child has to wear ear defenders, it is important that the rest of the class understands how this might create a more comfortable learning environment for them. At the end of the day, these small adjustments are the same as a child wearing glasses or a hearing aid.”
Too many children are told their traumatic experiences are not really bullying. When I asked Dr. Lovegrove whether a strict definition of bullying may be exclusionary, she spoke about concentrating on the feelings of victims rather than exact definitions. She said that, regardless of whether a situation fits the definition or not, if we feel bullied we behave differently and our emotions are affected. These feelings should be acknowledged and intervention planned accordingly; denying bullying because it doesn’t qualify according to a specific definition only perpetuates the problem.
Michelle added the following when I asked about the kind of support she would have wanted as a child: “I wish bullying had been taken more seriously in schools. I firmly believe that if we allow bullying to perpetuate or dismiss people’s experiences with unhelpful phrases (such as ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘sticks and stones’)—then it becomes a culture and behavior that children who bully will take with them right through to adulthood.”
Katrina Hayes, a special education advocate at Speak Up!, emphasizes the importance of parents getting involved when children are bullied at school. She says: “Bullies lack self love and gravitate towards individuals they perceive as weaker. The best thing we can do is tell our children it’s not their fault. The next action would be to inform a leader (principal, school bus driver, parent of a bully, etc). If it continues to happen, contact the police and file a report.”
Bullying is not a rite of passage, or something all kids go through. It’s traumatic and it may affect the victim and the bully for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, autistic children have an even greater chance of being bullied than their neurotypical peers; research (Sreckovic et al., 2014) suggests bullying victimization rates increase between 46-94% in autism spectrum disorder.
Parents speak of the near constant worry of their kids on the spectrum being bullied; because of their kids’ communication deficits these parents are not even sure whether their children will reach out when they need help. Even at home, a child on the spectrum may bully or feel bullied by siblings; browsing such bullying statistics make it seem like getting bullied is bound to happen at some point for everyone on the spectrum. It’s time to put an end to this.
Children standing together
Dr. Lovegrove told me about an exercise she does with kids in her practice. She tells children that if you don’t agree with a situation where someone is getting picked on, the simplest thing to do is to stand with them—physically. As more children join (they don’t need to say anything) the bully loses the reward of gaining popularity by being mean. It’s hard not to be moved by the idea of children silently standing up for a victim of bullying.
Dr. Lovegrove also shared that parents are the secondary victims of bullying. We feel terrible when our kids are treated poorly, most parents feel a powerful need to swoop in and take care of the situation. Kids on the spectrum need their parents to advocate for them, but they also need self-empowering strategies. Parents can’t be with their kids all the time, most kids will face tough situations on their own at some point.
Dr. Lovegrove spoke about the success accomplished when children were equipped with self-empowering strategies. When anti-bullying toolkits were devised and kids (on the spectrum) understood the reasons behind bullying, they were much more confident in dealing with minor bullying incidents independently. They were also more likely to report serious incidents when they had exhausted their own resources and needed help. Dr. Lovegrove’s book Autism, Bullying and Me: The Really Useful Stuff You Need to Know About Coping Brilliantly with Bullying has more information about strategies to deal with bullying.
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The autistic individuals willing to talk about painful bullying episodes for this article are not only brave, they are helping to open dialogue about bullying as it relates to autism spectrum conditions. If children are educated and they begin to understand why their autistic peers act differently, if they are encouraged to stand with them when they are picked on, and if they contribute to a culture of acceptance and celebration of neurodivergence, the spectrum may cease to be a bullying hotspot.
It’s time to put a stop to bullying. Researchers, advocates, teachers, parents, organizations, and publications like Autism Parenting Magazine are sharing resources and speaking up to end bullying in all its forms for those on the spectrum. Will you join us?
Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA psychiatry, 70(4), 419–426. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504
Darjan, Ioana & Negru, Mihaela & Ilie, Dan. (2020). Self-esteem – the Decisive Difference between Bullying and Assertiveness in Adolescence?. Journal of Educational Sciences. 41. 19-34. 10.35923/JES.2020.1.02.
Lovegrove, E (2021). Autism Parenting Summit (Autism Parenting Magazine)
Saggers, B., Campbell, M., Dillon-Wallace, J., Ashburner, J., Hwang, Y., Carrington, S., & Tones, M. (2017). Understandings and Experiences of Bullying: Impact on Students on the Autism Spectrum. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 41(2), 123-140. doi:10.1017/jse.2017.6
Sreckovic, Melissa & Brunsting, Nelson & Able, Harriet. (2014). Victimization of students with autism spectrum disorder: A review of prevalence and risk factors. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 8. 1155–1172. 10.1016/j.rasd.2014.06.004.
Van Roekel, E., Scholte, R. H., & Didden, R. (2010). Bullying among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: prevalence and perception. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(1), 63–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-009-0832-2.
Yoon, Jina & Bauman, Sheri. (2014). Teachers: A Critical But Overlooked Component of Bullying Prevention and Intervention. Theory Into Practice. 53. 308-314. 10.1080/00405841.2014.947226.