Most research suggests that bullying is an under-reported event in schools today. Bullying frequently occurs in areas of minimal supervision and victims may fail to report the bullying incident because of a fear of reprisal, a fear of not being believed, or a belief that reporting the incident won’t help.
Students with ASD, particularly those with Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism (HFS), are thought to be at much higher risk for being bullied than more challenged students with ASD or than their typical peers because of their social difficulties, specifically a failure to accurately read social signals and a tendency to struggle with emotional regulation.
We’ve written tips of the month on the topic before, but the recent media focus on bullying brought the topic to the forefront yet again.
A recent visit to an intermediate classroom provided a very typical example of a school team struggling to support a student with ASD who was a victim of bullying. The student was being consistently ignored, teased or berated by his classmates, usually without the knowledge of the teacher. The victim was a kind and socially interested young boy who often acted impulsively and attempted to get the attention of his peers in ways they perceived as socially immature. The student who sat next to him often tried to re-direct the student with ASD but was not very assertive himself and on the playground backed away from physical play or conflict.
The teacher was extremely concerned about a couple of past incidents and had talked to her class about being kind to the victimized student on previous occasions. She modeled respect and understanding in her interactions with all the students, but the classroom had several needy students, including another student with Asperger’s Syndrome. The learning assistance teacher had created a social skills group with two supportive peers and the victimized student in which she tried to help the victimized student develop strategies to avoid bullies.
There was a strong element in her lessons of improving his social thinking so that he could understand why his behaviours were making him a target for bullying, but the primary strategy taught was to teach him to “walk away” (which, of course, left him with no social interaction).
The student with ASD tried very hard to be included but his efforts frequently failed. He was frustrated and sad that others didn’t like him or were mean to him even when he tried. More and more he was resisting coming to school, or was avoiding social situations by hiding in the washroom or retreating to the The problem was clearly multi-faceted and was not being successfully remedied by trying to improve the social skills of the student with ASD or by reminding his classmates to be kind.
How common is this picture and what can we do as teachers and parents to make a difference?
How do you know if there is problem in your school?
Ask the kids!
Research suggests that other students are often the most reliable judges of who are bullies and victims in their peer groups. Teach the difference between “ratting” and reporting. Remind bystanders of their role and encourage reporting to a designated adult such as the school counsellor.
Listen to concerns expressed by parents, students and colleagues.
If anyone notices a change in the behaviour or attitude of the student with ASD, it can be a sign that bullying or being ostracized is taking place. Take the concerns seriously and investigate! You can read about some of the common signs of bullying in Barbara Coloroso’s Bully Handout for Teens.
What makes a difference?
Here’s what the research shows:
Positive Behaviour Supports
Model and reinforce the concepts of support, kindness and acceptance. Adults should never ignore unkindness or bullying in their presence as that sends a message that these behaviours are tolerated or condoned.
School-wide Behavioural Expectations
Implement programs that provide clear consistent messages about how students are expected to treat each other, and that reward these behaviours.
peer sensitivity training
Encourage empathy in peers by teaching them about ASD and explaining why students with ASD behave as they do. Provide positive information about Asperger’s and HFA rather than focusing only on weaknesses. Help peers understand that students with ASD struggle with social and communication skills and ask for their help in redirecting their classmate.
Peer Mentoring Programs
Train and assign peer mentors who share similar interests with the student with ASD (strength based approach). Provide opportunities for the individual with ASD to use their strengths and affinities.
Address the Issue of Bystanders
Promote a culture in which bystanders are rewarded for stepping up to defend a victim. In Barbara Coloroso’s book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, she states, “a potent force is kids themselves showing bullies that they will not be looked up to, nor will their cruel behaviour be tolerated or condoned.”
So we say… take it seriously.
The attitude of “kids will be kids” should be relegated to history when it comes to bullying behaviours. With increased awareness, many schools have made great inroads in reducing overt school bullying and violence.
We recommend the following resources to help your school understand how to more effectively deal with the issue of bullying, particularly with regard to students with ASD:
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle (Updated Edition)