Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Bullying. 

What you need to know and what you can do.

By Dru Ahlborg, Co-Founder and Executive Director of BRRC states “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and non-verbal communication.  We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.” 

*In 2023, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 36 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is an increase from 1 in 44 that was reported just two years ago.

*Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

*Nearly two-thirds of children with autism between the ages of 6-15 have been bullied.

Our organization, BRRC, assists families who’s child is or has been a target of bullying. We estimate that over 40% of the families we have aided have a child who has ASD. Many people with ASD have challenges recognizing social cues which can make them appear awkward around others. They can engage in repetitive behaviors and tend to be hypersensitive to environmental stimuli which can make them a likely target for a child who engages in bullying behavior.

One study found that the highest functioning ASD children were at the greatest risk of being bullied. Many high-functioning ASD children spend more time in mainstream classrooms versus a special educational environment. ASD children who spend a majority of their schooling with mainstream peers makes their differences more obvious. The study further stated that children with autism who could speak well were three times more likely to be bullied than those who spend the majority of their time in special education.

Strategies to disrupt the bullying of ASD children can be addressed in three areas:
Bullying Prevention
Teachers and Bullying Prevention 
Parenting Strategies

Bullying Prevention:
Preventing bullying for ASD students require two needs to be addressed. The first is to address the needs of the ASD community and the second is to address the attitude and environment that leads to bullying.

  • ASD children can be taught about different forms of bullying that include unhealthy friendships and romantic relationship. Strategies can include speaking to a trusted teacher or administrator about bullying incidents as well as learning self-advocacy skills and asking for intervention from adults.
  • Education about ASD and the characteristics of autism should be available to all the adults who interact with your child. Children should be taught about autism and how a culture of inclusion and kindness will better serve all students and the learning environment.
  • Assigning proactive hallway monitors and adult or peer buddies to ASD students will reduce bullying during the most chaotic and least structured portions of the day.

Teachers and Bullying Prevention:
Teachers and adults in the classroom are the front line defense for an ASD child targeted for bullying. Here are some ideas for teachers:

  • Follow the school’s outlined procedure for reporting and addressing bullying behavior. If there are not adequate procedures for reporting and addressing bullying, suggest and assist in making meaningful recommendations.
  • Report every bullying incidence.
  • Encourage the ASD bullying target to talk with you about what happened. If the student cannot verbalize it, encourage them to write, journal or even draw the event. Reassure them that they are not “tattling.”
  • If you witness bullying behavior, step up and step in between the children. It is an adults responsibility to stop the bullying event.
  • When meeting with an ASD student who has been bullied choose a safe place to provide support and talk about what happened. Speak with any students who may have witnessed the event and calmly inquire what occurred.

Parenting Strategies:
It is very important that parents of ASD children act at the first hint of their child being bullied. Often a child, and especially an ASD child may not readily speak up to let their parents know they are being harassed, targeted and bullied. Warning signs of bullying may include: an unwillingness to attend school, a sudden change in routine, stress and anxiety, decline in academic performance, inability to maintain focus, torn clothes, damaged personal items and unexplained cuts or bruises.

Ideas to reduce the threat of bullying for an ASD child include:

  • Visiting the school often – primarily as an observer.
  • Enlist in frequent conversations with your child and ask open-ended questions such as: “Who did you sit with at lunch? Which friends did you talk with today? What is your least favorite class? Why?”
  • Build open communication channels with your child’s teachers and ask them frequently about your child’s interactions at school.
  • Talk and help educate school administration about the characteristics of autism.
  • Have open dialogue with teachers about your child’s specific strengths and challenges.
  • Speak and educate other school personnel (lunchroom monitors, school bus drivers, playground monitors, etc.) about autism awareness. Feel free to bring printed literature about ASD to them.
  • If you are concerned your child is being bullied, make sure you report it to the school and follow-up.
  • Consider including bullying in your child’s IEP. Social skills and self-advocacy skill goals should be included in the IEP.
  • Encourage the school to facilitate a buddy for your child. 
  • Mentor your child and remind them of the strengths. Let them know they are NOT inferior to any other child.

Parents of special needs children are truly superheroes. Everyday these parents put on their superhero capes and become hyperaware and responsive with their children. It is tragic that ASD children become frequent targets of bullying because of their uniques abilities and mannerisms. It is worth the additional time, coaching and communication to assist the ASD child in hopes of reducing the opportunity for bullying. If you need additional help or if your child is being bullied, please contact us for help. No child ever deserves to be bullied.