It was a Wednesday afternoon and John, an autistic 14-year-old, was coming in for his third counseling session. He had shared little during his last two sessions and mostly sat and stared around my office. John and I had been working on rapport and by his third session, he had begun to feel comfortable with me and started telling me about his troubles at school, which mainly dealt with peers. He started slowly, but eventually disclosed to me the daily bullying he was experiencing at his school. John spoke about other peers calling him names (I will not list them here as they are highly offensive), being laughed at, made fun of, being hit, pushed, tripped, and having false stories made up about him.
John had never told anyone in authority at his school that he was being bullied (typical of children with autism) and he had disclosed little of what was happening to him to his parents. John did not fully understand what was meant by bullying and why other students were treating him badly. He knew it felt bad, he knew it created a great deal of anxiety for him, he knew that he excluded himself to avoid being hurt, and he knew that school was a place he did not want to attend.
John’s story is like the stories of many autistic children. It is not uncommon for autistic children to become victims of bullying. It is also not uncommon for children with autism to not tell teachers, or even their parents about bullying they are experiencing. It is often challenging for children to understand what is happening and how to handle it. Some children may even believe they deserve to be treated badly, while others may not even realize they are being bullied and think the bully is their friend. Bullies are not discriminating, and autistic children are too often easy targets for a bully’s emotional abuse.
Many autistic children struggle to learn effective ways to handle bullies. Aggressive social skills training focused on dealing with bullies can be a worthwhile approach, but often an adult – parent or school official, needs to intervene and provide help. Every school has an anti-bullying policy and those policies should be followed. If you have a child in school who is being bullied, it is important to report the issue to the school. Many schools will follow school policy and actively pursue eliminating the bullying. It is also important that children learn how to report bullying and become comfortable with reporting. Therapists, parents, and school personnel should establish a simple protocol for children to report bullying behaviors and actively encourage children to report. If the school will not help, parents need to know what their options are (see below). Children with autism have enough to handle without being exposed to bullying behaviors. We must acknowledge and eliminate bullying; it cannot be ignored and invalidated as something that just happens. It is a child’s right to be in a bully free environment.
What is Bullying? What does Bullying look like?
Bullying: unwanted, aggressive behavior among children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance (physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or even popularity) used to control or harm.
Types of Bullying:
- Verbal: saying or writing mean things (teasing, name-calling, taunting, threatening to cause harm)
- Social: hurting someone’s reputation or relationship (leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public)
- Physical: hurting a person’s body or possessions (hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, breaking someone else’s things, making mean or rude gestures)
- Grooming and Scapegoating: Setting someone else up to take the fall for their behaviors
- Bullying can happen in person or online (cyber bullying).
Safe Place https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/bullying
ABC: Anti Bullying Coalition http://antibullyingcoalition.blogspot.com.
Stop Bullying www.stopbullying.gov
Stomp Out Bullying www.stompoutbullying.com
Stop Cyber Bullying www.stopcyberbullying.com
What are the laws about bullying?
Every school district is required to have an anti-bullying policy, per Section 160.775 RSMo.
Steps to take to keep your child safe from a bully at school (if the school doesn’t act).
If a crime has been committed, call 911.
If a person is feeling hopeless or is having thoughts of suicide, call 800-273-8255.
Contact Courage 2 Report – 1-866-748-7047
Look into getting help from a counselor or therapist.
Contact the necessary individuals or departments with the following chain-of-command: I) the teacher, II) school counselor, III) principal, IV) superintendent, V) State Department of Education, VI) U.S. Department of Education (Office for Civil Rights), or the VII) U.S. Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division), if necessary.
(Note: “John” is not a specific client but an example of common experiences when working with children with ASD who are experiencing bullying).