School bullying, trauma and autism

February 4th, 2009  | Tags:

Parents whose children with autism/Asperger’s have been victims of bullying in school have been seeking answers within our community. In some cases a the child has been relentlessly teased by a peer, in some other more severe cases the child has been the victim of physical abuse at the hands of another student.

Children with autism are particularly susceptible to bullying. Having difficulty understanding social cues and exhibiting unusual behaviors frequently make a child (and an adult!) an easy target for jokes, teasing, and general disparagement. Gone unchecked, this kind of negative activity can have long lasting emotional, psychological and even physical impact. It is the responsibility of each parent to protect and defend the interests of their child, and a legal obligation of the school and its personnel to provide a safe environment where students can learn without fear, and in accordance to that child’s IEP.

Here are some tips that parents can use when bullying of their child with autism occurs:

  1. Script. Those with autism can benefit greatly from rehearsing and scripting social interactions, both positive and negative. Sure, you can’t plan for every kind of situation, but it is helpful for parents to create a framework for options and responses for when such situations do occur.
  2. Document. Keep a log of any bullying that your child might experience with the day, who it was, what happened, who was told – if anyone. Your record of events can be one of your most powerful tools in helping to defend the rights of your child. If there is any physical abuse, take photographs along with your written record.
  3. Escalate. Parents need not be shy about contacting the child’s teacher when an incident of bullying occurs. There is one woman in our community to tried to approach the teacher and was told there was “nothing she could do about it” – and that the other child was just an aggressive type. A few days thereafter, this woman’s child was physically beaten by the bully and admitted to a hospital, and the woman is suing the school. The school and teacher are legally responsible for the educational health of all students. If you fail to get a satisfactory response, escalate to the principal. Then to the school board. You can also contact your local Americans with Disabilities Act representative and even hire a lawyer to write to your school board to ensure your child’s safety and right to education.

Whether you’re a teacher or administrator within a school system, the following tips should be considered:

1. Don’t blame the ASD. I have heard cases of the victim being blamed for being bullied because of his/her ASD behaviorisms. “Tommy’s teasing you because you’re always moving your hands funny, so just stop that.” This is tantamount to telling an African-American boy he’s being teased because his skin color is darker – so just change it. Ridiculous!
2. Public admonishment can backlash. The axiom, “Praise in public, critique in private” is highly relevant here. A well-intentioned teacher or staff member who calls the bully out onto the floor, showing the whole class the bully is being punished for teasing the kid with ASD can have a backlash effect as it magnifies the conflict in front of peers and can further isolate the child with autism. Better to remove the bully from the class and admonish in private.
3. Document. One of the teacher’s responsibilities is to ensure a healthy learning environment for all students in a classroom. Keeping a written record of bullying behavior, incidents and steps taken is an important document should the matter need to be escalated within the school, for a student’s IEP and informational purposes for parents.
4. Implement a social curriculum. Particularly important for the earlier grades is developing social curriculums in which social cues and responses can be demonstrated and taught and is generally key for autism support. How one can recognize and respond to teasing/bullying, appropriate peer interaction, reacting to stressful situations can all be exposed in a group setting and learned as a group. This helps the NT children as well as those with ASD.

Finally, engage your school representatives in the creation of a plan for dealing with both bullies and victims if one does not yet exist. Having a school-wide plan in place and making the consequences well known across the school is an effective way to broadcast a clear message and set expectations for both students and teachers.


Brian Field is the co-founder of the Autism Support Network

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