Bullying and Autism – How We Can Help
The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bullying as the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online. This definition encompasses four key elements of bullying – hurtful, repetition, a power imbalance, and intentional.
Bullying tends to be a group behavior and rarely takes place just between the victim and bully alone; peers are present in 85% to 88% of all bullying episodes.
Autistic children are more likely to experience bullying that their typically developing peers. There are a number of studies worldwide that support this statement. For example, US studies found that 63% of autistic children report that they have been bullied at any time, and 38% reported being bullied during the past month. Some research has found bullying to be as high as 94%. In a 2022 study, autism was found to be the top risk factor for bullying exposure among all neurodevelopmental disorders. A 2019 study found that autistic children are more likely to be bullied by both their siblings and their peers, so when they return home from school, they have no respite from victimization.
Keep in mind that this data may understate the bullying issue as not all autistic young people will understand they are in a bullying situation and may not be adequately supported to communicate their experiences.
Bullying not only happens to children in school, but also to adults in the workplace. There is an excellent in-depth article on workplace bullying entitled Workplace bullying of autistic people: a Vicious cycle. It is well worth reading to learn more about the types of workplace bullying and why it occurs. The author says, “the cycle of bullying in the workplace is embedded in both organizational systems and in human biases. Therefore, it is unlikely to be broken without significant structural intervention.”
Bullying can have serious long term effects on a person’s mental health and well-being. It can lower a person’s self-esteem, make them isolated and lonely, and feel unsafe. One of the leading causes of school refusal is bullying. It should never be ignored.
The focus of this post will be on school aged children; however, some information may be helpful for adults as well.
What the different types of bullying?
Bullying can happen in several ways. Some examples are:
- Physical bullying – pushing, pulling, hitting, kicking or other physical acts such as stealing comfort items
- Emotional bullying – exclusion from social activities, ignoring a person, telling lies to get the person in trouble, doing deliberate things to cause a meltdown
- Verbal bullying – teasing, name calling, insults, threats, laughing at them, spreading rumors
- Online/cyberbullying – exclusion from group chats, sharing private images without consent, creating a social media page dedicated to hate comments about a person, creating awful memes, posting anonymous comments on social media, sending upsetting text messages
Why are autistic children more at risk for bullying?
Autistic children often have difficulty with social connections, reciprocal play and communication, peer relationships, and using body language to communicate with others. They may have repetitive behavior including body movements and language, and narrow or unusual interests. Some examples of contributing factors for bullying are:
- Social Interaction – difficulty reading social cues, not understanding social norms, not understanding the intention of others, trouble joining in to groups
- Being Different or Perceived as Different – students may not understand sensory issues, personal interests and passions, ways of expressing oneself
- Communication Differences – may take things literally, difficulty reading facial expressions or understanding nonverbal cues and gestures
- Lack of understanding or empathy about autism – not understanding autism can contribute to negative attitudes towards autistic people and lead to bullying
- Perception or interpretation of accommodations – sometimes additional supports and accommodations can be misconstrued and make an autistic child stand out or cause other students to be jealous because they think the autistic student is getting preferential treatment
- School environment – some school environments lack resources or an understanding of autism; school culture is created by the leadership team and there has to be a whole school approach to anti-bullying
What are the signs that a child is being bullied?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a child is being bullied because they may not realize they are being bullied. Communication difficulties can make it harder for a child to tell a parent or school staff about an incident.
The Autism Community in Action (TACA) has a list of bullying warning signs:
- Unexplained bruises or other physical injuries
- Increased anxiety
- New or increased aggression
- New or increased self-injurious behaviors
- Thoughts of suicide
- Acting angry, sullen, or having mood swings
- New or increased elopement behaviors
- Complaints of illness or faking illness
- Change in eating habits
- Difficulty sleeping
- A decline in schoolwork or grades
- Loss of interest in school
- School refusal
- Frequent visits to the school nurse or office to avoid going to class
- Lost or destroyed items such as clothing, books, electronics
- Loss of friends
- Avoidance of social situations
What can we do to address bullying?
It is never a child’s fault that they are target of bullying. Bullying always requires adult intervention. Contact school leaders and keep a child’s educational team informed and involved. Create a safety plan together which may include:
- In-service education for school staff to explain autism and vulnerability to bullying
- Peer education to help classmates better understand autism
- Positive bystander training for classmates
Let the child know:
- They are not to blame.
- You believe what they are telling you.
- They aren’t alone. An adult is here to help.
- It is the adults’ responsibility to make the bullying stop.
- Bullying is never okay, and they have the right to be safe.
- No one deserves to be bullied.
- They deserve to be treated with respect.
- They have the right to feel safe at school.
If an autistic child finds it difficult to talk to an adult face-to-face, it may be easier to write about the incident or draw a picture about what happened. Discuss with the child what they want to have happen and what they want (or don’t want) you to do. Agree together on way forward. Keep a record of all incidents – who was involved, what happened, what action was taken (if any).
Autism Spectrum Australia says, “Bullying is a social problem that needs to be addressed at the political, societal, cultural, community and organizational levels. Educating the whole school community, families and workplace colleagues, on what bullying is and how to prevent, needs to involve everyone. Active support from teachers, peers and family and learning appropriate ways of coping with bullies have been shown to be effective.
Taking a whole school approach can reduce bullying. This includes:
- providing all students with anti-bullying lessons as part of the curriculum.
- encouraging children to tell someone when they are being bullied.
- including all staff and pupils in preventing bullying.
- having clear posters and literature to emphasize the zero-tolerance approach of schools to bullying.
- integrating neurodiversity and inclusiveness into school-based anti-bullying programs.
The Anti-Bullying Alliance says that bullying interventions need to acknowledge the different communication needs of autistic young people and a multifaceted approach does appear to be the way forward, and will help autistic young people to enjoy school, feeling accepted for who they are. Approaches should also be informed by research. I have listed a number of bullying prevention resources from different countries to provide ideas and options on how to eliminate bullying and to support autistic individuals in feeling safe, confident and understood.
Bullying Prevention Resources
Autism and Bullying – TACA
Hertzog, J. (December 20, 2023). Is Your Child With Autism Being Bullied? Five Ways to Take Action. Autism Parenting Magazine
White, S. (June 8, 2022). Kids on the autism spectrum experience more bullying. Schools can do something about it. The Conversation
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