Coping with Autism and Bullying

Coping with Autism and Bullying

By Kevin Cleary

Bullying is appalling no matter who it happens to, but when your child on the autism spectrum it seems to be worse. Since autism affects social development because children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to mean-spirited barbs from other children. Some of this bullying is intentional to trigger meltdowns and aggressive outbursts by their so-called peers, according to These tasteful actions can be a deterrent to your child for learning. As if it isn’t hard enough for a parent to deal with a child on the autism spectrum, but having to deal with bullying is another burden.

How Prevalent Is Bullying?

Unfortunately, bullying has reared its ugly head in pretty much all the schools across the country. It’s extremely troubling when children and adolescent decide to focus their antagonism towards those affected by autism. In an article for the Huffington Post, they cite a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that states nearly half of those affected by ASD have been bullied. Study draws upon information done for the Department of Education over a decade that shows that 46.3% are victims of bullying. The same study shows that 14.8% of those affected by ASD engage in perpetration, while 8.9% fall into both categories simultaneously (perpetration/victimization).

Consequences of Bullying

Since autistic children and adolescents have lesser developed social skills they are easy targets for bullies. An autistic child’s inability to recognize sarcasm or subtleties in language allow these predators to exploit autistic children in many ways, including pretending to be their friend while mocking them to others. The consequences of bullying can be devastating to autistic children and their families. Posttraumatic stress disorder or similar symptoms can result from bullying according to They also point out that bullying can create social anxiety issues as well as creating an environment of hostility. This can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, and less motivation. As a result, grades can suffer in school and workplace productivity can dwindle.

Can Bullying Be Prevented?

With bullying being as prevalent as it is today, the US Department of Education views bullying as a national public safety issue. The old adage of “kids will be kids” is no longer accepted, but what can be done to prevent bullying especially in those affected by ASD. In an article for, Lori Ernsperger, PhD identifies three items that can help with bullying prevention. According to her article, the first step is recognition of bullying. Not just the prevalence of bullying in schools but the fact that schools, parents, and professionals must recognize the complexities and various forms of bullying. There also must be recognition of the signs of bullying such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. The next step she identifies is response. Schools, parents, and professionals must have a comprehensive anti-bullying plan which response to the bully, bystanders, and the victims. This response needs to be immediate and consistent. Even the smallest amount of bullying can escalate if left unaddressed. Lastly she addresses the need to report all instances of bullying. Schools need to have all officials, whether they’re teachers or staff, report all instances of bullying to school officials so that their anti-bullying plan can be implemented. In 2001, Dr. Michelle Borba came up with the CALM approach for children with autism who face bullying. Below is a breakdown of what the CALM acronym stands for:

  • Cool down. Teach students to recognize stress signals and learn calming strategies. Deep breathing and positive value statements can be practiced with the student.
  • Assert yourself. Part of the social skills curriculum for students with ASD should include teaching assertive body language. Role playing and video modeling can assist in teaching non-verbal body language that can deflect and detour bullying attempts.
  • Look them in the eye. Although eye contact can be difficult for some students with ASD, parents and school professionals should teach students how to face a bully and look them in the eye. Visual supports and a social story may be beneficial in teaching eye contact during a bullying attempt.
  • Mean it. The speech and language therapist and school team should work directly with the victim of bullying on specific language scripts for responding to a bully. Students should learn a non-confrontational script such as “stop that,” “leave me alone,” “you are being a bully,” or “get away from me now.”

Through education and quick, consistent intervention we can help combat the blight of bullying in our schools and daily lives.


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