The Bullying of Teens on the Autism Spectrum

Adolescent bullying includes a wide range of aggressive behavior, including direct and indirect hostility. Direct contact can be either verbal or physical (e.g., teasing, name-calling, pushing and hitting). Direct bullying is more common among males than females. Indirect bullying (which is more common among girls) happens when teens spread rumors about each other, often in an attempt to exclude a peer from social gatherings or other activities.

When adolescent bullying meets technology, “cyber-bullying” emerges. Through digital technology, aggressive messages can be instantly broadcast to a wide audience. Senders can remain anonymous or fake a user name, and they can attach demeaning or explicit images. This so-called "electronic hostility" includes any type of harassment or intimidation that occurs through various sources, for example:
  • blogs
  • chat rooms
  • email
  • instant messaging
  • text messaging
  • websites
  • other electronic formats

Despite the fact that adolescent bullying happens in so many ways, researchers commonly distinguish several core features:
  • hostility thrives on an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim
  • hostility is repeated
  • hostility is intentional

Bullying can worsen the mental health of all teens – but especially those with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) since they are already dealing with an inordinate amount of stress. Teens that experience adolescent bullying are more likely to report thoughts of suicide and suicidal behavior. All too often, media reports about bullying-related suicides give a face to this extreme consequence of adolescent bullying. In addition, targets of cyber-bullying are more likely than those who haven't been harassed to use alcohol and other drugs, receive school detention or suspension, skip school, or be bullied in person.

Adolescent bullying is also associated with higher rates of weapon carrying and fighting that leads to injury. Investigations of several school-based shootings (e.g., Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado) pointed to bullying as a factor that contributed to the outbreak of violence.

Many aspects of adolescent bullying resemble bullying among younger children. Still, unique features emerge. For example, adolescents might be reluctant to report bullying to moms or dads or school officials. In one study, adolescents reported a reluctance to talk about cyber-bullying with educators or other grown-ups at school, because cyber-bullying often happens on cell phones, and it's against school policy to use cell phones during school hours. In addition, adolescents may be reluctant to report cyber-bullying to mothers and fathers for fear of losing their cell phone or Internet privileges.

If you believe that peers influence your teen more than you do – think again! Research indicates that your actions make a big difference. Studies indicate that the parent’s behavior can prevent adolescents from becoming either perpetrators or targets of bullying. This effect holds for all forms of bullying.

Consider these specific strategies:

1. Provide a safe, loving and intellectually stimulating home for your Aspergers or HFA teen. Simple activities such as helping with homework and sharing regular family meals have been linked to reduced rates of bullying.

2. Some research links bullying to unsupervised television watching. Also, keep an eye on your teen's online activities and text messages.

3. Teach your “special needs” teen to manage negative emotions by setting an example with your own behavior. Reflect on how you respond to strong feelings of anger, fear or sadness — being careful to identify and accept your emotions, express them without blaming other people, and respond without hostility.

4. Welcome any chance to get acquainted with your teen's peers.

Traditional adolescent bullying tends to decline with age, peaking during middle school and decreasing during high school. Cyber-bullying might be an exception, however. More research is needed to determine whether this form of adolescent bullying becomes less common as kids mature. In the meantime, talk to your Aspergers or HFA teen about adolescent bullying. Even if he or she doesn't confess to being bullied, offer specific suggestions to keep bullying at bay, for example:
  • Getting involved in a fight may only lead to more hostility.
  • If you're being stalked or you've been physically attacked by a bully, don't be afraid to tell a trusted grown-up. 
  • If you're in a situation where you think bullying might happen, don't go it alone. Stick with trusted classmates during the school day. If you're walking home from school, find someone to go with you.
  • Spend time with trusted friends, or reach out to friendly peers. Make new friends through after-school activities (e.g., music, theater, athletics, etc.).
  • Walk tall, make eye contact, and speak assertively to the bully. Just saying "stop" or walking away from the bully — or deleting offending emails or text messages — may be enough.

If your teen admits to being bullied, take action. Start by reassuring your teen. Tell him or her that you'll do everything in your power to help — and you won't revoke cell phone or Internet privileges as a consequence of being bullied. Never imply that getting bullied is your teen's fault. Then do the following:

1. Find out how bullying is addressed in the school's curriculum, as well as how staff members are obligated to respond to known or suspected bullying.

2. Instead of finding blame, ask for help to solve the bullying problem. Keep notes on these meetings. Remember that it can take time for educators and administrators to investigate bullying in a fair and factual way.

3. Start with the teacher who knows your teen well. Ask whether your teen's classroom behavior has changed or if there are any other warning signs. You might also consult a school dean, counselor or other school contact.

4. Write down the details (e.g., the date, who was involved, what specifically happened, etc.). Record the facts as objectively as possible.

If the above steps don't help the situation, or of your teen has been injured or traumatized by continued bullying, consult a mental health provider. You might also consider talking to an attorney. Taking legal action to disrupt a culture of bullying can make your community safer for all adolescents.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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