Shocking figures released in a new study, published in the Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine show that close to half of all teens diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum are bullied at school. Whilst the study cites records from a 2001 survey of 920 parents, followed over 10 years, with the popularity of social media, together with the rising rates of autism diagnosis, these figures are getting higher.
Children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome are more likely to be bullied because:
- They find it difficult to pick up on the social cues, often mistaking bullies for friends.
- They find making friends difficult, and are often on their own – and so are perfect targets for bullies.
- They can react loudly, physically or inappropriately to bullying – giving the bully just the reaction they are looking for.
- They often do not have the verbal skills to report the bullying specifics, making it difficult for teachers and parents to understand the situation.
However, bullying is not just reserved for the school grounds. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s are more likely than the general population to be bullied online and later in life. Whilst bullying will break your heart and we want to protect and defend our children, the simple fact is that you cannot do so forever. While schools and the media must continue to focus on anti-bullying programmes, we must also work to empower our children to develop the confidence and self-esteem to develop bullying-resilience strategies, that will help them long after we cannot.
Here are my top strategies for helping a child on the Autism Spectrum deal with bullying.
1. Report Immediately without Emotion
The minute you suspect your child is being bullied, report it to the school immediately. To help school staff deal effectively with bullying, document what you know, and try to be as emotion-less as possible. In this instance facts are helpful, emotion is not. Use that document to build a case file, record any further bullying incidents in your journal, together with any conversations with teachers, and agreed to outcomes. Schedule regular meetings until those outcomes are reached or the situation is resolved.
2. Help Your Child to Understand Why People bully
People usually bully for three reasons – low self worth, low self esteem and feeling powerless. While it doesn’t excuse bullying, it can help if your teen understands why people bully and they do so by trying to make somebody else feel powerless. It is important to help your ASD child learn about humanity, which sometimes is not very nice!
3. Acknowledge & Empathize
Help your child verbalise exactly what they are feeling and let them know it is normal to feel that way. Respond by using words such as “Bullying is wrong. You must feel really sad/upset/angry.” Ask open ended questions, so that your child feels you are truly listening, empathizing and understanding, not judging or worse, over reacting. It not only normalizes their emotion, but helps build trust between you and you child.
Empower your child by assisting them to create their own solutions. Bullies gain their power by making others feel powerless. Help your child gain their power back by supporting them to create their own solutions. Suggest perhaps going to the library at lunch, or joining interest groups at school, developing stress or anxiety strategies, or learning how to walk away.
5. Allow your children to engage in a little good natured teasing with siblings.
Good natured teasing can help your child on the autism spectrum develop healthy self resilience, and a good sense of humour. Have fun with creating good and quick comebacks and one-liners that can be put to good use one day.
6. Encourage your child to be involved in activities outside of school.
Find something that they not only enjoy but also help them to mix with a wide circle of people with different interests. Whilst this can be a struggle for children on the autism spectrum the added socialization will help them develop their social skills as well as providing the opportunity to meet and perhaps make friends with like minded people.
7. Teach your child how to use social media appropriately.
Don’t be afraid to check your teen’s mobile phone or Face book regularly. Report any bullying incidents to Facebook and show your child how to block the bully. Teach them not to respond to bullying, but keep a screen shot of any posts to be used as evidence later.
8. Know your child’s personality.
Many children won’t tell you they are being bullied but if you suspect something act on it. Intuition and parenting go hand in hand. If there is something different in your child’s behaviour or manner, investigate it.
9. Seek out living examples of bullying.
Watch movies together such as Mean Girls, Ice Princess, Chicken Little, The Karate Kid and ask for your child’s opinions. “How do you think so & so felt when that happened?” “If something like that happened to you, how would you feel?” Seek out stories of people who overcame bullying such as Nelson Mandela, Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, to help them understand that many very successful people have also overcome bullying.
10. Model appropriate behaviour.
Your children watch what you do. Be aware of your language, how you make judgements and interact with others. Teach your child to be compassionate and understanding of people with a difference. Help them to develop a healthy self respect for themselves and for those around them.
11. Make sure the Bullying is not about you.
If your child is being bullied it can not only break your heart but may bring up unresolved emotions for you . Your role as a parent is to separate your child’s experience from any bullying you also may have experienced. It is important to remove any emotional attachment you have to bullying so that you support your child with love, wisdom and guidance.
Raising a child with Asperger’s is like running a marathon, versus running in a 100 Meter sprint. You can start off well, but many days will feel like you hit the ‘wall’, and sometimes the finish line will feel like it is an eternity away. The most challenging times you will go through, are the middle school and early high school years, where many teenagers struggle with bullying. Keep the vision in your mind of the adult you would like your child to be. Stay true to your values, and on the really hard days, visualize crossing the finish line together. Be patient with this process and expect a miracle…. they do happen!
Sally Thibault is an Autism Expert, Author, Counselor, Speaker and Media commentator, who speaks regularly about children on the Autism Spectrum. She has featured regularly on National Television, Radio and print. She works with parents, teachers and trainee teachers to understand the challenges Autistic children face in school.