The fact that empathy does not engage automatically as a social reflex towards those who are considered socially “different” prepares the society for behaviors that we can see as bullying. As a matter of fact, as we have always witnessed, bullying can be directed not only to a minority, religious and political minorities, refugees or targeted professional groups such as physicians and teachers but also to children who have differentiated needs for some reason. The exclusion of children with autism spectrum disorder and what is happening around them follows the concept of bullying.
Bullying is a worldwide problem. It is usually done in schools and social media, but unfortunately, it is a difficult problem to escape. While bullying is already hard enough to deal with for any individual, can you imagine what a child with autism can experience and feel? Bullying often takes place in front of others or includes others. Selected witnesses can play an important role in increasing or reducing bullying. One side teases the other part over and over again or wants to hurt other part’s feelings, but very harshly.
Examples of bullying are:
- Saying mean things, calling people mean nicknames or spreading nasty stories about them
- Leaving people out of activities or basically alone
- Hitting and pushing people or taking their things
Bullying is often difficult to detect because children who are bullied do not want to talk about it. It is even more difficult when it occurs in children with autism. Because children with autism already have limited speech, they do not know how to tell this situation and to whom. And if this bullying is done indirectly, not directly, they may not be able to understand it. Or vice versa, they can put a lot of meaning on everything and think that everyone is bullying them.
Any kind of coercion and humiliation that a group of superior, size and social status or superior to the weaker than itself can be accepted as bullying. There is a power imbalance. Particularly, there is a need to find a target for those who have obstacles in their development for different reasons and who struggle to take part in social life by removing these obstacles
For example, in autism, it is very difficult for the child to determine his intention in the behavior of the other person. Therefore, it is possible to provoke the behavior of the child with autism such as touching, hitting or making unwanted sounds in the classroom by provocative behaviors. Especially children who grow up in an intolerant home and country against diversity can easily react to the weak or incomplete situations of their classmates or schoolmates.
It is much more difficult to understand and detect the bullying experienced by children in the autism spectrum. Due to their lack of social skills, these children become vulnerable targets for bullying. In terms of social skills, individuals with autism have trouble reading non-verbal cues, including body language and facial expressions of others. This causes individuals with autism to not understand the bullying and to continue what the bully does.
In addition, they cannot understand the underlying message due to a lack of social communication. Worse still, they can fully interpret the comment. It is almost impossible for them to detect the difference between a friendly joke and bullying. They may have incredible difficulty in this regard. Therefore, students in the spectrum may react excessively or underly when perceived or true bullying occurs because they do not understand which one is which.
In schools that do not take an active attitude towards bullying, there are students who exemplify the discriminatory attitudes of adults. These students do not try to limit their tendency to ill-treat children they find strange and different, who have developmental disabilities, or have different diagnoses. However, schools are the first institutions that should take action on this issue.
Bullying can blow up students’ anxiety, cause them to feel unsafe, and worsen their academic performance. Schools should be places where students feel safe whether on the spectrum or not. In this case, all of us have a role to make the environment safe for children.
The discrimination of adults against children with autism, dyslexia or ADHD is shaped by the statement “education is just right, but it should be in a boutique school, not a school for normal children”. Being successful or talented for them is not enough for children to go to school.
Parents of these children are also affected by these bullying and discrimination. For example, in WhatsApp parent groups, their children are often bullied because of disrupting or disregarding the school. Some parents are even not included in these groups and they are excluded from the daily life of social gatherings or school.
We should also remember that one of the sources of bullying is stigmatization. Stigmatization (exclusion by labeling difference and deficiency, or exclusion labeling) is a mechanism of oppression, especially for people with neurodevelopmental and mental disorders.
Stigmatization is a mechanism that works by matching the wrong and the bad with the different. This time it targets autism, but always the one with a defect, which means people with severe disorders. It serves as a purification for the rest of society. Also, stigmatization makes it possible for us to easily understand those who disrupt the purity of humanity within their own logic and to see the target.
Physicians, educators, mental health and other health professionals who work with stigmatized children and their families also receive their share from this stigma. Another side effect of stigmatization is that this situation is the reason for denial and the inability to accept it. It means that parents and individuals in fear of stigmatization should refrain from exercising their fundamental rights and even say that they do not have the type of problems to be stigmatized.
There is a man with autism spectrum disorder and he wants to share his bullying story. He couldn’t speak with complete sentences until he was 7 years old. By then, he had been bullied for years and decades. Now, he is 31 years old. He still remembers how he suffered at the hands of his peers, only because he is on the autism spectrum. He is always aking people to imagine “there is a kid about your age being bullied because he could not talk as well as everyone else, and imagine a kid who was bullied by his peers because he had something like special needs. And you are calling him outsider or not normal.”
At one point, the man even attempted suicide. By the way, It is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34. That’s why it is important to talk about suicide, even though parents don’t want their children to hear. Because if we dınt talk now, when is the right time to talk? It is happening right now.
He was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old. Though a doctor told his parents he might never graduate from high school, he did and recently earned his doctorate. Today he is an author and a professional public speaker, and he hopes to soon start teaching at the college level. He speaks at schools across the country year-round.
When he was growing up, there was no autism acceptance month, there was no national bullying prevention month. He was very isolated in public schools. Special needs were still very up-and-coming. He hopes that by sharing his personal story, he is able to teach children not to bully. He said he and his sister both have autism. Also, her sister had been bullied throughout the years.
He, who also works with schools on diversity and inclusion efforts, explained how developmental disabilities like autism are on the rise, making it all the more important for young people to understand the disorders. And kids with disabilities are more likely to be bullied. He explained always how his autism caused him to struggle with speech and social skills, including maintaining eye contact and understanding sarcasm, which prompted teasing from other kids.
It made life challenging for sure. He struggled with anxiety. He struggled with depression. He struggled with so many mood and anxiety disorders. He also shared some simple tips for students to combat bullying in their own schools. He said that some kind of programming would have been “life-changing” for him when he was a kid, and he hopes that all the students he meets know how important they are. Because, after all these tough years, now he is giving speeches, he is standing in front of thousands of people, and telling his story to everyone.
What Makes Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder Vulnerable to Bullying?
It is a fact that bullying is more common in children diagnosed with autism. But this does not mean that children who complete their development normally are not bullied. It has some major characteristics that make children with autism an easy target. These children can have all of these features, or they can only have some of them. Ultimately, they are still bullied.
- They show limited control over what is happening around them and situations
- They have feelings of inadequacy and they have poor self-esteem
- They have difficulties in understanding facial expressions, tone of voice and body language of others, basically, they have a lack of social cues
- They are socially cut off from their peers
- They could be labeled as “inadequate” by their peers or teachers
- There could be observed depressed or self-destructive
Due to their lack of social understanding, many kids with autism find it hard to understand other kids’ tone of voice, body language or facial expressions. Because of that hey may not even know when they are being bullied. They may also accidentally disturb a peer or classmate, as they are unable to correctly convey certain thoughts and feelings, and create a situation for bullying themselves.
Children with autism do not usually use verbal communication. Therefore, they cannot easily defend themselves, solve problems and associate bullying events with words. Thinkers like parents, teachers, and peers have great power to stop bullying. According to studies, more than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when someone intervenes.
How Parents Can Help Kids with Autism Avoid Being Bullied
- Talking about what the problem is by using conversation starter cards which are very helpful for children on the spectrum to tell what they have in their life current time.
- Encouraging the child in terms of making friends spend time together in playtime with others.
- Make sure school officials understand you want to hear everything about your child, especially if the bullying is the case.
How Parents Can Help Prevent Bullying/ Avoiding Before It Happens
- You can talk to your child about bullying and why it is wrong to mistreat others. You can exemplify what good and acceptable interactions with others should be. Help individuals on the autism spectrum clearly discern what bullying is and is not. For some kids with autism, it will be helpful to explain in concrete terms what bullying is. You may need to provide specific examples. Through the use of social narratives, role-playing, and coaching, make the child understand bullying and teasing. Especially the difference between them, the child needs to understand.
- There should be a safe person and a safe place. They need to be identified before everything happened. When bullying occurs, access needs to be immediate. Write out and illustrate procedures that kids should follow. You need to provide opportunities for kids to practice the procedures at various times. It might be helpful to provide a small procedure card for them to carry in their pocket, wallet, book bag, or backpack.
- If the child is especially at risk for bullying, you need to specifically teach him or her to stay close to the teacher in the playground, during lunchtime or basically in general.
- You shouldn’t let your child go to school with money or valuable stuff.
- Creating a schedule is always a good method for children on the autism spectrum.
- Since these kids are potentially a victim of bullying, you can try to create a community of friends around the kid with autism. You need to make sure that they are connected to others because otherwise, it may make it worse. These children may start to bully each other.
How Teachers Can Help Prevent Bullying
- They should always follow the school’s procedures for reporting and addressing bullying behavior.
- They should encourage the bullied student to talk about what happened. It also helps to let the student know you believe them and are concerned.
- If the student cannot verbalize what happened, use writing, journaling or drawing methods.
- Reassure the student that reporting the situation is not “tattling” on another student.