Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum to Handle Teasing

"How can I help my son (high functioning autistic) to avoid over-reacting to 'teasing' from schoolmates? Some of them apparently pester him because they know they can get a 'rise' out of him, which results in my son being the one who gets in trouble."

Too often, children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) get teased by their peers, but they may not fully understand why they are being targeted – or worse yet – when teasing crosses the line into bullying. Thus, it’s up to parents to educate their children about teasing (e.g., when it's innocent child’s play, when it has gone too far, how to respond, etc.).

In selecting the appropriate strategies to deal with "the teaser,” parents will need to determine the specific strengths and weaknesses their child has socially. They can do this by observing their youngster interacting with peers and siblings. Next, parents should take time to think about their child's temperament. Temperament includes:
  • sensitivity or emotional reactivity
  • persistence
  • intensity
  • initial reaction to situations and people
  • general mood
  • distractibility
  • adaptability
  • activity level

All AS and HFA kids are not the same. Finally, parents should take the youngster’s age into consideration.

The best strategies fit your youngster’s situation, age, skills, temperament, and the seriousness of the teasing incidents. Teaching your son or daughter the skills described below takes time and effort. The behaviors must be modeled and practiced if your youngster is going to be successful. The payoffs are significant though. Payoffs include safety, self-confidence, resiliency, ability to handle difficult or frightening situations, and the belief your youngster develops that he has the ability to master and to change challenging situations.

Always teach more than one strategy to combat teasing so that your youngster always has a second one to try if the first doesn’t work out (three to five well-mastered strategies from the list below works best).

How to help children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism handle teasing: 

1. Begin by teaching self-control strategies. Start with a discussion about teasing, carefully and explicitly describing situations when your youngster should try to handle the teasing herself, and when she should NOT try to manage the teaser.

2. Keep your cool. It is important that the teaser does not see that your son or daughter is upset or afraid. Control of emotions needs to be taught first. This takes lots of practice, especially for kids who are emotionally reactive, timid or impulsive.

3. Describe the difference between teasing, harassment and bullying. When teasing is excessive – it’s harassment. When harassment continues over time – it’s bullying.

4. Carefully define dangerous situations. Your youngster must not try to manage dangerous situations himself.

5. Agree with the facts. This is one of the easier ways to handle a teaser, but it requires emotional control. Example: The teaser says, “You have a lot of freckles.” Your youngster responds, “Right.” The teaser says, “You’re a crybaby.” Your youngster says, “I’m a sensitive person.” When the teaser points out your child’s mistakes, teach your child to say, “You’re right, I blew it.”

6. Tell your youngster that sometimes he will need to find an adult and get help (e.g., “If the teasing doesn’t stop or is dangerous, if the teaser threatens to hurt you, or if the teaser touches you, tell a grown-up as soon as possible”).

7. Ask for clarification. Simply ask calmly and without emotion, "What did you say?" or "What do you mean?" Usually the teaser doesn’t know what to say next and will say “forget it.” If the teaser repeats the comment, stare blankly and walk away.

8. Avoiding the teaser is an important strategy for some situations. Remind your youngster to go a different way, and to stay near other kids or grown-ups. This is a safety strategy for teasing verging on bullying, and for kids who do not yet have the skills or confidence to use the strategies that they are learning.

9. Practice assertive body language with your youngster. Find pictures in magazines in which the person looks powerless, and ones in which the models appear assertive. Point out body posture and facial expressions. Act out assertive postures (e.g., standing tall, looking directly at the other person, tightening the jaw and arms, relaxing the rest of the body, etc.).

10. Teach your youngster a script to say over and over until the teasing stops (because it’s no longer fun for the teaser), for example “This is getting very boring” … “Stop it” … “Don’t you have anything else to do.” The script needs to be assertive – but not challenging. The statement needs a shrug, a scrunched up face and shake of the head, or a slight smile respectively. This technique requires a lot of skill because the nonverbal behavior is very important along with the statement. Remind your youngster to check if the situation is safe before using this technique.

11. Learn how to deal with whispers. Teach your youngster to ask, “Do you have something to say about me?” when peers are whispering and laughing. Assertive body language and an exaggerated facial expression works well here.

12. Decide if the situation is safe. Your youngster must not try to handle situations that are not safe. Unsafe situations can be recognized when (a) the teasing occurs in a very isolated place with no other kids or grown-ups around, (b) the teasers are much older or bigger, (c) the teasing involves pushing, tripping, or threats, and (d) the teasing occurs over and over. In these cases, AS and HFA kids need to get help and report what is happening to them as soon as possible (use the word ‘report’ rather than ‘telling’ given the sanctions against ‘telling’ within the peer-group).

13. Learn to confront. “Confrontational” statements are designed to stop teasers in their tracks. Examples: “I didn’t do anything to you, why are you bugging me?” … “That’s not funny at all” … “I don’t like this” … “Could you please stop?” … “Cool it.” The nonverbal behavior used with this strategy is important. Practice standing tall, using direct eye-contact and setting a firm expression.

14. Use disarming humor. Use humor, laugh about the teasing, and make it playful. A witty one-liner might be enough to make the teaser stop. Laughing can turn a hurtful situation into a funny one (but it requires some maturity on the part of the AS or HFA child to do this successfully). For example, teach your youngster to use clever comebacks like, “Thanks, I love compliments”… “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”… “Old clothes are in, didn’t you know?”… “You made my day” … “Tell me something I don’t already know” …and so on.

15. Use distraction. Teach your youngster to talk about something else to distract or divert the focus of the teasing comments. Make a short comment about a nearby game or activity, a class, or what is going to be served for lunch.

16. Use agreement. Agree with everything that the teaser is saying. Say something like, “Yes that’s true”… “I see what you mean” … “Makes sense to me.”

17. Use compliments. Teach your youngster to compliment the teaser by saying something like, “Wow, you’re better than me, I’m still learning” … “You’re good at this, how about helping me?”…and so on.

18. Use “I Feel” statements.  This technique works best when the AS or HFA child uses it within earshot of a grown-up. If it is used when there is no help around, it can invite more teasing. Practice checking to see that an adult is within earshot, making eye contact, speaking clearly, using a polite tone of voice and saying, “When you ___ I feel ___ because ___ so please stop” (e.g., “When you keep calling me stupid, I feel sad because I thought you were my friend …so please stop”).

19. Show no emotion. Anger and tears usually make teasing worse. Staying in control is very difficult for many AS and HFA kids. It requires active and intense effort. Your youngster must have adequate emotional control to pull this off. For this technique to work, he needs to be careful not to look at the teaser or respond to the teaser. 

20. Help your youngster understand when it is dangerous to try to manage the teaser (e.g., when the teaser is older or much stronger, or when the teasing takes place in isolated areas with no one around).


21. Parents should NOT confront the youngster who is doing the teasing for several reasons:
  • it makes it difficult for the children to “make up”
  • it makes your youngster even more powerless (e.g., the teaser may say something like, “Your ‘mommy’ is trying to save you”)
  • the teaser’s parents may view the situation much differently than you do
  • your youngster may become friends with the teaser next week (you know how kids are – mortal enemies one minute, inseparable buddies the next)

22. Leave assertively. This technique is for situations when the teaser is in your youngster’s face. Teach your youngster to say things like, “I’m leaving” … “I have more important things to do” … “Go bother someone else” … “I’m out of here” … “See you later!” … “Leave me alone” … “I don’t have to listen to this” … “Quit bugging me” …and so on. Teach your youngster to use one of these statements, and then to walk away quickly. Practice making only one assertive statement. Be sure that your youngster understands that this technique may not work all the time. If it doesn’t work, a different technique needs to be used immediately. Thus, when practicing, teach several techniques at the same time.

23. Make sure that your youngster understands that reporting something that is cruel or hurtful is not “tattling,” rather it’s “standing up for your rights.” If your youngster has issues around tattling, and the situation is not immediately dangerous, suggest that she warn the teaser that she will tell if the teasing doesn’t stop. Once warned, it is more acceptable to tell.

24. Question the teaser. Teach your AS/HFA youngster to ask questions, which are designed to neutralize what is being said by the teaser. For example, “Why are you so interesting in my glasses?” … “Why would you care that I didn’t comb my hair today?” … “Are you always a joker, or are you just making a special effort with me?” …and so on. An innocent expression works well with this strategy.

25. Use positive thinking. This technique is for the youngster who is less reactive and feels okay about himself. Explain to your youngster that he has the power to choose how to act when someone is teasing. Your youngster can decide that it isn’t worth the trouble to get upset, or he can decide that there is no way that the teaser is going to win by seeing him upset. Help your youngster see that he doesn’t have to let the other person have power. The person who has the power is the one who stays in control.

26. Use reframing. This is a technique which changes your youngster’s perception about the negative statement. Turn the tease into a comment. For example, if your youngster is being teased about wearing glasses, she could say something like, “Thanks for noticing my glasses” … “That’s cool that you noticed me” …and so on.

27. Teach several relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, counting backwards, thinking of a pleasant scene, etc.). Relaxation methods do not work in stressful situations, unless they are practiced in situations that are not stressful. Practice with your youngster several times a day, making a game of the methods, or calling them “daily exercises.”

28. Use self-talk. Teach your youngster by modeling talking to yourself. This is a silent “pep-talk” strategy. Help your youngster practice saying very quietly (and later to himself) things like, “I don’t like this, but I can handle it” … “I don’t believe what this kid is saying about me” … “I have a lot of talents” …and so on. This strategy requires ability to concentrate when stressed.

29. Just shrug. A quick technique is to shrug your shoulders and walk away.

30. Another good strategy is to simply say, “So?” …in response to teasing. This technique must be executed with appropriate nonverbal communication, thus it needs practice. The nonverbal gestures could include a quick smile, a slight tip of the head, or a slight shrug of the shoulder before walking away.

31. State the obvious. Teach your son or daughter to comment on what the teaser is doing (e.g., "You’re kicking my chair" … "You’re standing on my foot"). This requires an accompanying nonverbal gesture (e.g., raised eyebrows and pursed lips).

32. Use visualization. Ask your youngster to picture himself as a ball, and the words that the teaser is saying are bouncing off -- or he can pretend that there is a shield or bubble around him so that the words can’t get through. Teach your youngster that he can refuse to listen to the insults, protecting himself with an imaginary bubble or an invisible protective shield. Some AS and HFA kids can imagine themselves as a super-power figure that is safe from insults and mockery.

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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