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How to watch out for signs of bullying in your child with autism and what you can do about it.

Boy crying © Photo by Sara Dunn

According to a recent report, between 40 to 63 percent of children with autism have been bullied at school.

Clearly, bullying is a problem for children and young people with autism. But as a parent there are signs that you can watch out for and plenty you can do to help your child through any difficulties they are facing.

Defining bullying

Although there’s no hard and fast definition of bullying it can cover both physical and emotional abuse. It’s also sustained and intended to hurt. Most often it’s directed at minority groups who stand out as being ‘different’; whether that perceived difference is due to race, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Bullying’s not a specified criminal offence but, depending on its nature, may be subject to being treated as one in the eyes of the law.

Signs to look out for

If your son or daughter is bullied it can lead them to feeling scared, anxious, and isolated. It can also affect diet, the ability to sleep and to engage with others. As people with autism can struggle with these issues anyway, identifying them as signs of bullying can sometimes be harder to do.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of things to look for:

  • Changes in their behaviour. This includes becoming more introverted and quiet but also possibly more aggressive.
  • Returning home later than normal from school- perhaps they’ve changed their route to avoid a bully.
  • Not wanting to go to school, feeling stressed about school or not doing as well as normal.
  • Complaining of feeling unwell to avoid school.
  • Missing or damaged possessions or clothing.
  • Bruising or other unexplained physical injuries.

Talking to your child

It’s important, but often difficult, to talk to your child about bullying if you have concerns. It may be that your child doesn't fully understand what’s happening to them.

If verbal communication is not a problem for your child, talk to them about your concerns or approach it in broader terms, talking about their experiences of school that day or any problems they think other children may be having. Approach the subject carefully.

If your child has communication difficulties think of other ways you can check in with them on how they’re feeling using other methods.

Drawing pictures, acting out scenes with toys or other visual methods of communication can work well. You could also think about using colour code scales to help your child show how they’re feeling or how well their day went.

What to do next

Your child's school is legally required to have an anti-bullying policy. Your first step should be to request this from the school or check their website, where it might be available to download.

It's important to stay calm and make an appointment with the school to discuss your concerns. List your concerns and be prepared with any evidence you may have which support them. Remember that while bullying happens in schools, it's rarely in the classroom. Teachers and other staff are sometimes the last to know.

Work with your school to find solutions. While disciplining a bully is their job, they also need to support you and your child to work through any problems arising from bullying and make sure your child's experience of school becomes a positive one.

Different schools will have different ways of supporting your child. Peer buddying or mentoring schemes are common so that your child has more support and a listening ear. Teachers should also be tasked with keeping a closer eye out for future problems.

It's important too that you don't let bullying dominate your child's life. Make sure there are distractions to help them enjoy other aspects of their life and re-establish some confidence and self-esteem.

If things don't improve or get worse

If after speaking to your child's school, the bullying continues make sure you record every instance and report it to the school immediately. The Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) can offer step-by-step advice on taking your grievance further.

You are of course able at any time to report an instance of bullying to the police. Bear in mind however that, as already discussed, bullying in and of itself is not a criminal offence. If you feel some aspect of the bullying your child is experiencing is criminal in nature, report it to the police immediately.

Coping with and overcoming bullying

The most important thing you can do as a parent is work with your child to develop coping mechanisms and strategies to move on from or avoid bullying entirely.

Bullying is never the fault of the bullied child. Bullies target individuals due to perceived differences and weaknesses. For children with autism this can be due to communication issues and a difficulty in reading social cues. By helping your child be assertive and more confident you're reducing their attractiveness to bullies as an 'easy target'.

Some organisations offer assertiveness training and workshops for children and young people with autism.

Increasing activities out of school where new friendships can me made is also a great way to build confidence; either autism-specific services or in a mainstream setting depending on your child's abilities and support needs.

Remember- while bullying is all too common, you can get through it and there are plenty of people out there ready and willing to help in a whole range of ways.

Useful links

You can find more information about dealing with bullying from a number of organisations including:

Anti-bullying Alliance

Bullying UK


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