Parents with children on the spectrum often worry about their child’s social world. Making friends and fitting into the group is often difficult for kids with an autism spectrum diagnosis. According to statistics compiled by PACER from the National Autistic Society, “40 percent of children with autism and 60 percent of children with Asperger’s syndrome have experienced bullying” or emotional abuse.
Now that most kids are armed with smartphones, socializing has gone cyber and bullying has become easier and much stealthier. While typed messages often remove the face-to-face social cues of real-life communication, that doesn’t make the situation any easier for kids on the spectrum.
A blog post published by the Cyberbullying Research Center highlighted the issue of cyberbullying among kids and teens with autism. According to the post “many are easily manipulated by mischievous bullies who goad them to cyberbully others, download child pornography, or hack into other computers – and they agree to do it, simply because they want to fit in and be well-liked.”
Bullying is abuse, and it always creates mental anguish. The abuse of bullying may cause multiple symptoms in victims including lower self-esteem, anxiety, depression, problems in eating and sleeping…and even suicidal thoughts or actions.
While no parent can completely ensure that their child doesn’t fall prey to bullying, there are steps to help kids—especially those on the spectrum—know what to do if they are ever bullied and how to react in a situation where they feel targeted.
Tell an Adult about Abuse
Unfortunately, kids on the spectrum are often told not to tattle when they report bullying. Regardless of this frustrating reality, kids must tell when they are bullied. And they should always, always tell their parents. If you feel that a teacher has not taken the situation seriously, request a meeting with your school’s administrator. The one incident that my son experienced was resolved instantly in class without issue. And his peers—who were his friends—reported the incident for him! There are good kids out there, and good teachers, too. But make sure your child knows they always have an advocate in you.
Discuss Online Do’s and Don’ts
There are certain things no one should EVER do online. Teach older kids what about the laws and how they apply to online behaviors. Kids with autism respect rules…and tend to follow them. Set the rules, explain the rules and, if you feel the need for further reassurance, turn on parental controls or install software to supervise online behavior (just make sure they know they are being supervised). Create a cell phone contract that also outlines what a teen can or cannot do with their phone.
Role Play Emotional Abuse
I cannot recommend role playing enough. This helps kids with autism anticipate a certain situation and helps them know what to do in that situation. Role playing doesn’t have to just focus on the negative of bullying; it also can help kids with autism know what to do if they see another kid being victimized. You also may use scenarios to teach a child how to manage their emotions and empathize with others.
My son didn’t understand sarcasm for the longest time. And sarcasm is one of those little social nuances that kids with autism need to be taught…because sarcasm also can be used to bully. Teach sarcasm…and make sure your child knows that sarcasm isn’t always a funny or nice way to communicate to others. If you have to exaggerate your voice to help them learn how sarcasm ‘sounds’…do it! My son now notices when his dad is being sarcastic and we kind of love that he gets it!
Be Seen & Heard to Prevent Abuse
Parents with kids on the spectrum must be an advocate for their child. And, sometimes, as an advocate, you have to be vocal. Be seen and be heard up at school. Not in a bad way…volunteer, and make sure the teachers know your face. If you notice that something is amiss with your child, ask for a meeting with your child’s teacher, and don’t be afraid to go higher up the command if you don’t see results.
Unfortunately, children with autism may be at a higher risk for bullying. But that doesn’t mean our children have “victim” painted across their backs. Help your child understand bullying and what to do if someone hurts them with words or other ways…even on the screen. Empower them, because they deserve to be empowered. Be their advocate and their cheerleader…and, if the situation calls for it, be their fierce mama bear!