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Zero tolerance is not enough!

A core deficit of ASD is difficulty understanding or reading the intentions of others.
The child who is accidentally bumped may react as if the bump was done on purpose. The child who is maliciously teased may think that those teasing him are his friends because they are paying attention to him. Understanding the motivation behind others actions can elude many students with ASD making them even more at risk for damage by bullying from those who target students who are differently abled.

On the other hand, the student with ASD who is accidentally hurt or unintentionally excluded may report that he is being bullied, although the intention to bully is absent. Bullies are known to target kids who don’t have strong peer group connections, and they are usually clever enough to bully out of sight of supervising adults, so when bullying is reported by the student with ASD it can be difficult to determine whether the “bullying“ was intentional or not.

However, whether the bullying is real or perceived, it can significantly damage the confidence and self worth of the individual on the receiving end. So how can we protect students with ASD from these negative effects while minimizing the chances that typical students may be falsely accused or punished? We believe the key is to be proactive.

Consider the following tips:

  • Provide adequate supervision. Most students will not bully a severely disabled student but instead target the student with less visible differences. Students who are near the eye of a watchful adult are less likely to be bullied. Be careful not to hover too closely however, or the typical kids will disappear removing potential opportunities for positive social interactions!
  • Teach the student with ASD how to read facial expressions and body language. There are many commercial materials available to teach these skills as well as some useful websites listed below.
  • Teach the peers about respecting diversity. Point out the strengths of all the students, especially the student with ASD. Class-wide programs that target understanding and acceptance of those with ASD are widely available and we’ve listed some examples below that are appropriate for specific age groups. In British Columbia, the Canucks Autism Network is doing a great job of getting many of these materials out to schools.
  • Teach Social Thinking™ . Students with ASD who are intellectually capable can benefit greatly from programs that teach Social Thinking™, to help them better understand how their own behaviours might impact how others treat them. Adam, a student with Asperger’s, in the film The Boy Inside by Marianne Kaplan, reported that he had “no clue” why he wasn’t accepted into conversations. Programs like Think Social by Michelle Garcia Winner can help develop the insight and skills necessary for the student with ASD to succeed socially.
  • Use peer buddies or a circle of friends so that the student with ASD has something to do and someone to be with during unstructured times like recess and lunch.
  • Teach the student with ASD emotional regulation skills. A 2007 Canadian study indicated that students who reacted emotionally to bullying were more likely to be targeted repeatedly. Specific strategies need to be taught and practiced for the student with ASD to learn and generalize needed emotional regulation skills.
  • Create supervised activities in an area of interest to the student with ASD during recess and lunch. Invite peers with similar interests.
  • De-brief altercations in which bullying has been reported. Use visual tools such as comic strip conversations to help the student with ASD understand the perspective of others. Role play alternative responses.
  • Teach the ASD student appropriate responses to the initiations of others. In other words… what should he do and say when: someone asks him to play; someone calls him a name; someone tells him to go away, etc.?

Bottom line…

  • Solutions to bullying are not as simple as a “zero tolerance for bullying” policy. When it comes to students with ASD we need to educate both the student and his peers if we are to effectively eliminate bullying and the negative effects of perceived bullying.

Resources for Peer Education

Please note: The following list of resources contains only a small sample of what is available and represents a place to start in your search for effective tools.

In British Columbia, the POPARD consultant that serves your district can assist your school team in designing a peer education program that specifically meets your needs or you can check out the following resources:


Craig W., Peplar,D., and Blais J. (2007) Responding to Bullying: What Works? School Psychology International; 28; 465

The Boy Inside, a film produced and directed by Marianne Kaplan, 2006, MSK Productions Inc. Moving Images Distribution, 606 – 402 W. Pender Street, Vancouver B.C. V6B 1T6; www.theboyinside.com; Available with study guide in all British Columbia School Districts.

Kaplan, Marianne and Brett, Dawn; The Boy Inside Study Guide, (2007), Province of British Columbia

Winner, Michelle Garcia Think Social: A Social Thinking Curriculum for School Aged Students (2006) www.socialthinking.com