Research shows that around 40% of children with Autism spectrum Disorders have been bullied. I would suggest the figure is probably higher with unreported or unknown incidents.
What is the reason for such a high number?
Unfortunately it is all too common that children showing behaviour different to that of their peers are often picked on for it. There is a lack of understanding amongst children in schools about Autism and other special needs, leading to children being seen as different or weird. This leads to bullying.
What can be done about the problem?
The key is to educate children about Autism. This is the mistake my son’s school made, they did not tell the other children that my child was Autistic. They did not explain what Autism was or how it affected him and this meant they did not understand.
Some children thought it was funny to wind him up. To poke him or hit him or laugh at him until he couldn’t handle it and ended up going into fight or flight mode or having a meltdown. A child banging his head off the wall, throwing chairs and trying to climb over the school fence is unfortunately very entertaining to a lot of children. He was deliberately excluded from games and children moved away from him when he sat down.
Most of these things were due to lack of understanding of why my son was different and all of them contributed to my sons hate of school. He can’t understand social situations as it is and he is a very caring child so he just could not get his head round why people would be so horrible to him. Bullying has a detrimental effect on children’s well-being, especially if it is added to difficulties that they are already experiencing at school.
It didn’t stop with the children either, because the children had no idea why my son behaved the way he did, their parents didn’t either. Parents told their children to stay away from my son, that he was “naughty”. They complained to school about him and asked the school to move their children to the other class. They complained to me in the playground and told my son off. My son was left uninvited to birthday parties or other events. I was left to educate the parents whenever they told me that my child was a nightmare. Generally I had to put up with dirty looks and being isolated from other parents in the playground.
The other key is to educate teachers about Autism. More training is definitely needed in this area. Teachers don’t often notice the more subtle bullying and because my son couldn’t tell them what caused him to run away or his meltdowns, they addressed them as misbehaviour rather than addressing the cause.
My son was, to an extent, also bullied by members of staff. Teachers that unnecessarily shouted at him, hurting his ears after he had had a meltdown. Teachers that used excessive force to handle him. Teachers that forced him to be in situations he couldn’t handle. The numerous teachers that got involved and surrounded my child when he just needed to be left alone. The head that called him naughty in front of him. It wasn’t entirely the teachers fault because my son was hard work because he was in the wrong environment, but had they had better training they could’ve handled the situations better.
If all teachers, including management roles received better training about Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD and if children were educated about it too then perhaps children would be more accepting of those who are different and situations like my sons could be turned around. Better understanding and awareness is key, as is teaching the next generation to accept and include those that aren’t the same as them. If this had been implemented in my sons school then my son could have been spared years of crying himself to sleep at night and wishing he was dead.
So how do you tell if your child is being bullied?
A lot of Autistic children struggle with communication. To tell their parents if they are bullied might be impossible. Children with Autism often don’t have the communication skills necessary to tell their teacher or parents if someone hurts them or says something to upset them. They might not even recognise or understand their own feelings or even the fact they are being bullied so in short they might not tell you.
You may notice signs that your child might be being bullied. These can include your child coming home with unusual bruises, marks or scratches or missing belongings. Please note though that not all bullying is physical. They might show unexpected changes in their behaviour, anxiety levels, sleeping patterns or meltdowns or be extra reluctant to go to school. Some children might even act out what the bullies are doing by bullying other children because they don’t understand that it is unacceptable.
What can you do to help?
No matter how much you might want to go straight to the bully and shout at them, this might not be the best plan.
You could arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss your concerns. If you are worried you may not be taken seriously then it may be helpful to back up what you are saying with a written list of incidents and when they happened.
Every school should have a bullying policy which you are entitled to read.
You may need to take it further than the class teacher if you feel like talking to them hasn’t or won’t solve your problems. The next step would be to take it higher and, if your child has one talk to their head of year and then the head teacher. At this stage, also putting it in writing may be appropriate.
If you still don’t get the result you want then you may have to follow the school’s complaints procedure to take it further, taking it to the school governors.
If you still aren’t satisfied that your child’s situation is being dealt with properly you can then involve your local authority or education authority.
In the meantime you can help your child by being there for them. Sometimes social stories or specially written books can help. You can help build your child’s self esteem, something bullying can destroy, by giving them lots of praise or it may be that your child needs professional help. My son ended up suicidal and seeing a psychologist who really helped him. Be aware that online bullying is very much an issue too and monitoring your child’s online usage and messages may help with this.
If you feel that your child is in immediate danger of suicide please remember you can take them to your nearest emergency room for help.
Other help and advice
There are numerous charities in the UK who can give advice if you/your child is being bullied. Amongst others are:
The Anti bullying alliance website has lots of helpful information.
ChildLine is a free 24-hour confidential helpline for children and young people. Their number is 0800 1111.
The National Autistic Society helpline are able to provide information and advice. They can be contacted on 0808 800 4104. They are open Monday-Thursday 10am – 4pm and Friday 9am – 3pm.
For my readers in the US, the National Autism Association website has information on bullying. There is also The American Autism Association help hotline, who are able to provide information and resources on Autism. They can be contacted on 877-654-GIVE.
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