The Silent Bullying of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

“My ASD son (high functioning) continues to be bullied at school, but nobody there seems to take it seriously. His teach said that ‘he seems to start the arguments by annoying some of the other students.’ O.K. Fine. Maybe this is true, but that doesn’t justify bullying. How can I get the school to take this seriously?”

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability harassment is against the law in all schools, school districts, and colleges and universities that receive public funds. “Special needs” kids who are bullied or harassed have legal rights to grievance procedures and due process on the local level. They can also file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these laws and policies, the National Education Association estimates that every 7 minutes of every school day, a youngster is a victim of bullying, and 85% of the time there is no intervention by other children or grown-ups. Your youngster's school may have anti-bullying policies that do not help much on a practical level.

Kids in special education are the most frequent victims of bullies. Kids with ASD, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), are inevitably victims of bullying. One expert puts the percentage at 100%. The reason is that HFA kids fit the profile of a typical victim (i.e., a "loner" who appears different from other kids). Like hungry wolves that attack a limping sheep that can't keep up with the herd, the boy or girl with clumsy body language and poor social skills appears vulnerable and ripe for bullying. What's worse is the youngster often suffers in silence and does not tell his mother or father about the torment.

Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old boy with ASD explained it like this: “Autistic kids don't realize which things they are supposed to go home and tell. ‘What have you done at school today?’ wouldn't automatically bring about the answer, ‘I have been bullied’ unless that subject was specifically brought up."

If your autistic youngster appears under extreme stress, if he is missing school because of headaches and stomachaches, if he has physical injuries and torn clothing, he may be a victim of bullying. If your youngster is stealing money from you, he may be using it to pay off a bully.

Once you determine that your youngster is a victim of bullying, you have to be careful not to make the situation worse. Writing in his book “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers,” Luke describes what happened after his mom spoke up to his tormentors: “The bullies left me alone for sometime after that. But no amount of threatening by my brother, by the educators, fear of expulsion, pleasant reasoning, absolutely nothing made any difference and they never left me alone. In the end they were physically pushing me around and punching me and it was about the worst time of my entire life.”

Luke endured not only physical beatings, but also name-calling, teasing, tripping so his lunch tray fell all over, having his books destroyed and chairs pulled out from underneath him. He ended up changing schools.

One major problem that Luke's mother and other moms and dads of HFA kids face is that a school may have an anti-bullying policy, yet the staff looks the other way when it happens. Some school administrators are simply more tolerant of bullying than others. Some schools, including Columbine, tolerate a "pecking order" in which athletes and popular children have special privileges and develop a sense of entitlement that leads to a "bullying atmosphere." 
In such a school, if moms and dads report bullying, the principal may advise them to enroll their youngster in karate or otherwise teach him to stand up for himself. The underlying attitude is that it is the victim's fault. One principal told a mother of an autistic boy, "Your son is a little different and it bothers other kids, so he brings this on himself because of who he is." Also in such a school, educators and coaches may bully the “different” youngster too.

Another problem in approaching educators and school administrators is that an HFA youngster does not have the social savvy to tell his side of the story effectively. Bullies typically lack empathy and real feeling, but many are good at crying on cue and playing the victim. Often the autistic student gets expelled, and the bully receives no punishment unless the autistic student has an effective witness.

In a survey by York University, only 23% of children agreed with this statement: “educators usually - or almost always - intervene when bullies attack.” However, 71% of the educators in the survey agreed. Part of the problem is that educators do not witness most bullying, because it usually happens off campus (which also means the school may not be legally liable for it). AS HFA kids are most vulnerable when they walk alone to and from school. The other most likely times bullying occurs is during unstructured times (e.g., lunch hour, recess, passing between classes). Bullying peaks in junior high school.

There are things you can do to protect your youngster. It is a good idea to demand an anti-bullying clause in your youngster's Individual Education Plan (IEP). This is a proactive way of having solutions in place and holding the administration to its word in the event your youngster is bullied anytime throughout the year. If your school does not have an anti-bullying program, try to work through the PTO to get one in place. Some schools have a “bullying coordinator” (usually a volunteer) who monitors the lunchroom, restrooms, corridors and playgrounds, and makes sure there is consistent intervention.

If your youngster is a victim of bullying, don't approach the mom or dad of the bully – or the bully himself. According to the research, parents of bullies are often abusive people themselves. Talk to your youngster's teacher and principal in private. Ask for an adult aide to accompany your youngster at all times, if necessary. If the bullying does not stop, you can involve the police or file grievances through your local Office of Civil Rights. If your youngster is in danger, you can home-school him until the situation is under control or transfer him to a private school. If you have to file a lawsuit against the school and the mom and dad of the bully, find a lawyer whose expertise is in special education law.

P.S. Warning to parents: According to statistics, it is very likely that YOUR child with ASD HAS BEEN or IS BEING bullied. Why don’t you know about it? Because your child won’t tell you! Why won't he tell you? Because he thinks it's a normal, everyday activity that some peers engage in. So, you need to investigate this now – BEFORE your child has been tormented for weeks or months or years! If after your investigation, you discover there has been no bullying against your child, then thank God for it.


o    Anonymous said… angry to hear on 2 levels. A.) Bullies are just slime of the earth. They are so distructive to kids, sometimes lifelong with their cruel words/actions. B.) The teacher is so cruel & ignorant to dismiss the bullying so callously! Go to the guidance office & request an IEP meeting. Seek a psychologist who specializes in autism and/or ASD. They will often attend your IEP meeting with you as a child advocate. Once you have an IEP you have more pull to get him removed from that class & to help him learn how to act in class. My daughter's school was great but some teachers not so much. My daughter used to disrupt class with excessive hand raising & calling out in class. Her teacher understood & would talk to her & remind her to wait her turn. She worked it in as an iep practice item. Don't stand for this, your are your son's only advocate. This helped my daughter tremendously! She is now in college. She struggles but she gets by due to confidence built in high school because of their support. You need them on your side and IEP is the start to that. I really wish you all luck
o    Anonymous said… Bullies should be stopped!
o    Anonymous said… Get an IEP, and then slam the school with it.
o    Anonymous said… Good luck! I did all if that too when my son was bullied. The teacher blamed him. The school refused to accommodate, help, or test him. I was treated poorly after my complaints. It took years to get the diagnosis, then they only did a 504 plan at an completely different school; I had to pull my son out of the first school. By then the damage was done. That was 3 years ago and my son STILL talks about that kid!
o    Anonymous said… Him starting the arguments is part of his condition which probably comes down to socializing skills. Bullying on the other hand is ILLEGAL, demand that they deal with the situation or you will through legal support.
o    Anonymous said… I just started home schooling my daughter! It has been so much less stressful.
o    Anonymous said… people need to be educated- i really had no clue about this condition until i watched the show parenthood. i have much respect for all you and shame on people did not give you that
o    Anonymous said… School was a huge challenge before our son got private care. I was looked down upon by teachers and staff, as they blamed his behaviors on my parenting. They do not understand the disorder and discipline the child for things beyond their control.
o    Anonymous said… Sounds so similar, we had that issue and were told our son was starting it, but what was happening was yes he would go and hit a child, to get put on the deck for the whole of lunchtime as no-one annoys you in time out. We were told our son would never be able to be in playground without supervision. We changed schools to one that has zero tolerance for bullying and our son is in the playground without supervision and doesn't hit anymore, he is happy and wanting to go to school, stomach up sets are no longer and it was affecting him mentally and physically. Top me if 1 school can have a zero tolerance why can't others.
o    Anonymous said… This makes me sick! I would go to the Board!! If that didnt work, I would get a Lawyer!!
o    Anonymous said… TOTALLY agree. I was going to say same thing when I read your post. School has a LEGAL obligation to accomodate a child with special needs. Sadly, you might have to pull that card and threaten them with a human rights complaint.
o    Anonymous said… We had to move schools. But it was well worth it
o    Anonymous said… Yes go to the board!!!! I did and if they put her on homebound....
o    Anonymous said… You’ll be lucky most schools dont want to know x
•    Anonymous said...  "Provocative victim". Go and look it up please and then quote it to the school. I went through this with my son all through primary school. Withdraw him and tell the
LEA why you are withdrawing him. I wish I had. Serious good luck. Incidentally secondary schools are better x
•    Anonymous said... Asperger kids perceive things differently so a kid with a snarky comment may have one kid give a snarky comment back and it rolls off their back..an asperger child takes it offensively because he can't understand rude words and then laughter as an "Imi kidding" they take it as rude comment you are laughing at me....I think the many years my son was "bullied" was because he didn't perceive it as joling around but more they are picking on me...and we as his parents supported that because we at home do not joke around by putting the other person down or calling each other names but if you have aspergers you follow the rules and takes things literallly, all.the.time...whereas my younger son can take the joke and give back the rude insults laugh it off and carry on...my older son with aspergers cannot....AND because he sees that funny joking insulting humor gets laughs he tries to be "funny" but he is then just really rude because he doent get the social aspect of the kidding around...the rules are not finite and aspergers kids didnt get the memo....so frustrating.
•    Anonymous said... Go to the superintendent if you have to. If he's been diagnosed by a dr the school can't fight that. My son was bullied so badly we are now homeschooling.
•    Anonymous said... He does NOT start arguments by 'annoying' ppl. He is a person with a disability and students r responding with hatred to that disability. Students might find behaviours associated with his disability annoying, but that is not the child with the disability's fault or problem. Shame on that teacher for not recognizing this and for blaming the victim of bullying.
•    Anonymous said... I just was asked to sign a petition for an anti bullying law. Your example is why I think this law is such a bad idea. The child with autism that is being bullied is being blamed for starting it by annoying others. This will come back badly for children with Autism that it is supposedly designed to protect. Think this stuff all the way through before jumping on board and signing a petition for anti bullying laws. It could have a very bad outcome for our children.
•    Anonymous said... I put my child in scouts for one and started to forge friendships. We taught lessons on inclusion through the badges earned. Problem to watch for is stacking all the special needs children in one troop. Once parents learn your good at this, everyone wants your troop and then soon the typical peers don't want to be in a troop with that many special needs children. My child's scouting friends began to stick up for my child. That was the beginning to change.
•    Anonymous said... It's so hard for them, especially when they are young. My son is five and most times, he doesn't know when someone isn't being nice to him. And he also doesn't realize when he is being rude or antagonistic. We go over the scenarios daily and consistently. He is improving, but it is something he has to practice and learn, like reading or math. It isn't innate, like most of us take for granted.
•    Anonymous said... My 11 year old boy has struggled with this issue since first grade (he is in sixth now). Not only have there always been the bullying kids (mostly other boys), there have been bullying adults who must interact him. It has only been this year that we've been convinced of an Aspergers diagnosis (not professional, although he does see a school psychologist at this point). We came from a high tech area in California and moved to a much more rural, mountainous area where education is not a big priority for a lot of kids. He is not challenged academically here at this current school. Some teachers and other administration didn't understand him, he has struggled socially (wanting friends, but never fitting in). His head is in technology, but he thrives in all subjects. He is athletic, but not interested in playing sports. He teaches himself anything he wants to learn. He is an amazing kid, however because of the constant bullying, we see a change in him. More depression, lower self-esteem, etc. Through the advice of the psychologist (who does NOT work for the school though she does work AT the school), she has recommended a different school setting. One where he will have more peers. So we have decided on taking him out of school after the holidays and we'll homeschool him through the end of this school year. After that, we'll be sending him to a charter school in a town nearby which is a college prep middle through high school. I have the belief that with more kids who "get" him, he'll end up having a positive middle school experience. We are fortunate that we can do this for him, whereas I realize a lot of folks cannot take the time to homeschool and on top of that, it's not easy. I had read the attached article a few months ago and decided to email it to his primary teachers (he has two). One teacher is so ridged, that without a IEP, she doesn't do much to change her teaching style with him. The other teacher understands him and stands up for him when he lets them know he is being bullied, taunted or teased. Schools NEED to be educated on kids that have different learning techniques and all other adults need to understand Aspergers and all spectrum kids for this to ever get better.
•    Anonymous said... My son has the same issue - his way of interacting makes others uncomfortable at times. The school has fought his Asperger's diagnosis for years choosing instead to classify him as "Emotionally Impaired". For me, the best I can do is attempt to help my son understand social situations. People are not going to change for him, so he needs to adjust his way of interacting based on others (not fair, but nothing is in life). His school social worker is finally understanding and starting to include him in with a group of kids who only work on social interaction and that has helped a little. If you happen to know the other kids, its great to be able to talk to them to be able to explain that your son isn't trying to be annoying and what they may be able to do to adjust their behavior to help him. If not, it's all on helping your son understand and adjust.
•    Anonymous said... My son is the exact same ! As I see it some kids r brought up not to except anything that's a bit different . I tell my son if people were all the same it would be a boring place!
•    Anonymous said... My son was blamed for his own bullying in pp, he came home bawling every day and ended the year saying he wished he was dead - he was six. Teachers should be better trained, I think the bullying also comes from the teachers which makes the kids think it's okay.
•    Anonymous said... Putting it blunty,the little bastards who make these poor kids life a living hell,usually have 1 or maybe 2 big bastard bullies at home learning them there greedy bombastic bullying ways.If they had been brought up in a loving family and taught right and decency not just take what you can and humiliate anybody round you,they wouldnt behave like it,to these poor defenceless littluns and if i caught a kid of mine bullying like that id drowned the little bleeder.xx
•    Anonymous said... Read the book "look me in the eye" it gave me some insight into the situation, the teachers said he was "bossy" but the book says they think differently about how the game should be played and are trying to teach the other children "the right way" good luck everyone, it's tough! We home schooled and he has gone from F's to A's and B's and is getting the achievement award, a very big difference to last years ending. His teacher is lovely (although we didn't start off on the right foot) and he has a few friends, although he still gets bullied. Stick with it, do what you have to and things can turn around, we are their only voice and we love them and see them for the special people that they are
•    Anonymous said... This is my biggest fear about sending my young son to school next year...he has a huge heart and sees everyone as a potential friend, but his approach catches other kids off-guard and they often don't understand. Parents need to teach their kids to love other people...simple.
•    Anonymous said... We all walk to the beat of different drums.It's so hard to stand by and watch your child get bullied. Everyone...not just parents need to take a stand. Bullying is NOT OK.
•    Anonymous said... We are going through the same as our son has just gone to secondary school and is really struggling.kids are not being kind and he just doesn't understand the way other kids can play fight and say mean things and it be a joke so he says things he hears and is being chased and threatened and is bewildered why!!
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