Bullying and Autistic Children.  Why it Happens, and How to Help Prevent and Stop it.

By Dru Ahlborg, BRRC

“It’s really cool that everybody’s a little different, but the same, too.”
– Julia the four-year-old girl with autism on Sesame Street


According to Psychology Today, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is “a developmental disorder that involves impairments in social interaction and communication, challenges with sensory processing, and repetitive behaviors.  The term ‘spectrum’ reflects the fact that symptoms vary across different individuals, ranging in type and severity.”

Our organization, Bullying Recovery Resource Center works with families whose child is or has been a target of bullying.  A large population of the parents we have spoken to and assisted have a child who is on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.  In more simple terms, a child with autism generally has difficulty communicating and understanding what people think and feel.  This makes it challenging for a child on the spectrum to respond to gestures, facial expressions, touch and even language.

The statistics surrounding children diagnosed with autism and related disabilities in relationship to bullying are alarming.  They are 2 to 3 times more likely to get bullied than other typically developing children.  In fact, according to organization Autism Speaks, nearly two-thirds (63%) of autistic spectrum youth have been bullied.  To make matters even worse, according to one study, when reporting bullying, youth in special education were told not to “tattle” almost twice as often as youth not in special education.

There appear to be several reasons why autistic people are targeted by bullies.  Bullies many times choose targets who have a perceived inability to respond assertively to bullying.  Children with autism generally do not recognize sarcasm and subtleties of speech and perpetrators of bullying will frequently mock and publicly humiliate the target.  Many autistic children are somewhat socially cut off from their peers, already have feelings of inadequacy and poor self-esteem and sometimes show limited control of what is happening around them.  Bullies are known to target children who exemplify these behaviors.

Strategies to disrupt the bullying of autistic children can be addressed in three different areas:

Preventing bullying, teachers helping to prevent bullying of autistic students and tips for parents for autistic children.


Bullying Prevention and Strategies:

Preventing bullying for autistic children requires two needs to be addressed.  The first is to address the needs of the autistic community and the second is addressing the attitude and environment that leads to bullying.

  • Autistic children can be educated about different forms of bullying that include unhealthy friendships and romantic relationships. Strategies can be suggested including speaking to a teacher or administrator about bullying incidents as well as self-advocating and asking for intermediation from the adults in charge.
  • Members of the school, church, sporting team, etc. can be informed about the nature of autism and characteristics of autistic children. An environment of encouragement and acceptance of all will lessen the likelihood of bullying.  A culture of inclusivity will reduce the chance that a child is harmed due to a difference in social or communication skills.
  • In schools, assigning proactive hallway monitors and adult buddies to autistic students will reduce bullying during the most chaotic and least structured portions of the day.

Bullying prevention and action for Teachers:

Teachers are the front line of defense for a target of bullying.  Here are some insightful ideas that teachers can adhere to.

  • Follow the school’s outlined procedures for reporting and addressing bullying behavior.
  • Encourage the bully’s target to talk about what happened with you. If the student cannot verbalize about it, encourage them to write, journal or even draw the event.  Reassure them that they are not “tattling.”
  • When you see bullying happen, step up and step in between the two parties. It is your responsibility to make the bullying event stop.
  • Meet with the bully’s target in a safe place and provide support and talk about what happened. Speak to any students who may be witnesses and calmly ask them what happened.

Bullying Prevention and interaction for parents:

It is paramount that parents of autistic children act at the first hint of their child being bullied.  Often times a child, and especially autistic children, may not readily speak up to their parents and let them know they are being harassed, targeted and bullied.  Some warning signs that parents need to pay attention to are unwillingness to go to school, sudden change in routine, stress or anxiety, decline in academic performance or inability to maintain focus, torn clothes or damaged books and unexplained cuts or bruises.

Here are some great ideas for parents to get involved and reduce the threat of bullying for their autistic child.

  • Visit the school often – primarily as an observer.
  • Have frequent conversations with your child and ask open-ended questions such as: “Who did you sit with at lunch? Which friends do you talk to during the day?  What is your least favorite class?  Why?”
  • Have open communication channels with teachers and ask them frequently about your child’s interactions at school.
  • Talk to the school administration about the characteristics of autism.
  • Have open dialogue with teachers about your child’s specific strengths and challenges.
  • Speak to other school personnel (lunchroom monitors, bus drivers, etc.) about autism awareness. You may want to give them a hand-out or brochure to help educate them.
  • If you are concerned or if your child is 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 also be included in the IEP.
  • Encourage the school to facilitate a buddy for your child. For any child, especially a child who might be a target for bullying, it is important that they have at least one good friend who can help accompany them during less structured parts of the school day.
  • Mentor your child and remind them of their strengths. Remind them that they are NOT inferior to any other child.  Work with them to build their self-esteem.

Parent of a special needs children are truly superheroes.  Everyday these parents need to put on their capes and become hyperaware and responsive with their children.  It is heartbreaking that children become targets because of their different abilities with interacting with the world and its people.  It is worth the extra time, coaching and communication required to aid in reducing bullying for your child.  They are counting on you.  If you need additional help, or if your child is being bullied, please contact us.  https://bullyingrecoveryresourcecenter.org   No child ever deserves to be bullied.

“Do not fear people with autism, embrace them.  Do not spite people with autism, unite them. 
Do not deny people with autism, accept them, for their abilities will shine.”

-Paul Isaacs, Autism Training, Consultant, Speaker and Author