How Children on the Autism Spectrum Can Avoid Being Bully Victims

When an Aspergers or high-functioning autistic (HFA) child does not feel safe in school, it is impossible for that student to learn or participate in the educational process in a productive manner. Children who are bullied spend their entire time trying to escape the harassment, the violence, the humiliation, and the shame of being a victim.

As this injustice goes unchecked, the child on the autism spectrum becomes more and more convinced that no one will rescue him, because no one sees or understands his attempt to communicate that he is, in fact, a victim. Also, he becomes angrier and angrier until he begins to cope with his victimization by either (a) emulating the characteristics of a bully or (b) dropping out of school altogether.

Children who are bullied:
  • Are more likely to have health complaints. In one study, being bullied was associated with physical health status 3 years later.
  • Are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.
  • Are more likely to retaliate through extremely violent measures. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.
  • Have decreased academic achievement (GPA and standardized test scores) and school participation.
  • Have higher risk of depression and anxiety, including the following symptoms that may persist into adulthood: changes in sleep and eating patterns; increased feelings of sadness and loneliness; loss of interest in activities.
  • Have increased thoughts about suicide that may persist into adulthood. In one study, grown-ups who recalled being bullied in youth were 3 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or inclinations.

Why are students on the spectrum such an easy target for bullies?

Children with Aspergers and HFA are bullied more frequently for several reasons:

1. A child with the disorder takes things very literally. This may mean that it becomes difficult for him to follow a lot of what his peers are talking about, which in turn, may make him appear “stupid” to his peers (an unfair label).

2. Children with Aspergers and HFA may have difficulty paying attention to more than one piece of information, which may cause them to stay 'stuck' in a conversation. Such actions can have adverse effects on their social skills and make it difficult for them to hold conversations and make friends.

3. Some children on the autism spectrum learn that they have to ask a question to start a conversation, but then, instead of listening to the answer, they ask question after question, in effect drilling their peers and making them feel uncomfortable.

4. The two- to three-year lag in maturity and difficulty reading social cues that autistic kids are prone to are also contributing factors to bullying.

5. Their difficulties reading social cues cause them to irritate peers. Difficulties in reading social cues range from (a) trouble understanding the zones of personal space, causing them to stand too close to others, to (b) a lack of basic conversation skills.

6. These children often have a low frustration tolerance. When frustration increases and reaches a threshold, it can lead to a meltdown, which makes the child stand out as being different.

7. They have passions, certain things that they focus on, but they may have a hard time talking about anything else, which is often annoying to peers.

8. They may have poor motor skills, which makes them stand out as clumsy.

9. They may not understand social banter, and so they become easy targets for teasing.

Research has long shown that students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are far more at risk for being bullied than other students. One study found that 82% of these children claimed to have been bullied. Children on the spectrum may be overly sensitive and reactive, which attracts the attention of bullies. But it’s not just students on the spectrum – any student who is different from the norm is vulnerable. And sometimes schools are anything but helpful: One study showed that 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying.

Unfortunately, YOUR child may be a victim of bullying – BUT you may not even know about it. Why? Because some kids don’t tell their parents about the abuse they are experiencing at school – they keep it a secret.

Reasons for secrecy tend to fall into one of seven categories:

1. The fear that grown-ups will do nothing: Children may be skeptical that adults can, or will, take steps to stop a bully.

2. The fear of losing a friendship: Sometimes the relationship between bullies and victims isn't so straightforward. If the victim counts the bully as a friend (or wants to be his friend), telling may not seem like an option.

3. Power: Bullying is marked by one participant — the bully — possessing more power than the other, whether that power is real or perceived. Kids learn to gain power by aggression and to accept when others wield aggressive power. So a "weak" victim is not likely to tattle.

4. Retaliation: To some children, the logic is simple: Tell a grown-up and make the bully angrier.

5. Self-blame: Victims may feel shame and blame themselves for their situation. One Aspergers boy stated he was at fault for his victimization, because he was "a little nerdy."

6. The cloak of secrecy: Bullying often happens out of adults' sight, in settings such as hallways and school lunchrooms. Thus, bullying stays between the victim, the bully and peer bystanders.

7. Vulnerability: Children who are bullied are often less accepted by their peers and may struggle with social skills. They may yearn for acceptance from the very people who torment them. So, they keep trying …and trying …and trying to get acceptance, hoping that someday they will “fit-in.”

What can be done?

Each Aspergers and HFA youngster has his/her own temperament. Some enjoy higher levels of social activity while others prefer less. While this may be a preference the youngster is born with, much of what experts call ‘social competence’ or the ability to get along with others is skill-based or learned. This means that it can be practiced and improved upon, especially if the youngster’s parent is a patient coach.

These kids don’t need to be the most popular in their class, but they do need good social skills to avoid being targets of bullying and social isolation. Being sociable helps us with resilience (the ability to withstand hard times). Those who are constantly rejected by peers are lonely and have lower self-esteem. When they are older, these kids are more likely to drop out of school and use drugs and alcohol. Moms and dads can help their special needs kids learn social skills so that they are not constantly rejected and bullied – or begin to bully and reject others.

Social skills include our emotions, intellect, ethics, and behaviors. Emotionally we learn to manage strong feelings (e.g., anger) and show empathy for others. Our intellect is used to solve relationship conflicts and make decisions. Ethically we develop the ability to sincerely care for others and engage in socially-responsible actions. Behaviorally we learn specific communication skills such as turn-taking and how to start a conversation.

Moms and dads can act as coaches for their kids to develop these social skills. Kids learn a lot from how parents treat them and from how parents interact with others. Parents, like other coaches, will need to be creative and specific in teaching social skills. Beyond saying “You need to be better at X,” good coaches teach concrete skills and then support the use of these skills across a variety of situations. The goal should be not just to teach these young people to “be nice” but also to help them to advocate for themselves as well as care for others.

Most kids experience occasional rejection, and most kids are sometimes socially clumsy, insensitive, or even unkind.

Signs that a youngster may need some social coaching include:
  • Lacks at least one or two close mutual friends
  • Has trouble losing or winning gracefully
  • Doesn’t show empathy when others are hurt or rejected
  • Acts bossy or insists on own way a lot
  • Can’t seem to start or maintain a conversation
  • Uses a louder voice than most kids
  • Seems constantly ignored or victimized by other kids or constantly teases or annoys other kids

Moms and dads should use a 4-part strategy when helping their kids develop social skills:
  1. Point out
  2. Practice
  3. Praise
  4. Prompt
These four steps can be used when you notice that your youngster needs to work on a particular social skill. Before using them, however, you should point out the problem area sensitively and privately (not in front of others) to your youngster.

1. Point Out: Moms and dads can use opportunities to point out when others are using the desired skills. It might be a specific behavior of the parent, another grown-up, a youngster, or even a character in a book or on TV. The idea is to give your kid examples and role models of people engaging in the appropriate social skill.

2. Practice: A mother or father can help their youngster substitute a specific appropriate response for a specific inappropriate one. This might mean brainstorming with the youngster about different alternative responses, and then practicing one or more with him or her. Practicing can involve mapping out actual words to say or behaviors to use, role-playing, and using the newly learned skills in real situations.

3. Praise: Often times, Aspergers and HFA kids are not eager to work on new skills, so moms and dads must reward their kids with praise when the new skills are practiced as a way of helping the skills become habits. This might be a specific verbal statement (“You did an awesome job of X instead of Y when you got upset at the store”), a nonverbal sign such as a thumbs up, or even a treat (10 minutes extra ‘fun time’ before bedtime).

4. Prompt: Without nagging, moms and dads can gently remind their youngster to use a new skill when the opportunity arises. This might be verbal (“Now might be a good time to count to ten in your head”) or nonverbal (a nonverbal cue such as zipping the lips when a youngster is about to interrupt).

Any good coach knows that patience is important, because learning new skills takes time and practice. And everyone differs in how long it takes to learn something new. Coaches often have to be creative in their teaching strategies, because all kids have different ways of learning.

The important thing to remember is that the ability to have good social relationships is not simply about personality or in-born traits. Children who get along with other children have learned skills to do so, and they practice these regularly. Just like a good coach can make the difference for a budding basketball player, moms and dads can help their kids become socially skilled.

There is definitely a connection between a child’s social deficits and being the target bullying. One leads to the other in most cases, unfortunately. According to statistics, when a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism learns social skills needed to gain acceptance from a peer-group, he (a) reduces his chances of being bullied by over 80%, (b) feels better about himself, (c) reduces the risk of dropping out of school due to school-anxiety issues, and (d) has a 3x greater chance of finding and maintaining gainful employment as a young adult.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management 


•    Anonymous said…  parents hate when I suggest separation, yet safe zones that allow us to learn in an environment sensitive to our processing needs in an atmosphere free from fear and oppression is exactly what we need. let me be clear, the whole purpose is to teach children to thrive outside the seclusion, with their peers in society, the method is actually tried and true, they call it "immersion therapy" I am just applying it to society in general. not too mention, we would benefit greatly from much more dedicated, individualized, learning structures , where we can question the teachers and follow intuitions that lead outside the general academic offerings.
•    Anonymous said… Except that if they did that most schools would lose half their pupils, I think all kids dabble with bullying at some point or other, just to feel that power, so in the end there's not enough peer pressure to stop bullying, and sadly it's our atypical kids who bear the brunt of it most of the time.
•    Anonymous said… get the school guidance counsellor involved. it's a good place to start. Plus document everything with dates and what happened or what your child is doing differently, how they are behaving, how their grades are doing, if they want to go to school. you can include this info in your letter for help if you need to write one in the future.
•    Anonymous said… I have found that teachers a to damm scared to interfere in things like the bullies in the school .I took matters into my own hands with my granbabe ,he was being bullied and I complained for 2 weeks then bang took matters into my own hands and delt with the bully scared the life out of him all has been quiet ever since .
•    Anonymous said… My kindergartener has so much anxiety about a boy in his class and the teacher will not do anything. She is blaming my son for being scared of nothing, clearly there is something going on!
•    Anonymous said… What if the only reason they hate school is because they will be away from the parent? I'm literally going insane. For my 11yr old son last year was tough and since summer it has become very stressful. Now in an ESE classroom but this semester has been horrible. He thinks something will happen to me if we're apart, or that I'm going to leave him.

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Anonymous said...

My daughter, who is in high school, has been bullied constantly this year. She doesn't tell me about it until she can't take it anymore. I've talked to her teachers about and we've started her in group sessions for Aspie teen girls. I'm hoping this will help her, but have noticed that she's really no longer interested in school. Including her favorite subjects.

Anonymous said...

My son has to be pulled out of High School because of the bullying and lack of understanding of the school administration.

Anonymous said...

My son has to be pulled out of High School because of the bullying and lack of understanding of the school administration.

Anonymous said...

My son is in 7th grade and we have spent all of last year and this year dealing with the 'Bullying' and it is really taking it out of him this year. I know schools have a lot to deal with, but the bullying that is taking place has crossed the line into 'illegal'

Anonymous said...

I'm a homeschool teacher in the San Fernando Valley/Los Angeles area if u ever need help

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you are reaching out for resources. It's not easy to homeschool, but your resolve will go a long ways.

Anonymous said...

Help her find an advocate for her in the school. My son had the same thing in Middle School and things are much better now that he has the male principal on his side. Someone to help listen when he has a problem. Gives him good advice on how to deal with things on his own and steps in when it truly crosses the line. My son now feels safe in his school and when things pop up he knows were to go for help. Find a trustworthy teacher, counselor, etc who can help out.
19 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

I gave a presentation to my son's class on Aspergers. His teachers showed a video about Aspergers first and then I spoke openly about my son and his often odd behavior toward them. His classmates were very interested, and many of them came up afterward and thanked me for explaining it all to them in a way they could understand. I asked questions about their own differences compared to the other students, and after I explained specific things they understood why my son was allowed certain 'privileges' in class [such as working by himself instead of in a group] that they were not privy to.
Also speaking openly to the bullies and parents of bullies is also helpful. My child's 'arch enemy' became his defender after I had a conversation with his father about how our boys got along [oil and vinegar] and how the condition my son has made it difficult for him to maintain solid friendships.
Older students may want to encourage the drama club to write and put on a school play about Aspergers and how it affects everyone in class. They may ask for Aspergers volunteers to offer input and participation for an 'Awareness Presentation'.

aspiegrlsmom said...

My 6 year old daughter is bulled on a daily basis in a school that combines middle school with elementary. She has never told me about it. But one day I followed her to her classes without her knowledge and saw many kids treating her like she is some kind of disease. She was diagnosed with autism (high functioning) and she tries to play with other kids and they just look at her and have a face expression of disgust. She now plays on the playground by herself. no one wants to play with her. I fear that the response that will come of that will lead to even more of falling behind in school and socially. I have spoken to the school and there has been no improvement.If anyone has any ideas that may help contact me at

Dave said...

I suspect I'm somewhere on the Aspie scale. I recently took the AQ test and got 35 which I gather means I'm highly likely to have some Aspie tendencies.

When I was in high school I was teased a lot in class by the girls. Went on for years. It all came to a head when I was 16 when I punched one of the girls in the face after she'd teased me for days on end. I broke her nose. I got suspended but at least some attention finally got put on the problem. Until then I believe the teachers had no idea I was being teased.

JMckee said...

I'm 55 and am still being bullied. I had no help or intervention for my disability. When I'm teased or bullied, I end up either staying quiet, or trying to stand up for myself, but I come across too emotional and intense. I guess I'm always going to have this problem.

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