Autism Question #2: What to do when autistic kids are bullied at school?

One of the worst feelings for a parent is when your autistic kids are bullied at school. Follow the five steps to avoid and deal with bullying.

Bullying is one of the worst things about school and growing up – and more so if you’re a little bit different. Dealing with bullying comes down to 5 steps – ignore it, moving away, tell them to “stop”, laughing it off and telling a teacher. Developing social thinking can also help to understand social situations and what others might be thinking and doing.

What’s up with bullying?

Almost 65% of students with autism reported difficulties with fitting in socially at school.

Many autistic kids get bullied or picked on, have small social groups, and have trouble playing with others during unstructured times. In class time, they can also struggle to form groups (‘go pick someone to work with’) or work within a group. They may prefer to work on their own, or to be placed in small groups instead of finding their own.

Even in the broader school community, 1 in 4 students in year 4-9 report being bullied according to research in Australia from 2009. More recent data from 2016 show that 7 in 10 children experience bullying each year.

4 main difficulties at school for autistic children

What is bulling?

Bullying is ongoing and deliberate mean or aggressive behaviours. It is repeated over time and can be physical, verbal, or social.

Physical bullying includes fighting, punching, biting or pulling hair and stealing things.

Verbal bullying includes spoken or written words that are hurtful or insulting, such as slurs, teasing, taunting and name calling. This could also be online as part of cyber-bullying.

Social bullying are actions that socially isolate someone, ignore or exclude them out of social groups.

Bullying isn’t occasional mean or hurtful events, like if a friend doesn’t want to play with you one lunch, or if you have a disagreement with a friend. However, receiving criticism or feedback from your friends can still hurt and be confusing for autistic kids.

When is it bullying?

For autistic kids at school, bullying can be really confusing. Social situations are already perplexing, and what people say (including sarcasm) doesn’t always make sense when you interpret everything literally. Subtle body language and facial expressions can be difficult to pick up on, to make educated guesses about what other people are thinking and feeling. Autistic kids also have more rigid thinking patterns so compromising in play or having ‘flexible thinking’ to imagine other ways of doing things is tricky.

One thing that can help proactively is learning about social thinking. Having more skills in being able to understand social situations and expected behaviours can help kids adapt to different settings. Learning how to look at faces and body language and determine the emotions can help know when someone is frustrated, annoyed or angry at you.

What can you do about autistic kids being bullied?

It’s not easy dealing with bullying. Especially if you don’t have many friends, are a little different, or don’t fully understand what’s going on socially. There are 5 steps widely promoted for responding to bullying, and these are often displayed in schools.

  1. Ignore it
    Much advice around bullying suggests to first ignore it. Bullies often want a response, and if you don’t give one then they may stop.
  2. Move away
    Go somewhere else and walk away. Don’t get drawn into an argument or fight, but walk away. This can work well with physical bullying (like someone constantly kicking the back of your chair) or cyber bullying (like leaving a group chat or group and blocking the online bullies).
  3. Say “Stop it”
    Standing up to a bully, especially if you have a friend for support, can stop taunts or verbal bullying. Standing up for yourself and being clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not is an important part of growing up. Say something strong and clear like:
    “Stop, I don’t like that” or “Stop, that’s not cool” or “Stop, no one is impressed by what you’re doing and it’s wrong” or “Stop it, you’re being a bully”
  4. Laugh it off
    If you’ve got the with-it-all in the moment to respond, laughing it off or making a dismissive response can disarm a verbal bully. Kid’s Helpline suggest pretending to agree (oh yeah, you’re totally right about that one), being dismissive (that’s a terrible insult, I rate it 1 star) or pretending like you don’t understand (that didn’t even make sense – explain it to me).
  5. Tell an adult
    Find a teacher or trusted adult and tell them what’s happening.

Teaching the quick comeback

In the parenting book Raising Girls who like themselves, they talk about teaching a quick comeback. These are one-liners you can practice at home and quickly remember like

  • I don’t like that!
  • That’s not okay.
  • That’s mean.
  • Stop that, it’s annoying.

The delivery should be assertive, so practice speaking with volume and assertiveness at home. Also, for extra punch, they recommend using the bully’s name with the quick comeback, to show equal power.

Developing trusted adults in a network

One problem can be that autistic children don’t feel like they have any trusted adults at school. They can take a long time to make friends and trusted relationships. Maybe they are shy about talking to people they don’t know. Autistic kids are also more likely to have smaller friendship groups (if any!) so don’t have the social support of others to back them up.

Talk to your kids and school about who are trusted adults, and let school know if you child needs help/time developing these. Also, psychologists, uncles and aunties, and grandparents can all be trusted adults outside the immediate family too.

Building up friendships with peers can be tricky as well. While not everyone has to have a large friendship group, it can help to know what a good friend looks like. That way you can be one, and look for them too. Friends

  • share some common interests
  • are fun to be with and do shared activities with
  • are kind and trustworthy
  • take turns and are fair
  • listen to each other
  • stand up for each other
  • accept each other who who you are

But my child won’t talk to me

It can be confronting, confusing, hurtful and embarrassing to talk about being bullied. Trying to talk about it might cause strong emotions and dysregulation. Talking about tricky things can be a bit like trying to talk after a meltdown.

Try strategies like:

  • go for a walk and talk ‘alongside’ rather than face-to-face with eye contact
  • use a whiteboard or paper to draw pictures of what happened
  • write about it in words on paper or a whiteboard
  • use a toy or puppet to ask what happened and talk through the toy rather than directly to the child

Build proactive self-esteem

Feeling good about yourself and what you can do is a great way to be proactive about bully prevention.

Build self-esteem through using praise and showing unconditional love. Also, give opportunities to build up mastery and expertise in things through a growth mindset. These are all ways that we can help build up positive and proactive self-esteem. So, any bully’s taunts won’t have as much of an impact if autistic kids are bullied. You could even print out the 50 positive self-talk statements to remind your child that they are loved.

50 Positive Affirmations for Kids

What if my child is the bully?

Autistic kids can have a short fuse. They can get annoyed and frustrated quickly, and lash out. This might occur through hitting, biting or kicking, as the response is often physical. Autistic kids may also not have a great “filter” and just say what comes into their head. They can get stuck in a loop repeating things that are considered socially inappropriate. It might be ‘bad words’ or telling someone they smell.

Using Social Thinking and discussing Unexpected Behaviours can help frame what’s socially expected. Developing strategies for self-regulation and calming can also short-cut some incidences when there’s an annoyance. But there still might be times when the autistic child gets set up to do something and they get in trouble. Being a considerate advocate of your child at school, communicating openly about your child’s concerns, can help teachers gain another perspective. Also, asking your therapists such as a psychologist to talk to school about your child’s social understandings and what works best can be helpful.

Conclusion: when autistic kids are bullied

It is never going to be easy, and with 65% of autistic children having trouble fitting in socially at school, it’s an issue for lots of people. So, if you have an autistic kid being bullied, consider the 5 steps and Social Thinking.

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