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Bullying and Autism: How to Recognize Harmful Behavior and Create a Safer School Environment

Contributor and educational coach Olivia Tyson has experience mentoring students on the autism spectrum who have dealt with bullying. She explores how high school and college students can detect, report, and cope with bullying behaviors. She also gives concrete actions that people witnessing bullying can take–it’s essential to not be “passive bystanders.”

Introduction

For many people, the word “bullying” may be associated with elementary, middle, and high school level students. But, disappointingly, bullying does not stop at a specific age; some people still target those who are “different” during college years and into adulthood. As an educational coach for several college students on the autism spectrum, I have witnessed some instances of bullying behavior. However, despite these challenges, our students are increasingly able to detect the behavior, speak up about their experiences, and build strength and resilience. Here I explore different ways bullying can happen and how to recognize the behavior. I also propose ways to help schools create safer spaces and engage in proactive solutions.

What is Bullying? How Can I Recognize It?

Bullying has been on the rise in recent years and is now considered a national epidemic, with one in three students bullied at school or a school-related event. However, a report from the Interactive Autism Network shows that in one study, 63% of students on the spectrum surveyed had been bullied, and that those students on the autism spectrum were three times as likely to experience bullying compared to neurotypical siblings. Additionally, this article from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism suggests that students on the autism spectrum may also be less able to detect when bullying is happening, especially if they are unable to detect certain social cues. Other factors can also contribute to students being bullied more often, including their socio economic status, gender identity, sexuality, race, religion, and culture, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

So how can we know if bullying behavior is happening? The Indiana Resource Center for Autism provides a useful definition: “Bullying involves repeated harmful actions toward an individual or a group. It occurs when someone is perceived to have a weakness, a challenge, or a difference that may serve to isolate them and to make them a target for harmful acts.” In addition, two important defining characteristics of bullying are an imbalance of power (popularity, physical strength) and repetition of the behavior.

Bullying can also present in a variety of ways. According to stopbullying.gov, bullying behavior can be divided into these three categories:

  1. Verbal bullying → saying or writing mean things
    1. Teasing
    2. Name calling
    3. Inappropriate comments of a sexual nature
    4. Taunting
    5. Threatening to cause harm
  2. Social bullying → hurting someone’s reputation or relationships
    1. Leaving someone out on purpose
    2. Telling others not to be friends with someone
    3. Spreading rumors about someone
    4. Embarrassing someone in public
  3. Physical bullying → hurting a person’s body or possessions
    1. Hitting / kicking / pinching
    2. Spitting
    3. Tripping / pushing
    4. Taking or breaking someone’s things
    5. Making mean or rude hand gestures

In recent years, bullying has unfortunately found a new home online. Cyberbullying can occur on social media sites, gaming forums, email, texting, apps etc. This involves “sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Cyberbullying can be especially harmful because it can be difficult to detect, occur at any time through a personal device, and/or be permanently published online.

Another important point to note is that bullying isn’t always intentional. In her article “Autism 101: Autism Cultural Responsiveness for Improved Interactions”, Sara Sanders Gardner touches on many important issues involving the autism spectrum and ableism. She points out that many students on the spectrum feel pressure to fit in with peers, which can be reinforced by the neurotypical people around them. Microaggressions can occur as backhanded compliments, such as calling an autistic person “articulate” or saying “you don’t seem autistic to me!” These stereotyping comments are harmful and distancing. Gardner, an autistic self-advocate, encourages people to read content written by autistic people to learn how to have better interactions.

How Can I Tell if Someone Has Been Bullied?

With a better understanding of what bullying behavior looks like, it’s equally important to look for signs that someone has been bullied. Certain signs of bullying can include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed belongings, changes in eating or sleeping habits, avoidance of social situations, and feelings of helplessness. According to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, bullying can also lead to “lowered self-esteem, heightened anxiety, depression, fear, refusal to attend school, isolation, suicidal ideation, and suicide.” These signs are critical to look out for, as students may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences. Bullying can make someone feel helpless, humiliated, or afraid of appearing weak. Young people may also be afraid of rejection or feel as though no one will care about their situation. These fears all contribute to someone staying silent when they are being bullied. Parents, educators, and friends can all make an impact by keeping aware of these telltale signs of harassment. 

How Can We Stop Bullying Behavior?

All students deserve to feel safe and protected at school. One of the most important steps we can take as a community is to avoid being passive bystanders. Based on the situation, one could take action by distracting the bully, creating physical distance between the bully and student, verbally intervening, or reporting the behavior. By doing so, you can take power away from the bully and create a united front around the student being harassed. Students on the spectrum can be targeted especially when they are isolated in the student body, so creating a community of friendship and support is crucial.

Although the internet can be negative and dangerous in some regards, it can also work to young people’s advantage. Several apps around bullying prevention and general safety have been developed in recent years. One such app is called Circle of 6, which allows you to choose up to six contacts to message immediately with just two taps on your screen. If you are in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation, you can choose what type of message to send, for example “call me” or “come get me” to those in your group. The app also provides other emergency hotline numbers specific to your situation. Apps like these can provide quick, direct contact for a student in trouble and help create a sense of security.

How Can Schools Help Prevent Bullying?

In the classroom, educators can make an impact by providing specific supports to autistic students. In her article “Case Study: Classroom Strategies to Support Students on the Spectrum,” Susan Woods, the former Associate Dean of Student Support Services at Middlesex Community College, proposes strategies for educators to create a more inclusive classroom. This includes being aware of group dynamics when pairing autistic students with others, giving autistic students time to share their experiences during office hours, and helping to understand a student’s individual style of interacting with others. By doing so, educators can help prevent misunderstandings and potential microaggressions that may occur. Taking the time to understand and accommodate students on the spectrum can be an effective way to stave off bullying behavior.

Taking the time to understand and accommodate students on the spectrum can be an effective way to stave off bullying behavior.

For schools, it is important to have a strict no-bullying policy that is openly discussed and followed. Programs dedicated to bullying prevention can help decrease incidents and create a safe and respectful campus culture. Encourage students who have been bullied to speak out about their experiences. Meetings can be held to specifically address issues of bullying and decide which strategies should be implemented going forward. Safe spaces for students can also be reserved in case they feel trapped in a bullying situation. All of these strategies can help mitigate the harmful effects of bullying behavior. Parents and educators alike can promote positive values like kindness and acceptance, as well as educate young people about neurodiversity.

Bullying is a serious and chronic problem affecting schools and many young people on the spectrum. As a community, it is up to all of us to take necessary action and reject bullying in all its forms. If you or someone you know is needs immediate support relating to bullying behavior, The Autism Society provides this number for their Autism Source Contact Center: 1-800-3-AUTISM. You can also visit their website at autismsource.org.

Have you dealt with bullying behavior, either toward yourself or others?
What are some other important considerations in addressing this issue?

Sources

Anderson, Connie. “IAN Research Report: Bullying and Children with ASD.” Interactive Autism

Network: Linking the Autism Community and Researchers, 7 Oct. 2014,

iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_bullying.

“Bullying and Students on the Spectrum.” Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana

University Bloomington,

www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/bullying-and-students-on-the-autism-spectrum.

“Bullying Prevention | #OddToo.” National Autism Association,

nationalautismassociation.org/preventbullying/.

“Bullying Prevention.” Autism Society, 2016,

www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/how-the-autism-society-can-help/safe-and-sound/bullying-prevention/.

“Circle of 6.” Circle of 6, Tech 4 Good, 2015, www.circleof6app.com/.

Gardner, Sara Sanders. “Autism 101: Autism Cultural Responsiveness for Improved

Interactions.” Stairway to STEM, Pellet Media, www.stairwaytostem.org/educators/autism-101-autism-cultural-responsiveness-for-improved-interactions/.

“What Is Bullying.” StopBullying.gov, Department of Health and Human Services,

www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html.

“What Is Cyberbullying.” StopBullying.gov, Department of Health and Human Services,

www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it/index.html.

Woods, Susan. “Case Study: Classroom Strategies for Students on the Spectrum.” Stairway to

STEM, Pellet Media, 12 July 2018, www.stairwaytostem.org/case-study-classroom-strategies-to-support-students-on-the-spectrum/.

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Olivia Tyson

Olivia Tyson is an educational coach who works for the ICE (Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment) Program at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts. She helps students in the classroom, as well as with homework assignments, social connections, and immersion into campus life. She also has a younger brother named Nick who has autism and attends a residential program. Olivia enjoys teaching, studying and creating art, and spending time with her family.

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