“I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I would change the world for you,” says every parent of a child with autism.
Autism is often seen as an invisible illness. People cannot “see” the disability like they can see a person in a wheelchair or with a deformity; they just see the quirky behaviors.
They see the obsessive, narrowed interests, and social awkwardness. They see the tics, echolalia, and hand flapping. Because of this, students with autism are known to be more vulnerable than other students with a disability.
This leads to bullying and alienation for many of these students. An estimated 46 to 94 percent of students with autism report being victims of bullying, compared to only 28 percent of the general education population (Winchell, Sreckovic, & Schulz, 2018).
Bullying is defined as a direct or indirect form of social aggression that is done repeatedly over a period of time. Bullying is intentional and mean. It can be done in person or through the internet. It can be physical or verbal.
Consequences of bullying include low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Victims may develop behavioral issues such as aggression and low academic success (Hebron, Oldfield, & Humphrey, 2017).
According to research, social vulnerability is the strongest predictor of becoming a victim of bullying, especially among the high-functioning autism population, or those with Asperger’s syndrome.
These students now spend more time in inclusive settings; however, they lack the skills necessary to interact and engage with their non-identified peers. Exposing them to their non-disabled peers does not guarantee friendships and acceptance.
Students with autism spend more time engaging in solitary activities than partaking in cooperative opportunities, and research shows these students are less likely to see friends outside of school and participate in extracurricular activities. They struggle to initiate a conversation and respond appropriately.
They often have narrowed interests and obsessive behaviors that hinder communication opportunities. Students with poor social adjustments are more likely to drop out of school and engage in delinquent behaviors.
These social issues can transfer to adulthood, making it difficult for these individuals to maintain a job and develop and maintain adult relationships. More than 30 percent of students with autism missed school on purpose due to fear of bullying, and 20 percent switched schools.
These students do not feel safe at school (Saggers, et al., 2017). Current anti-bullying rules and regulations are not effective. They are not protecting this vulnerable population.
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Improving an autistic student’s understanding of social cues and norms is a good start, but it is not enough. Schools need a more effective process for reporting instances of bullying, such as an anonymous form for those who do not feel comfortable reporting it.
A positive climate can offer some protection, along with a school-wide approach to bullying prevention, including mentoring programs for children with autism. Exposing these students to social stories that explain bullying, bullying prevention, and the dynamics of peer relationships may also be helpful (Saggers, et al., 2017).
Video modeling is another intervention that can help students on the spectrum become more confident in their social abilities and possibly limit the frequency of bullying.
The child watches a recording of an adult, peer, or even himself/herself performing a target behavior, such as initiating a conversation with a peer. This intervention has been known to promote generalization better than other interventions.
The video modeling also focuses on what to do if bullying happens to you, such as telling an adult, as well as how to possibly prevent becoming a victim of bullying (Rex, Charlop, & Spector, 2018). Social skill instruction, either in person or via video modeling, can help these students develop authentic friendships.
Role-playing different scenarios, like asking a friend to play catch at recess, is one way to teach social skills.
Understanding the barriers of friendship development for these individuals may also provide some assistance. One huge barrier is that children tend to gravitate towards those who are similar to themselves.
They look for others who have similar interests and experiences. However, those with autism oftentimes have interests that are not reciprocated by their peers, creating another barrier to connection. Distance can be another hindrance.
In some cases, students with autism go to a school that is farther away from where they live due to program availability, and that can make it more difficult to interact with classmates outside of school hours (Daughrity, 2019).
However, it is imperative to overcome those barriers and find some way for autistic students to connect to others. Parents should explore structured activities outside of school such as Girl Scouting or Boy Scouting, art, music, karate lessons, or computer lessons.
Studies have shown having friends who support the student can protect him/her from bullying. Friendships improve academic success, as well as mental and emotional health (Winchell, Sreckovic, & Schulz, 2018).
Social interaction and friendship development start at a young age and are necessary for early childhood development (Daughrity, 2019). As an example, many autism specialists tell people to go home and watch Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory to “understand” what living with a person with autism is like.
The character of Sheldon portrays high-functioning autism perfectly. He has all the quirks, social awkwardness, and bluntness you would expect from an individual on the high functioning, or “Asperger’s”, end of the spectrum, but even Sheldon has his trusty sidekick, Leonard, to look out for him (Lorre, 2007).
Everyone needs someone to be there for them—someone they can talk to who will understand and accept them no matter what. Every “Sheldon” needs his/her “Leonard”.
It is also essential to educate the peer group to limit the occurrence of bullying. Peers must be trained to avoid reinforcing bullying behaviors, because bullies thrive on having an audience. Parents should be included in anti-bullying training, too.
This includes parents of bullies, as well as the parents of the victims. The training needs to be aimed at raising awareness of bullying and changing attitudes and misconceptions (Hebron, Oldfield, & Humphrey, 2017).
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Parents of a child who has bullied another child to the point of tears need to see the hurt their son/daughter has inflicted.
Although children with autism should be encouraged to develop social skills in order to make friends, their autistic traits also need to be celebrated and accepted.
These individuals need to know it is okay to be themselves and they can still be loved for their quirkiness. That’s why it’s vital for neurotypical people to learn about those with autism and accept them as they are. For example, at my son’s first Cub Scout meeting, I told my son’s Cub Scout leader he has autism.
I always like to give people a head’s up. For whatever reason, the man felt it was necessary to speak to my son in a loud voice and talk very slow. Later, my son came to me and said, “Mom, I think there is something wrong with that man.”
Education is crucial for society in general. All school-age children need to be taught the dangers and repercussions of bullying and how to be accepting of all people, especially those society has deemed “different”.
Winchell, Sreckovic, and Schulz stated younger children are more accepting of peers with disabilities and become less accepting as they get older (2018). Parents and teachers need to do what they can extend that acceptance into adulthood.
These lessons must start at a young age, with the hope the world can eventually be welcoming to all those with a disability, but especially to those “forgotten ones” with invisible disabilities.
Daughrity, B. (2019). Parent perceptions of barriers to friendship development for children with autism spectrum disorders. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 40(3), 142–151. DOI: 10.1177/1525740118788039
Hebron, J., Oldfield, J., & Humphrey, N. (2017). Cumulative risk effects in the bullying of children and young people with autism spectrum conditions. Autism, 21(3), 291-300.DOI:10.1177/1362361316636761
Lorre, C. (2007). Big Bang Theory. United States: CBS.
Rex, C., Charlop, M., & Spector, V. (2018). Using video modeling as an anti-bullying intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 2701–2713. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3527-8.
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
Winchell, B., Sreckovic, M., & Schultz, T. (2018). Preventing bullying and promoting friendships for students with ASD: Looking back to move forward. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 53(3), 243-252.
This article was featured in Issue 107 – Caring for Your Autism Family