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Bullying: Empowering Our Students with ASD

In today’s society, it is not at all unusual to hear stories about students (both those with and without disabilities) being bullied. There is no doubt that bullying is becoming a serious problem in the school-age population, leading to students’ lower self-esteem, heightened anxiety, depression, fear, isolation, and even suicide. A growing issue within the bullying problem is cyberbullying. Students are finding it even easier to spread unkind and untruthful information about their peers through email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of social media. While social networking can be a great resource for many students, it can be and often is used to ostracize, embarrass, and exclude others.

For students on the autism spectrum, bullying can be very difficult to understand or even to recognize. Because even our most high-functioning students may have difficulty with social skills such as taking another’s perspective, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder are some of the most vulnerable targets for bullies in their schools and communities.

As an Autism Resource Specialist and parent of a young adult with ASD, some of the saddest conversations I have had with other parents and self-advocates have revolved around this topic. So, some big basic questions remain: How can we prevent bullying and the impact it has on our children? And while it remains a rampant issue, how can we empower our children to deal with it? October is Bullying Prevention Month, so let’s take another opportunity to be proactive with this issue:


Raising awareness and fostering prevention: START EARLY!

Encourage friendship: Teach students both with and without disabilities to respect their peers and accept those who are different from them. This should start at a very early age. If your child’s elementary school does not have any character education or sensitivity programming, volunteer to help start it yourself, or at the very least advocate for this to be done. Peer-to-peer programming is most effective when started with younger children.

Teach disability awareness: Teach all students about the social challenges that might be experienced by students with autism, so that they can understand and be sensitive to the needs of their peers with ASD. Teach all students that when it comes to a child with autism, having just one kind and accepting friend can make all the difference to them in their journey! Again, starting this with younger children is the ideal.

Teach all students about bullying and its devastating impact: This includes teaching our children with autism about the “hidden curriculum” of social interaction and how their own behaviors such as bluntness in conversation could be perceived by others as a form of bullying. In short, we as parents need to teach ALL children what it is to HAVE a good friend as well as BE a good friend. Don’t expect this to be happening only at school, but make this the biggest part of your “home curriculum”!


Tips for empowering self-advocacy

Teach students about reporting: If someone hurts students or says things that make them uncomfortable, they must not be afraid to tell an adult. Oftentimes, bullies target the “lone child,” so if your child finds themselves being bullied, teach him/her to stay with a student or group of students who has been friendly to them. If your child reports having no trusted friends or classmates, make sure they have constant access to a trusted adult mentor, especially during vulnerable times such as recess, lunchtime, before and after school, etc.

Teach your child to communicate confidently: Script or role play how your child should react in a bullying situation. Have your child practice walking away, or shaking their head and saying “Bullying is so not cool,” or “Leave me alone.” Have your child practice walking immediately away and then going straight to a trusted adult to report an incident. Often bullies are just looking for a reaction, so teaching your child a harmless yet powerful comeback may leave the bully speechless and less likely to launch future “attacks.”

Look for signs of bullying: Your child might not report bullying, so look for signs such as reluctance to attend school, change in daily routines, torn clothing or damaged possessions, cuts or bruises, or reports of academic decline at school. Make sure that your child has the support he/she needs to feel validated and supported. This may include individual counseling, continued education on safe reporting of bullying, access to peer support networks, access to activities which foster their unique gifts and/or talents, and of course active parent involvement with the school.


The NC School Violence Prevention Act specifies that ALL students in our state SHOULD have access to a bully-free learning environment as well as appropriate protection under the state law. One of the best things you can do as a parent is to make sure your child’s school is not only aware of this legislation, but that they are an active participant in educating their families about it as well. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to approach your child’s principal to see what provisions for bullying awareness and prevention are already in place.

Surveys on bullying in recent years reveal that more than half of parents of children at the higher end of the autism spectrum report that their children had been bullied in some way. This is totally unacceptable! We as parents and advocates must continue to help our children overcome the effects of bullying until all children truly feel comfortable and valued in their learning environment.

Wanda Curley, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in the Triad, can be contacted at wcurley@autismsociety-nc.org.


Learn more

See the ASNC Bullying Toolkit on the signs, ways to prevent it, and how to stop it.

The ASNC Bookstore has lots of helpful resources on bullying. Here are some of our favorites:


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