Children with autism spectrum disorders often encounter bullying at school, and even at after school activities. In fact, up to 63 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have experienced bullying, according to a 2012 study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The study also found that bullies are three times more likely to bully children with ASD than an ASD child's unaffected siblings. Bullying can have a devastating effect on a child's self-esteem, academic progress and on his physical well being. As always, your role as a parent of a child with autism is to monitor, advocate for and protect your child. Work collaboratively with school officials, but do not be afraid to intervene aggressively when necessary.
Talk with your child's teacher early in the year about your concerns, or even before the school begins. Explain that bullying is a frequent problem for children with ASD because of an ASD child's social awkwardness and increased sensory sensitivity. Discuss your child's previous experiences with bullying, if applicable. Develop a plan with the teacher for monitoring and correcting bullying. This plan should include a zero tolerance for teasing and bullying in the classroom, as well as on the playground and at lunch, according to Michael D. Powers, co-author of "Asperger Syndrome & Your Child." All school personnel should be aware of the problem and offer increased supervision.
Visit your child's classroom. Talk with the other students about your child's behavior and the reasons for the behaviors. Give students specific suggestions as to how they can respond to your child. For example, if your child touches the other children or gets too close, it is okay for the other children to say to your child, "Please don't stand so close to me. I don't like it." If your child starts to wind up in response to sensory overload, a perceptive child might say, "The classroom is really noisy. Let's take a break in the reading corner." Encourage the other students to become advocates and allies for your child.
Seek out specific children to watch out for your child, with the teacher's help. Choose children that are well liked, mature and confident. These children usually have strong social skills and make excellent mentors for children with ASD. These children also take a leadership role in the class. If you can get them on your child's side, they can influence the behavior of the other students, according to Dr. Powers.
Develop routines for difficult times of the day. For example, most children with autism have difficulty regulating their behavior during the unstructured portions of the day, such as at lunch time and recess. This is also the time when bullying often occurs. Assign a lunch buddy to sit with your child. Make a visual schedule so your child knows exactly what to do during these unstructured periods, suggests Dr. Powers. Talk with the aides and other school personnel present during these times so they know what to expect and how to help.
Teach your child basic social skills, like making eye contact or asking about another person's interests. Children with autism often do not understand personal space. Teach your child to stand an arm's length away from other people. Help your child find acceptable substitutes for repetitive behaviors, suggests Sally Ozonoff, co-author of "A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism." When your child knows the basics of appropriate social interactions, he is less likely to alienate other children.
Tailor your child's activities to her skills and interests. Many children with autism do not understand the give and take required by organized sports. Meltdowns on the sports field and a lack of motor skills can make her an easy target for bullying in this setting. Instead, try an individual sport or an activity that caters to your child's intense interests, such as chess, stacking block clubs or book clubs, according to Dr. Powers.
Monitor your child's play dates closely. Set up play dates with only one other child, rather than two or three. Structure activities during the play date so your child knows exactly what to do and expect, says Dr. Ozonoff. Limit play dates to one or two hours and intervene if your child is becoming overstimulated.
Attend parks or outings during periods of the day when it is less likely to be crowded. Many children with autism do not tolerate noise or crowds well. In crowded settings, they are more likely to have meltdowns or engage in repetitive or odd behaviors, which can alienate other children and spark bullying. Monitor your child's play at the park. Intervene if he is having trouble sharing or playing with other children. Tell your child specifically what to say and do. At the same time, give a few suggestions to other children. For example, you might say, "He doesn't understand that he shouldn't stand so close to you. You can tell him to please stop."
Children with autism often relate to adults better than their peers. To improve social interactions with other children, though, refocus your child's attention on peers. For example, when your child does not understand a direction or an activity at school, encourage her to watch the other children first. If she still does not understand, teach her to ask a child for help. If these suggestions do not help, then go to the teacher.
Schools vary in their ability and willingness to address bullying. If you have tried the interventions above, and you and your child are still in tears over bullying issues, it might be time to consider homeschooling.
Not all children with autism will tell you when kids are bullying them. Watch for signs, such as bruises, physical marks or changes in behavior.
Take bullying seriously. Volunteer in the classroom as much as possible and seek to develop positive relationships with teachers, as well as the other students. If problems occur, intervene quickly to find a solution. In some cases, your child might be happier in a half-day program or in a specialized classroom.