Bullying and Autism

7 Feb


I have no special reason why I’m posting about this topic other than I think it’s kind of important.  Many people wouldn’t believe that I used to get bullied occasionally as I was not always the big, ornery beast that I am today.  But I thought I’d share an idea or two about the subject from some of my experiences.


First off, the most commonly cited cause of someone becoming a bully is their own low self esteem.  They try to compensate for this lowness and smallness by picking on others.  While this may be a true analysis it gives little comfort to the person being bullied to know the person victimizing them has low self esteem.  Being a victim doesn’t exactly raise a person’s esteem, you know?  And there is a slim likelihood that one can administer sufficient psychoanalysis to the bully in order for him to uncover his subconscious conflicts while he is pounding you. 


Individuals with autism are frequently targeted by bullies because they are simply easy targets.  They may already have difficulty making friends which makes them vulnerable as being outsiders.  Anyone who grazes outside the herd is vulnerable to being attacked by predators, and people with autism are not known for blending into the herd.  While I personally see this as a positive attribute, this becomes a social liability especially when there is a bully about who is looking for trouble.


As a parent who has been on the blunt side of the bully-victim equation, I can say that this dynamic is the stuff of nightmares.  It’s difficult enough for someone who is neurotypical (if I really ever was) but for people with disabilities and their caregivers, it is simply petrifying.  So how do we deal with this possibility?


First, there’s a couple of ways NOT to deal with it, or approaches that are likely to result more trouble.  Many people will counsel their kids to tell the teacher if there is bullying going on.  And it is true enough that it is up to that teacher to have sufficient control over the classroom that any sort of abuse, assault or victimizing within should be verboten and met with a swift and decisive response.  However bullying does not usually take place within the well-ordered and structured classrooms as much as in hallways, restrooms and other areas of the building where there is less supervision.   So the person who reports being bullied will be reporting it after the fact to a teacher who was not there. Any confrontation with the bully will result in result in one word against the other.  Any subsequent investigation will take time and in the meantime, there may be swift retribution from the bully plus the victim becomes even more isolated for being a squealer.


And then there is the time-tested response of confronting the bully.  Bullies do feed off the fear of the person who they prey upon and becoming nonfearful or at least turning on the tormenter can sometimes effectively end the bullying.  But it can also escalate it.  Basically, in many cases we’re talking about being willing and able to physically fight.  We’re talking fists to noses at the very least.  And now days, there may be weapons involved.  The confrontation approach needs to be considered with caution.  Individuals with autism may not have the skills to successfully use a confrontational approach without escalating the situation and it may result in more harm.


Bullying can be a serious problem because bullies not only go after the person’s body and personal self esteem (and this is the highest cost) but frequently go after their property and possessions, using intimidation to steal.  There’s a very real cost, personally and monetarily to this.  As teachers, we need to be alert and proactive.  But as parents we need to be even more so.  Do NOT leave it up to the school system to do anything about it.  A lawsuit aimed at the school might move them into being less complacent but it’s not going to help your son or daughter in the short term.


The most effective method of dealing with a bully who is preying on individuals with autism may be the hardest one.  It involves educating people about the condition and making them aware that they are attacking someone with a disability.  It also involves doing some footwork on your own.  From my experience, the most effective method involved seeking out and having a conversation with the bullying youngster’s parents.  If the parents are the least bit responsible, they do not want their precious offspring to be labeled a bully.  They may deny and defend their little perpetrator. But giving that parent a heads up still puts them on notice that you are watching and are prepared to deal with any situation.  Often, just the fact that the bully sees the victim’s parent in his own home changes the whole dynamic of the situation.  The key is to not necessarily make the other parents feel guilty but to make them aware and to close the distance relationship-wise between the bully and the victim.  People who victimize others the way bullies do have to keep some distance in order to dehumanize their victims.  Closing that gap can even turn the situation around but often it may take some intervention in order to do so.


When our children are involved it is difficult not to respond emotionally when they are being hurt by others.  But the key to bridging the gap that exists between people of differing races, cultures and abilities is to promote understanding.  Education is our single best tool and as parents we are often much better agents of education and change than the school system, sad as that is to consider. 


So my idea for dealing with bullying:


1. Get as many facts as you can from your child.  I know all about the “code of the schoolyard” but in an age of weapons in schools, one can ill afford to be passive.  However…

2. Be sensitive to fears of the youngster of being further isolated and sanctioned socially.  Especially in adolescence they will be massively sensitive to social pressures.  Making a huge, emotional scene will alarm them and may be as threatening as actions by a bully!

3. Let the school know you know what’s going on and are willing to work with them.  The school may indeed be negligent, but don’t start off with that approach.  The goal is to resolve this instance so your son or daughter can learn in relative peace.  4. Call the bully’s parent.  This might be very hard to do, but it might be the most effective thing you can possibly do.  Making another parent aware and educating them can do more to change the life of the bully than anything a school system can do.

5. Know the parents of your son/daughter’s classmates.  I just thought of this, and these contacts can be a good source of more information and support.  Often a bully works over more than one victim and even students who are not being bullied will be afraid.  Dealing with the fear and its source can only enhance learning for everyone.


It would be a mistake to rely on a school to totally resolve bullying without community support and involvement.  As a teacher, I can’t be everywhere all the time.  I do what I can where I am, but as a parent I recognize the mistake other parents make of relying on the school to do it all.  Parents have much more clout and power to make a school system move than its employees and especially the teachers.  They also can make a difference by talking to other parents and informing them and educating them about children with disabilities or children who are “different” for any reason at all.  I’m hopeful that we can move beyond being afraid of people simply because they look, act or talk differently from us.  And the key to improving the perceptions of the kids is to educate their parents.  And the most effective educating agent for those parents is other parents.





4 Responses to “Bullying and Autism”

  1. Jo November 20, 2007 at 9:43 pm #

    Excellent discourse on this topic. How we as parents/caregivers/family members of children with disabilities fear for these kids once they leave the protection of our eyes and strength. I will save your comments and refer to them. Personally, I consider myself a person whose mission is to spread autism awareness. thank you for taking the time to share.

  2. Jen April 16, 2008 at 12:01 pm #

    Thanks so much for this entry..my son has high function autism and he doesnt get the social aspect of things…which leaves him very vunerable to being a target…I rather have him here with me so i can protect him at all costs but know that it would be the worst mistake for him…..still it hurts to see him being called names…Thanks for the advice…If it keeps up i might just call in a meeting with the kid’s parents.

    Our school is very good in resolving some issues with bullying..but i know there will be some kids that dont get caught. I hate the expression my parents used on me by just ignoring the person..it doesnt hurt any less.

    Thanks Again for this entry.

  3. Thomas D. Taylor July 4, 2008 at 2:36 pm #

    Midnight In Chicago has a free downloadable audio podcast available for those on the autistic spectrum and parents of those on the spectrum called “Autism and Bullying: Parts I & II”.

    It is our hope that we have addressed the core issues of bullying as they apply to autistics.

    The podcasts can be found here: http://www.mic.mypodcast.com

  4. lisa September 6, 2008 at 10:35 am #


    I read your post on “Autism and Bullying” and have some comfort from it. My daughter is high functioning, yet it still hard for her to make friends. When we are waiting at the school bus stop, along with her two sisters, she gets the stares and curious looks from other kids because she does not take the bus. She gets transported to school by special transportation. Nevertheless, the thought that she may get bullied in school has crossed my mind. My beautiful autistic daughter does not look anyone in the eyes when she is being spoken to and she cringes when someone approaches her, which makes her appear weak. This breaks my heart, because I know how nasty children can be.

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