The Bullying of Aspergers Children

A sad fact: The majority of children with Aspergers will experience repeated bullying and/or victimization at school. 

Aspergers students are easy targets for a variety of reasons:
  • Due to having a low social IQ, they let things build up …then retaliate without an awareness of what the consequences might be
  • They appear different than their “typical” peers
  • They are not always aware of teasing or bullying behavior
  • “Intimidation” is not in their vocabulary
  • The need to dominate or control others is not part of their personality

Aspergers (high-functioning autistic) children who are bullied are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and suicidal. They struggle in school (when they decide to show up at all). They're more likely to carry weapons, get in physical fights, and abuse drugs. But when it comes to the actual damage bullying does, the picture becomes more clouded.

One  individual with Aspergers (now an adult) recounts here childhood experience with bullies:

As an adult on the spectrum, I will say the only thing that ever worked was fighting back, physically if necessary. Teachers normally did not intervene when they witnessed bullying. Parent and teacher intervention was not effective, and the teachers didn't really care. Teachers generally did not take insults, kicking, or another student threatening to stab me with a pocket knife seriously. Their responses: "Just ignore them" and (if I was merely being called a "psycho retard nerd" or being told to go to a mental institution) talking about sticks and stones.

When I was 9, I did stupid things because I thought my classmates had a right to order me to. When I was 11, bullies made my life a living hell. By the time I was 13, I knew to hit back and the turds found other kids to pick on. I later unlearned this behavior in high school (no longer necessary), and about half the kids who picked on me went on to (found this out by searching public records online) have criminal records. My boyfriend (also on the spectrum) had a similar experience, except that he started fighting back a couple years later and his school life became tolerable a couple years later.

If the school is truly interested in intervening that's one thing, but more often they gave it lip service and then turn a blind eye. And the kids know it.

The mental torment that Aspergers victims feel is genuine. But possibly because a lot of us have experienced this kind of schoolyard cruelty and lived to tell the tale, peer harassment is still generally written off as a “soft” type of abuse - one that leaves no apparent injuries and that most victims simply overcome. It’s easy to imagine that, agonizing as bullying can be, all it affects is a person’s feelings.

However, a new influx of research into the effects of bullying is now indicating something more than “hurt feelings” - actually, bullying may leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it's still developing. Being ostracized by one’s friends, it appears, can throw teenage hormones even further out of whack, lead to decreased connectivity in the brain, as well as sabotage the growth of new neurons.

These neurological scars, as it happens, bear much resemblance to those carried by children who are physically and sexually mistreated in early childhood. Neuro-scientists now realize that the human brain continues to develop and change long after the initial few years of life. Scientists are recasting bullying not as simply a regrettable rite of passage, but as a severe form of childhood trauma that triggers inner physiological damage.

This change in viewpoint might have a variety of ripple effects for moms and dads, children, and schools; it provides a different way to consider the pain experienced by ostracized children, and may spur new anti-bullying policies. It provides the prospect that peer harassment, similar to abuse and other distressing experiences, may increasingly be seen as more than simply a social problem - one that can be measured with brain scans, and which might yield to new types of medical treatment.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, even serious child abuse was regarded as a mostly mental problem in its long-term effects, denting children emotionally in a manner that made it difficult for them to develop into happy grownups. Gradually, however, researchers started to look at the brains of grownups that had been abused as children and realize that the harm wasn’t simply psychological: Their brains had gone through distinguishing long-term modifications. In the last two decades, neuro-scientists have marshaled lots of proof that severe physical and sexual abuse throughout early childhood may short-circuit normal brain development.

Research reveals that children who had been bullied reported more the signs of depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems compared to children who hadn’t. In fact, psychological abuse from friends ended up being as harmful to mental health as psychological abuse from mothers and fathers.

People who reported having been roughed up by their peers had observable irregularities in a part of the brain known as the corpus callosum (i.e., a thick bundle of fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and which is vital in visual processing, memory, and more). The neurons within their corpus callosums had less myelin, a coating that speeds communication between the cells (vital in an organ like the brain where milliseconds matter). It’s not yet completely clear what these types of changes in the corpus callosum can lead to, or whether they’re connected to the greater rates of depression of bullied children.

Being tormented by other kids may recalibrate a child's level of cortisol, a hormone pumped out by the body during times of stress. Boys who are occasionally bullied have higher levels of cortisol than their peers. Bullied girls, on the other hand, seem to have abnormally low levels of the hormone. (It’s not entirely clear why this is the case, but low cortisol levels are sometimes a sign of a body that has been so chronically stressed that it has learned to make less of the hormone.)

Cortisol may, in fact, underlie many of the negative effects of bullying. It may weaken the functioning of the immune system, and at higher levels can harm and even destroy neurons in the hippocampus, possibly resulting in memory problems that might make academics more challenging. Teens who're bullied perform worse on exams of verbal memory compared to their peers.

There's still a lot that neuro-scientists have to sort out. It remains difficult to completely disentangle cause and effect. It’s feasible, for instance, that children with certain hormonal levels or brain characteristics are more inclined, for reasons unknown, to be bullied to begin with. And, encouragingly, alterations in the brain don’t always result in long-term injury. Certainly, a few of the subjects who had what scientists suspect are bullying-related brain changes are actually happy, wholesome grownups.

However the findings are definitely attention grabbing, plus they raise a few serious questions regarding the way you should think about bullying. Does being wronged have subtle effects on cognitive functioning that we haven’t even noticed yet? Might some children become more prone to develop the neurological hallmarks of bullying? Since we know that victims are going through serious physiological changes, are there medical interventions that might be as beneficial, or even more so, than counseling and therapy? Would demonstrating that bullying scars the brain make it easier to prosecute bullies in court?

What about the bully?

Anti-bullying experts agree that school officials need to put the safety of victims first, but they should also concentrate more on the actual accused bullies. Expelling the bully from school is usually not the easiest method to deal with the issue. Rather than coming down hard on the bully, school authorities must think of a solid plan that holds bullies responsible, holds bystanders responsible, and keeps the targets safe.

Schools ought to institute “restorative justice,’’ which supports the victim and helps him/her stay safe while teaching bullies about the effect of their actions and giving them the chance to (a) make right what they’ve done, (b) to own what you did, and (c) attempt to fix it.

Recently there's been an epidemic of suicides by pupils who were bullied. Students who've been bullied, then also have bullied others, are at a high risk of harming themselves. Schools in many cases are in a no-win scenario with regards to accusations of bullying. When their child is a victim, parents want schools to be very authoritative, take control, and remedy the situation. But when their child is the bully, parents often undercut the authority of schools by challenging school officials when they discipline their child.

It’s essential for school officials to investigate accusations of bullying completely to determine the part each pupil played, and then try to discipline the bullying child in a manner that helps him and holds him responsible. We should not be focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, and how the good guys are totally innocent and the bad guys are totally guilty. If we want to prevent children from committing suicide over bullying, we have to interact with them to comprehend what’s happening with them, and help them by using the bullying episode a teachable moment.

What about the bystanders?

Bystanders are living up to their name by standing there and doing absolutely nothing - and this is really a problem. Numerous specialists today say that bystanders possess the capacity to significantly decrease bullying at schools. Their research provides strategies for parents and schools regarding how to get bystanders to take a stand.

Bystanders are essential because:
  • Bullies like an audience. If the audience shows disapproval, bullies are discouraged from continuing.
  • Bullying most often takes place in front of peers.
  • It almost never happens when adults are watching.
  • Most bystanders want to do something to stop the bully.

However, bystanders, particularly children, should be empowered to do something. The majority of children will not act for a number of reasons, possibly because they are frightened, confused or unclear about how to proceed.

Scientists are studying the role of the bystander and discovering precisely how critical it may be in creating a psychologically healthy atmosphere. If the status quo at any school is that children notice bullying behavior in others and do nothing at all about it, then they wind up tacitly giving their support to the bully.

Without having any kind of training or assistance from grownups, most children won't take any action if they see bullying. The percentage of kids who'll automatically intercede is about one in five. Children overall feel bullying is wrong and unjust, and many wish to intercede, but there are a variety of explanations why they do not.

The initial step in empowering bystanders to do something would be to help them see that their friends also feel bullying is wrong. Once they realize that many of their buddies would like them to intercede, they're prone to.

The second step is training them that intervening in a bullying scenario can make a difference. Research has shown that if a bystander discourages the bully there's a 50% probability that the bully will stop. The majority of bullies bully simply because they wish to make an impression on people and they like an audience. Therefore if the audience is booing rather than clapping, they recognize they are losing their audience.

However, with no bullying-prevention education, as much as 25% of kids will actually encourage the bully. These children are usually friends with the bully. They're also prone to have low self-esteem. But the larger issue is that more than half of kids will do absolutely nothing if they see somebody being bullied, and by doing nothing they motivate the bully.

Empowering the bystander is really about bridging the gap between what children believe is appropriate and what they really do. When asked what they should do in a bullying scenario, about two-thirds of kids say they ought to intercede, but only one-third of elementary school children really do. In high school, the percentages are even lower: only one-quarter of high school students will intercede.

Why do teenagers act less often to prevent bullying? Because bullying gets a lot more sophisticated and subtle in high school. It's more relational. It gets to be more difficult for teenagers to know when to intervene, whereas with younger children bullying is much more physical and for that reason more obvious.

It is critical to teach children about the power of the bystander early, before they begin to display signs of lack of empathy. Some children may protect themselves by becoming numb to bullying. There's an organic process of moving away emotionally and disengaging. Compounding this issue is the fact that in early teenage years bullying has a tendency to increase. There is an upsurge in the desire to dominate in early secondary school.

In conversations amongst teachers, parents and kids about what to do when bullying happens, the conventional advice is to tell the bully to stop. A few grownups may even go as far as to say that confronting the bully is really a brave thing to do. But there are other methods which may be simpler - and less dangerous - for kids to utilize.

We ought to take a look at an array of options apart from simply telling the bully to stop it. For instance, informing a grownup is good. If they are not comfortable providing lots of details, they can merely say, “Please watch the locker room at third period. There are bad things going on there at that time, but I'm not giving my name.”

An additional option for a child who witnesses bullying would be to distract the bully, or he can provide a getaway for the target by saying something to the target like, "Mr. Smith needs to see you right now."

Frequently children who're repeatedly bullied begin to wonder if they deserve it or somehow bring it on themselves. A bystander can combat these feelings by showing support to the bullied youngster, either during a bullying occurrence or afterward. A bystander can choose to sit down with the youngster at lunch or sit down by him in the classroom. He can call the target at home to say, “I saw what happened and I didn't know what to do, but I don't think you deserved it.” Any kind of expression of support is great.

Whenever bullying assumes a more subtle facade, as it often does in high school, bystanders ought to be asked to intercede by speaking up in support of a bullied classmate. For relational hostility - name calling and gossiping - bystanders should to take a stand. A large piece of this intervention is training kids that other kids are feeling exactly the same way they're about the bullying.

Kids shouldn't be asked to intercede physically in a fight or any harmful situation. As soon as things escalate into physical altercations, grownups ought to be summoned. Do not have kids intercede physically because you don't know where it's going to go. Discourage conflict, unless of course the bystander is a friend of the bully and can say something like, “Remember how much trouble you got in the last time you did something like this?”

Each and every school has a bully-victim issue. Mothers and fathers can get a sense of how healthy the school atmosphere is when they visit. They are able to decide if the school is promoting respect for others by searching for anti-bullying posters and observing how respectful pupils are towards others. They can look to find out if the children are playing happily together. Mothers and fathers should inquire if there is an anti-bullying policy and if they can view it. Parents have to be assertive to find out how the school is teaching anti-bullying programs.

Schools need to make a public commitment against bullying. Children need to know that the bully is going to be disciplined. Additionally, schools can educate anti-bullying conduct via role-playing. Schools ought to motivate students to be aware of sources of assistance.

It's also important that schools notify parents concerning the philosophy of bystander empowerment, to ensure that parents do not get the wrong impression. A few parents may be concerned, convinced that children are being asked to break up fights, which is not the case.

Children require grownups to show them to speak up against injustice. They need to realize that doing so isn't tattling or snitching, but doing what's right. Kids also need grownups to assist them to understand that they aren't alone in thinking that bullying is troubling and inappropriate, and that they will be supported by their friends when they speak up.


Why do children turn into a bully?
  • Because it makes them feel stronger, smarter, or better than the student they are bullying
  • Because it's one of the best ways to keep others from bullying them
  • Because it's what kids do if you want to hang out with the “cool” crowd
  • Because they see others doing it

What does bullying look like?
  • Getting others to exclude a particular person from the “group”
  • Getting shoved, pushed, or kicked
  • Spreading rumors about a particular person via e-mail, instant message, chat rooms, etc.
  • Teasing in a mean way, especially in front of an audience
  • Cyber-bullying happens over the internet or on cell phones out of the view of grown-ups

What are some of the negative effects of bullying?
  • Bullied kids are frequently distracted from schoolwork, thus they make poor grades
  • Bullied kids often complain of headaches, concentration difficulties, depression, stomach aches, etc.
  • Bystanders often feel guilty that they couldn’t or didn’t help
  • Bystanders often mention feeling afraid that they will be next
  • Many bullied kids who are bullied have low self-esteem, which may continue for many years

Why is an Aspergers child a likely target for bullies?
  • Because he seems “out of step” with the other students
  • Because of built-up frustration, he may over-react to most provocations, thus the bully knows he can always push the Aspergers student’s buttons at will
  • Because he has difficulty with multi-tasking and interpreting other’s intentions
  • He cannot tell the difference between good natured teasing versus someone being mean, or he is oblivious to an act of bullying or teasing behavior
  • He may have motor difficulties, so participating in athletics is difficult …even games at recess may be a challenge
  • His interests may be boring to others, so it’s hard for him to find other children with similar interests
  • Low frustration tolerance can lead to a meltdown, and kids who meltdown in school are looked at as “freaks”
  • He processes information at a different pace than expected, as a result, he may appear “space-out” or “disconnected”…then when he does respond, it is too late

Why is bullying allowed to continue?
  • Many students report no “bullying-intervention” by school officials
  • Many teachers report that they intervene – but they don’t!
  • There is a lot of misinformation and ignorance about “bullying behavior” (e.g., “If I don’t see it, then I can’t do anything about it” … “There’s nothing we can do unless we catch the bully in the act” … “We can’t be everywhere at all times” …etc.)
  • Research reveals that only about 4% of teachers intervene in episodes of bullying on the playground, and only about 14% of teachers intervene in episodes of bullying in the classroom
  • Socially savvy children bully “under the radar”

What needs to be done to stop bullying?
  • A network of like-minded professionals and community members to join in a partnership should be developed
  • A survey for teachers, parents and students should be devised to assess the level of the school’s bullying problem
  • Support, support, support …because children who feel supported by their teachers are more likely to report an incident than seek revenge
  • If a child reports an act of bullying behavior, it needs to be acted upon immediately
  • School officials need to learn more about the Aspergers condition and how it affects children in the learning environment
  • School officials should host an evening for parents to get together and hear what they have to say
  • Schools that have instituted bullying prevention programs that are working should be visited and copied
  • Support groups for students should be implemented
  • Suspected bullying should never be ignored by school staff
  • The Aspergers child needs to learn how to identify bullying or teasing behavior
  • The school should host a knowledgeable speaker on the topic of bullying

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Note: If you have an Aspergers child who has been - or is being - bullied, please comment using the comments button below. Your feedback is valuable!


 RE: “What happens to adults with Asperger’s who have been severely bullied as children?” 

Mark Hutten said… The bullying of children on the autism spectrum has become a worldwide concern, drawing the attention of researchers, teachers, policymakers, moms and dads, as well as the victims themselves. The list of ill effects that result from being bullied is extensive. Here are just a few of the outcomes that adults who have experienced childhood bullying may have to deal with to some degree or another:

• alcohol and drug abuse
• anxiety
• depression
• loneliness
• low self-esteem
• physical health complaints
• poor academic performance
• poor social self-competence
• psychosomatic symptoms
• running away from home
• school absenteeism
• school refusal
• social withdrawal
• suicide

When examining the comments from grown-ups who describe their childhood bullying experiences, it appears that over time, many victims have a reduction in their hurt feelings (e.g., less depression, decreased anxiety, diminished feelings of shame, etc.). However, for those victims who considered the bullying to be ongoing and extremely distressing, the negative feelings continue with reported long-term damaging effects on both personality and attitudes. Thus, childhood bullying appears to be a highly memorable experience. Memories of childhood bullying are associated with high rates of depression, social anxiety, pathological perfectionism, and greater neuroticism in adulthood. The negatively-affected Asperger’s adult would do well to seek counseling from a professional who specializes in PTSD.

Anonymous said… I am interested in the number of people who are bullied that end up in abusive romantic relationships, I think the numbers would be staggering - I doubt that adult relationship domestic violence is the first form of abuse most people suffer. I firmly believe that bullying primes people to be targets for future abuses, both self abuse and from other relationships, including business dealings and workplace dominance, people cannot underestimate the long lasting impacts. People who are 'losers' in life frequently good people who are being taken advantage of and taken for granted on more than 1 front, it can feel like a conspiracy, like everyone else gets it, but you're left out of the joke, like you don't know the secret handshake to a happy life. People who are targets feel like they wear a tattoo everyone but them can see, too trusting, too honest to conceive of the lies and deceit being perpetrated on them. The most perplexing part is, being above average in intelligence is a required component of Asperger's, but frequently they must use their powers for good and not evil, because so many of the smartest people on the planet are targeted. I teach my 8 year old that how he treats his little brother is also setting the stage for how his little brother will interact with others, I tell him that if he bullies and bosses he is training his brother to be a target. Boys will be boys, but bullies will be bullies and victims will be victims!

Anonymous said… I don't know if my husband was bullied but he experiences all of these things, and I myself find it very hard to deal with him.

Anonymous said… My 11 year old daughter was bullied just last night..While at a skating party for her school she went to play with two other girls in her class, they ran from her and sat in front of me and I heard them say we hate her she is weird lets trip her when she skates. I then said Hi I am her Mom. It took all I had not to say anything else. My daughter said they were her friends.

Anonymous said… Was scary reading this as I was bullied all through primary and secondary (high school) and I have/still am experiencing some of these is sad that nobody understands and think you are just making it up to gain some sympathy unless you have gone through it. For just once I would love to see the bullies experience what they dished out to others and get a taste of their own medicine and see how they feel then. I abhor bullying and do my best to put an end to it if I see it happening to my kids, especially my aspie son, and to others.

Anonymous said… I have always told my son, now 15, that most bullies are bullies because they are the unhappy ones. Many times kids bully because they are bullied and/or mistreated at home. I would give him examples of things that the bully could possibly be facing at home. I told him some kids are just mean and have a wonderful home life, but often times not so much. This helped him have a different outlook on the bullies/mean kids. It helped him to not let them bother him so much. He stopped reacting so much to them, he has stood up for himself more plus he's gotten older and a lot of the bullying has gotten better as kids mature.  I do fear loneliness to be a factor for my son due to he has spent most of his school life isolated. Not only by others but he's isolated himself. However, I have seen a huge difference in the last 12-16 months of coming out of his shell. I think my son will grow up to strive in life and I will take some credit as to how I've always dealt with the issues as they've come up. I've been very real and honest with him. I think all kids need that, especially those with struggles.

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