The phone rings. Caller ID says it’s the school. Several thoughts race through my head. Oh dear, what now? “Hello, Mrs. Wells. This is Officer Smith calling.”
My heart skips a beat, and there is a lump in my throat. A police officer?! Is calling me?!
“No need to worry, there’s no danger and no one is hurt.”
Whew! Deep breath.
“However, your son was in an altercation that I need to discuss with you…he needs to be aware of our anti-bullying policy here at the middle school.”
What? Did I hear correctly? My son IS THE BULLY??
Well, I had never thought in a million years my son would BE the bully when he has often been bullied himself. As a parent of a child with autism, we are not often caught off-guard by new issues, but this really was a shocker.
It turned out that my son decided it would be “funny” to touch another kid – who was 40 pounds heavier and a foot taller – with his nasty retainer. The kid told him to stop several times, but my son continued. Just as the other kid decided he’d had enough and cocked back to hit my son, the resource officer stepped in.
It is quite interesting to analyze the situation and ask some questions here.
Why did he do it? Was it an attempt to interact with another kid, although not in an appropriate and positive way? Was it to get some attention or laughs from other kids?
Why didn’t my son know he had pushed it too far? We know our kids have a hard time taking other people’s perspectives. My son thought it was funny, so he assumed this kid he doesn’t know would think it’s funny. He couldn’t read the other boy’s cues that he wasn’t amused.
Our children can be perceived as bullies
I never even considered that my son might be considered the “bully” in school. However, those who don’t know he has Asperger’s could very well consider his statements to be hurtful and offensive. For example, a very honest child with Asperger’s might say, “You’re really fat,” or “I don’t like you and I don’t want to sit by you.” Our kids with ASD usually just do not have the social awareness to lie or even stay quiet in order to not hurt someone’s feelings.
This is where “thought bubbles” and “talking bubbles” from the Social Thinking curriculum function nicely to teach our kids what is appropriate to say and what is not and should be left in their head! Click here for an article on how to use these tools.
Children with Asperger’s also are rule followers, and if others are not following the rules, they might berate or accost them. In addition, social misunderstanding can cause problems. For example, a child with ASD might believe a peer who had bumped into him by accident had done so on purpose, and then lash out.
I can relate to these quotes from some parents whose children were accused of bullying others:
- “My son doesn’t realize he is bullying. He is trying to get other kids to pay attention to him, so he does it by grabbing their ball away from them or getting ‘in their face’ when they say to stop.”
- “He has very set rules of behavior that he expects all to follow. He doesn’t see how his reaction to perceived slights or rule-breaking is sometimes bullying.”
- “Our boy wants what he wants, when he wants it. He may take an object from another child or scream when unhappy, but any purposeful cruelty, he would never do.”
Interestingly enough, some parents have noted that children would begin to bully only after having been bullied. So yes, on the flip side, my son has more often than not been the recipient of bullying.
Teach children about bullying and true friends
It is important to note that the characteristics and actions of a bully actually needed to be spelled out to my son. Our kids lack the social knowledge, skills, and awareness of cues to know what is and is not bullying. Once they learn how to identify it, then they must be taught how to report it.
“Many of the defining characteristics of autism are the ones that put them at greatest risk of bullying,’’ said Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and an expert on bullying at Johns Hopkins University. “Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder aren’t very good at picking up on things like sarcasm and humor,” said Dr. Bradshaw. “They can be set up and made fun of in front of groups and not understand it.”
I can certainly agree with this! One example of my son being bullied was when he was being told to do bad things at the lunch table for the humor and entertainment of the other boys. He was totally unaware that he was being used. He had to be taught through a social story what true friends are and what real friends will and won’t ask you to do. We gave him some questions to ask about the person he thinks is being his friend to test whether the person is truly a friend.
It’s also important, as more social interaction occurs online, to teach our children about cyberbullying. This article from Autism Parenting magazine includes some strategies we can use to keep kids safe online.
Teach emotional regulation
Other children often know that certain things will throw our kids off their schedule or routine and that our kids tend to react in big ways to small things. Bullies use that knowledge to trigger an outburst on purpose. This may help explain why the highest functioning children in school seem to be at greatest risk of being bullied. While their social awkwardness may be more obvious because they interact more with mainstream peers, this makes their disability less visible and harder for their peers to understand.
Coping strategies that help children manage their anger or frustration can help keep them from becoming easy targets. Here are some coping skills from a presentation at the 2016 ASNC annual conference by Dr. Laura Klinger, Executive Director of the UNC TEACCH Autism Program in Chapel Hill: go to a quiet area, take a walk, listen to music, practice deep breathing, tensing/releasing exercise, think or read about or look at pictures of things they like, practice slow stretching, say positive things, write in a journal, or count to 50. Not all of these are appropriate for everyone, of course. Children can pick what works for them and practice the skills at times when they are not stressed.
Teach self-advocacy and raise community awareness
As a parent, you just want your child to be happy, to be accepted for their uniqueness and to have friends. So you look at your child’s deficits and where they might be most vulnerable and you teach them skills and strategies to use in these areas. You also try to teach them strong advocacy skills, to stand up and advocate for themselves, which will benefit them throughout their life as an independent adult. Finally, you encourage them to develop strong and safe relationships with like-minded peers.
As a parent of a child with ASD, it is unbearably heartbreaking to know your child is struggling with bullying, much less to see and encounter it yourself. And even more heartbreaking and dangerous, is to NOT know and to have your child suffer silently. That is why it is crucial that educators, providers, advocates, and families be aware of this, and be prepared to intervene.
Clearly, there is an urgent need to increase awareness, influence school policies, and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying, whether a child is a bully, a victim, or bully-victim. It is our hope that this blog and awareness initiatives will contribute to these efforts.
Bobbi Wells can be reached at email@example.com.
To learn more
ASNC has a free online toolkit on the signs of bullying, ways to prevent bullying, and how to stop it. Find it on our toolkits webpage.
Tags: ASNC, Asperger Syndrome, autism, autism acceptance, autism advocacy, autism books, autism bullying, autism communication, autism school, autism social skills, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Bullying, Developmental disability