Written by Dru Ahlborg, Co-Founder and Executive Director of BRRC

The American Psychiatric Association defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests and repetitive behavior. While autism is considered a lifelong disorder, the degree of impairment in functioning because of these challenges varies between individuals with autism.” Autismspeaks.org adds “because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.”

*Nearly two-thirds (63%) of ASD youth have been bullied.
* Autism impacts all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
*In 2023, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1 in 36 children has been identified with ASD.

Why are ASD children targeted for bullying?

  • ASD children have difficulties reading social cues.
  • They struggle understanding common social conventions and have challenges with sarcasm.
  • Children with ASD may not notice or understand the intentions of their peers.
  • They can take things too literally.
  • They have trouble entering peer groups.

There are strategies available to disrupt the bullying of ASD children. They can be addressed in three different areas: bullying prevention, teacher strategies, and parenting strategies.

Bullying Prevention:
To be effective at bullying prevention, two separate items need 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 coached about different forms of bullying including unhealthy relationships and unhealthy romantic relationships. Strategies for children can be put in place which include speaking to a trusted teacher or adult at school about bullying incidents and learning self-advocacy skills and asking for intervention from adults in charge.
  • All school personnel should be educated about the characteristics of ASD and how to best interact with your child. Students should be taught about autism and be encouraged to create a culture of inclusion and kindness. A school that has a culture of kindness will reduce the incidents of bullying.
  • In schools, assigning proactive hallway monitors and adult buddies to autistic students will reduce opportunities for bullying during the most chaotic and least structured parts of the day.

Teacher Strategies:
Educators are the front-line of defense for children who are targeted for bullying. Below are some ideas teachers should employ to help protect children with ASD.

  • Teachers should know and follow the outlined procedures of the school or district about addressing bullying behavior.
  • Encourage a student who has been bullied to talk about what happened. If the student cannot verbalize it encourage the child to write about or draw the event.
  • When a teacher witnesses bullying they should immediately step up and step in between the parties. It is the adult’s responsibility to stop bullying.
  • Meet with the child who has been bullied in a safe place and provide support and talk about what happened. Speak to any other students who may be witnesses and ask them what happened.

Bullying Prevention for Parents:
It is vital that parents and caregivers of ASD children act at the first sign of their child being bullied. Many children, and especially autistic students may not readily speak up to their parents and let them know they have been targeted for harassment and bullying. Telling signs that a child may be a target of bullying can include an unwillingness to go to school, an abrupt change in routine, stress or anxiety, a decline in academic performance, an inability to maintain focus, torn clothes or damaged items or unexplained cuts and bruises. Parents can take measures listed below.

  • Visit the school often – primarily as an observer.
  • Have frequent conversations with your child and ask open-ended questions. Great examples include: “Who did you sit with at lunch? Which friends did you talk with today? What is your least favorite class and why?”
  • Develop open communication channels with your child’s teachers and ask them frequently about you child’s interactions during school.
  • Offer to teach school administrators and staff about the characteristics of autism.
  • Speak to teachers about your child’s specific strengths and challenges.
  • If you suspect your child may be bullied, report it to the school and follow-up.
  • Include bullying in your child’s IEP. Social skills and self-advocacy goals should be addressed in the IEP as well.
  • Ask the school to help find a buddy for your child. One kind friend to help an ASD child through the day will greatly help especially during less structured parts of the school day.
  • Mentor your child and highlight their strengths. Help build their self-esteem. Let them know they are not inferior to any other child.

Addressing the intersection of ASD and bullying is not just a matter of awareness; it’s a call to action for empathy, understanding, and proactive intervention. By fostering inclusive environments, educating communities, and empowering individuals with autism to embrace their unique strengths, we can create a world where differences are celebrated, not targeted. If you need additional help, have questions, or if your child is being bullied and the school isn’t responsive, please contact us.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde, advocate

“Autism is not a disability, it’s a different ability. That’s all.” – Stuart Duncan