How to Intervene When Your Child is Being Bullied at School

"My son (age 9) with high functioning autism tells me that he has been bullied by one of his classmates since the start of the school year. My son said he didn't mentioned it earlier because he didn't realize until recently that this other student was actually doing something "wrong" (go figure). How do you address bullying when the school seems to be indifferent about it – and has even blamed my son for initiating some of the conflict? If they don’t actually see the bullying taking place, they seem to assume that it’s not going on and that my son is simply exaggerating the problem."

According to research, 94% of kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) are bullied. Bullying usually begins when the HFA or AS student is harassed by another student (or a group of students), but is unable to resist and lacks the support of others. It usually continues if the student doing the bullying has little or no sympathy for the peer they are hurting – and especially if the bully is getting some pleasure out of what he is doing.

The mental torment that HFA and AS victims feel is indisputable. However, since many of us have experienced some kind of schoolyard cruelty and lived to tell the tale, bullying is still written off as a “soft” type of abuse that leaves no apparent injuries. However, the current research into the effects of bullying indicates something more than “hurt feelings.” 

Bullying often leaves an indelible imprint on a child’s brain at a time when it's still developing. These neurological scars bear much resemblance to those carried by kids who are physically and sexually mistreated in early childhood. Neuro-scientists now know that the human brain continues to develop and change long after the initial few years of life. Bullying is not simply an unfortunate rite of passage, rather it is a severe form of childhood trauma that triggers psychological damage.

HFA and AS students are easy targets for a variety of reasons:
  • They have difficulty with multi-tasking and interpreting other’s intentions
  • They seem “out of step” with the other kids
  • Due of built-up frustration, they may over-react to most provocations, thus the bully knows he can always push the HFA or AS student’s buttons at will
  • Due to having a low social IQ, they let things build up, and then retaliate without an awareness of what the consequences will be
  • They have difficulty telling the difference between good natured teasing versus someone being mean
  • They may be oblivious to an act of bullying or teasing behavior
  • They have motor difficulties, so participating in athletics is difficult (even games at recess may be a challenge)
  • They process information at a different pace than expected, as a result, they may appear “space-out” or “disconnected” 
  • Their special interests may be boring to others, so it’s hard for them to find other students with similar interests
  • Low-frustration tolerance can lead to a meltdown (and a child who has a meltdown in school is often looked at as a “freak”)
  • They appear different than their peers

Most schools are cracking down on bullying and are treating such behavior as assault and punishable by legal means. As the parent, you have every right to speak with the principal, teacher or counselor in order to ask their help in controlling the problem. Some schools have behavioral support staff whose job is to get to the bottom of behavior issues and crack down on bullies.

Here are some ways that you can intervene - as well as advocate - for your HFA son:

1. Your son may find it difficult to explain what is wrong. Talking it over with his teacher may lead to a better understanding of what is really happening. The more you can do to intervene with the help of school staff, and the more you can teach your son methods for self-preservation that don’t include fighting back, the more likely this unfortunate situation will be put to rest. Your son may be reluctant to have you intervene, because he may fear the social stigma of having his “mommy” fight his battles. However, it is up to you to intervene on his behalf with school administrators to ensure his physical and emotional well-being.

2. Don't talk to the parents of the alleged bully. They may become defensive when their child is accused of bullying, and the conversation may not be a productive one. Let the school administrators manage the communication with the bully’s parents.

3. Explore with your son what leads up to the bullying. It’s possible that, on occasion, he does provoke the bully by annoying or irritating him, in which case, your son can learn not to do so.

4. Find out how bullying is addressed in the school's curriculum and how staff members are obligated to respond to known or suspected bullying. 

5. If possible, your son should try to stick with a trusted classmate during the school day. If he walks home from school, maybe he can find someone to walk with him. Sometimes, just having another friend around reduces the incidence of bullying. If your son has problems making friends on his own, try to facilitate a friendship with a mature, understanding child who can both be a friend to your son and can help out if bullies try to tease or hurt him. Facilitating friendships may mean inviting another child over for a meal or for some games or television, or it may mean taking both of them to a movie or on a shopping trip.

6. Remember that it can take time for teachers and administrators to investigate bullying in a fair and factual way. Most schools want to get the problems resolved as quickly as possible. So, patience is key here. Also, write down the details of reported incidence of bullying (e.g., the date, who was involved, what specifically happened, etc.). Record the facts as objectively as possible. Show this data to your son’s teacher(s) to help them make an informed decision regarding how to best address the issue.

7. Maintain open communication with your son. Talk to him every day about details small and large. How did his classes go? What does he have for homework that night? Who did he sit with at lunch? Who did he play with at recess? Listen carefully and be responsive to show interest.

8. Role-playing can help your son identify bullying. If he has a brother or sister, he or she may be able to help shed some light on bullying (kids have a closer connection to today’s playground politics than grown-ups).

9. Scenes from television, movies and video games provide plenty of opportunities to talk about bullying. You and your son can discuss how the bullied character handled the situation, and whether he or she handled it appropriately or not. The two of you can share what you would do in a similar situation.

10. Discuss with your son what places it might be best to avoid, and on occasion, whom to stay close to in threatening situations.

11. Suggest to your son things to do when he is picked on. Sometimes by acting “as if” you are not afraid – or by not over-reacting – the bullying can be stopped. It’s better if your son, with a bit of good advice, can do something to help himself.

12. Take complaints seriously, whether they be stories of physical, verbal or psychological bullying. If your son is just now telling you about problems he has had at school, you can bet that there is plenty that he hasn't told you yet.

13. Teach your son 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.

14. Teach your son to walk away from the bully, preferably before the bully gets started. Help your son learn to recognize those situations that may lead to bullying (e.g., after school, on the playground, during lunch, etc.), and teach him to be more vigilant and stay near adults in such circumstances.

15. Teach your son to walk tall, make eye contact, and speak assertively to the bully. Just saying "stop" and walking away from the bully may be enough.

16. Lastly, if all else fails, you may want to consider taking legal action. For more information on this topic, click here ==> Bullying: How Parents Can Take Legal Action To Get It Stopped

Research reveals that kids who have been bullied report more signs of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues compared to kids who have not. In fact, psychological abuse from same-age peers is as harmful to mental health as psychological abuse from parents. Most HFA and AS children who are bullied (a) have low self-esteem (which may continue for many years), (b) often complain of headaches, concentration difficulties, stomach aches, etc., and (c) are frequently distracted from schoolwork, resulting in poor academic performance.

If the bullying is severe and prolonged, and the targeted child is unable to overcome the problem or get help, he may (a) seek revenge, and in extreme cases, use a weapon to get even, (b) refuse to go to school, (c) become isolated, and (d) distrust others and find it impossible to make friends.

There are a few crucial things that need to happen in order to fully resolve the bullying problem in schools: The HFA or AS youngster needs to learn how to identify bullying or teasing behavior. Schools that have instituted bullying prevention programs that are working should be visited and copied. School officials need to learn more about autism spectrum disorders and how it affects “special needs” students in the classroom. And a network of like-minded professionals and community members to join in a partnership should be developed.

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