Bullying & Autism

Cynthia Lowen, co-filmmaker of the documentary Bully and co-author of The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention and Intervention, notes that children with an autism spectrum disorder are more likely to be bullied due to their communication deficits, impaired social interactions and repetitive, restricted behaviors, interests, and activities. Although these are small differences that make children with autism more likely to be bullied, bullying often trails them from elementary school through high school.

According to a recent study from the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, nearly half of U.S. children with an autism spectrum disorder are victims of bullying. The study found that about 46 percent of teens with an autism spectrum disorder had been bullied – a much higher rate than the national average of less than 11 percent for other teens.

To make schools safe for all, students, educators and parents need the tools to recognize and respond to bullying of youth on the autism spectrum. Lowen and co-author Cindy Miller offer this guidance:

Educators can make schools safe for students on the autism spectrum by:

  • Conducting school-wide autism awareness training, including peers, teachers, bus drivers, athletic coaches and lunch and recess monitors.
  • Creating peer support networks for youth with autism, and implement reporting systems that kids with autism can use.
  • Ensuring IEP (individualized education program) team leaders are aware of the risks associated with autism and bullying, and that plans include ways to prevent bullying.
  • Promoting ongoing parent, teacher and specialist communication.

Parents can help prevent children with autism from being bullied by:

  • Getting educated and learn from the resources available to you, such as pediatricians or early intervention specialists.
  • Reaching out to the school and ask how you can partner with the educators.
  • Developing tools to communicate with your child about bullying.
  • Practicing confidence-building, reading social cues and responding to bullying with your kids.
  • Partnering with your child’s educators to develop an IEP that includes an anti-bullying strategy.
  • Finding resources to be prepared, such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ special needs anti-bullying toolkit.

Kids can stand up for peers with autism by:

  • Developing friendships with kids with autism, celebrating their capacity for imaginative thinking.
  • Considering ways you can educate your peers to understand and celebrate those with autism.
  • Creating activities that promote inclusion within your school community.
  • Standing up for peers in a safe way. For example, inviting a child to sit with them at lunch, telling an aggressive child to stop behaving badly, not joining in bullying but help the victim walk away or tell an adult.

Lowen and Miller provide additional resources for educators, community leaders, parents and students in their new book, The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention and Intervention.

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