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“If you fit in, life is easy. If you don’t, that’s when all the teasing and bullying starts. For kids on the spectrum, it can be pure hell.” (Temple Grandin, PhD with Autism)
It’s a sad truth, but most school aged children are inevitably going to experience some form of bullying during their formative years. Children with autism are especially easy targets for bullies because they are different in the way that they communicate and in the way they present themselves in social situations.
Imagine a first grade classroom with twenty children, most of whom are chatting happily at one another…except for one child. That one child is not making eye contact and he or she is completely fixated on spinning a toy on the desk in front of them. A classmate approaches and tries to play with the child and grabs the toy which only causes the child with autism to shriek, start crying, hand flapping, and rocking back and forth violently.
The whole class has observed this and because these young students don’t understand why this child is responding in this particular way, they laugh at their classmate. Or perhaps, they avoid eye contact or communication. Some may mock or imitate the shrieking or the hand flapping. However the responses may vary, most of them are not likely to be kind or helpful.
Being different can make those who are in contact with a person with autism feel uncomfortable. Fear of the unknown can cause others to feel defensive or confused at how to approach a person with autism and the responses to this discomfort can be very negative.
Children with autism generally have difficulty communicating feelings and navigating social situations. This can lead to a child feeling isolated and disliked which can lead to emotional outbursts- the one true type of communication that children with autism do NOT have difficulty in expressing.
This leads to the question: how can we help a child with autism fit in so that he/she won’t be teased or bullied? The quick answer is that the true origin of the problem lies with the bully, and thankfully most schools are implementing zero tolerance policies to deal with this sort of behavior. There are apps and phone lines that parents and students can use to report teasing, bullying, and threats. Almost all of them allow anonymity for the reporters in the event that a witness does not want to get directly involved.
Aside from addressing the bully, there are many ways to address the issues that a child with autism may face in school and beyond by equipping him/her with behavioral skills, social skills, and communication skills. Equipping a child with autism with the skills to integrate more easily into school and social settings is one of the goals of behavioral therapy.
How Parents Can Help Autistic Kids Avoid Being Bullied
You can’t build a house without a foundation. Apply that analogy here to building up your child to be prepared for various social situations. Start with love and encouragement by pointing out all of the good character traits and abilities that your child displays on a daily basis.
It could be something as simple as getting his/her own snack out of the cabinet or maybe something more labor intensive like drawing a picture. Whatever it is, make sure you acknowledge his/her efforts loudly and excitedly to encourage more of the same. Say things like, “wow…that is a FANTASTIC drawing of your daddy” or “I’m so proud of you for getting your own snack. You’re getting so big and smart.”
There’s an old adage that states “knowledge is power” and this is certainly the case with equipping a child for various scenarios. Think about how it feels to step into a new situation and then multiply that apprehension, fear, anxiety, or curiosity by any number with a trail of zeros behind it, and that’s probably what a child with autism is feeling. But, if you take steps to introduce a child to a new setting or social situation before he/she encounters it in real time, you are reducing the apprehension, fear, anxiety, and other feelings that may be causing dread for your child with autism. Preparing in advance will also reduce the likelihood that your child will get overwhelmed and have a meltdown.
How should you prepare a child with autism for something new? Here are a few ideas:
- Read a book on the topic (first day at school, on the playground, going to the dentist)
- Watch a video (social stories of children introducing themselves to each other, children getting on a school bus, sharing toys and playground equipment, cleaning up)
- Discuss your child’s feelings. (Ask them how they are feeling about an upcoming event and offer ideas for responding in positive ways).
- Role-play proper responses. (Arriving in the classroom the first day, introducing yourself to a new friend, asking an adult for help).
- Visit a location in advance. (Take a tour of the school, drive by the church or the park, meet the dentist at a consultation before any major dental appointments are set- take them to a sibling’s cleaning and let them see a positive experience and the “reward” at the end of the appointment. Dentists still give out toys from the treasure box, don’t they?)
The goal is to remove the mystery and reduce the fear in a child with autism who can easily become overwhelmed and respond explosively. When you prepare your child with autism in advance you equip him/her for success, and it is much easier if there is a well established foundation of encouragement and confidence building.
As you equip your child for the inevitable in school and society, it is most important to teach him/her what to do when he/she experiences teasing, bullying, or threats. Teach your child with autism to recognize his/her own internal signs of fear, sadness, rejection, or confusion. This might take repeated instruction- all of which is part of behavioral therapy and easily implemented at home.
Once your child with autism recognizes that he/she is feeling scared or rejected (or whatever the feeling may be), teach him/her how to respond to those feelings.
For example, if another child calls him/her a name or laughs at him/her, he/she may recognize that he/she is feeling sad. Help him/her express this to an adult by teaching him/her to say something like, “Grace called me a name and it made me feel sad.” This is the first step to addressing the issue with the student who is doing the teasing and if this is done early enough, maybe Grace will decide that she shouldn’t repeat that behavior ever again. There’s no guarantee, but one can only hope that this would be the case.
The main idea behind self advocacy is to teach children to speak up for themselves so that issues can be tackled early before they develop any further. Teach them statements like:
- Stop calling me names
- I don’t like that
- I need help
- You’re being a bully
- Get away from me now
How Teachers Can Help Prevent Bullying
The Dutch philosopher Erasmus once said, “prevention is better than cure”.
This applies to all areas of good health and mental health is no exception.
Teachers in the classroom have a duty to protect all students and especially those who are learning how to self advocate. Students with autism need guidance at home and in the classroom to become proficient at self advocating and navigating through social situations where they are experiencing teasing or threats of any kind.
In the article “The 3 R’s for Bullying Prevention: Recognize, Respond, and Report”, Lori Ernsperger PhD, BCBA-D states, “The approach must include disciplining the bullies, training staff, and monitoring that the bullying does not resume”.
This clearly supports the idea that stopping the destructive behavior before irreversible damage is done is the key to success when it comes to stopping the bullies. Ernsperger sums up the 3 R’s in this way:
Bullying in schools is very prevalent. Recognize the various forms of bullying, the signs of bullying, and the legal requirements imposed on schools to address bullying.
Develop a viable plan of action when bullying occurs. Respond quickly and consistently and establish a zero tolerance policy. Respond directly to the bullies, make bystanders aware of what bullying may look like and teach the child to be proactive. Teach self advocacy to children who are experiencing bullying (Teach the CALM strategy: Cool down, Assert yourself, Look them in the eye and Mean it).
Start with the setting that your child is in. School district, parks and recreation, or local neighbors. Students with disabilities are protected by IDEA and failure to report threats or mistreatment in school can have federal consequences.
If your child is experiencing bullying or threats of any kind, make sure to report it immediately. For the future, it is best to equip your child with autism with the proper skills and tools and behavioral therapy is a wonderful way to compliment the teaching that you might be doing with your child at home.
Circle Care Services in New Jersey delivers applied behavior analysis therapy and we also provide social skills groups to teach children how to interact with their peers in a positive way. Self advocacy is part of the skills that we teach.
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