To bully is to seek harm and/or intimidate someone perceived to be vulnerable for any reason. While the person bullying might forget about the incident right after, the person being bullied can experience far-reaching effects until much later in life.
Even though bullying is prevalent in neurotypical children too, children with disabilities, physical or intellectual are more often on the receiving end of bullying. In fact, according to a study published in ScienceDirect, children with autism and ADHD/ADD appear to be at increased risk for bullying behaviours. This is largely a result of their inability to express their emotions and communicate their feelings effectively.
Small but decidedly hurtful actions such as making fun of their autistic traits, saying mean things, calling them names, not including them in activities and hitting or pushing them, etc., are all examples of bullying. It can not only negatively impact their self-esteem and academic progress but it can also affect their social skills and mental health in the long run.
In honour of the ‘International Stand Up to Bullying Day,’ observed on the third Friday of November, this week we will talk about a few signs that can help parents and teachers to spot bullying in autistic children. We will also discuss a few ways in which parents and teachers can help prevent bullying of children with autism.
Signs of bullying
It can be tricky to spot the signs of bullying, especially in an autistic child. Limited speech or a lack of skills to express their emotions can make it difficult for them to communicate with their parents, teachers, or caregivers. Them not realising that they’re being bullied is also a very real possibility.
There isn’t one conclusive sign to tell whether a child is being bullied as there are a lot of variables involved. The biggest being that every autistic child is different and as such will react to bullying differently. It also depends upon how bad the bullying is. Here are a few of the signs that parents and teachers alike can look out for:
- If a bully is physically hurting the child, there might be unexplained bruises, scratches, or cuts on their bodies
- Watch out for damaged clothes or lost personal belongings
- If they repeatedly ask you to not send them to school or the mention of going to school or even walking up to the bus stop frightens them
- Another sign could be a sudden deterioration of their academic performance
- If the instances of angry tantrums, mood swings, anxiety, and nightmares become more frequent than usual
- They might also suddenly start stammering, crying a lot and become more withdrawn
- If their sleep and food patterns change all of a sudden, or if they start displaying aggression and bully other people in retaliation
It is also likely that when you spot any such signs in your child and ask them if something is bothering them, they might simply refuse to talk to you about it.
Can parents and teachers prevent bullying?
As a parent, ideally, you’d want to prevent your child from being bullied before it even starts. This can be achieved by empowering them to speak up when anybody mistreats them. Explain to them what bullying is and how it is a bad thing to bully someone. Offer them clear examples of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Let them know that they can share anything with you and that you will believe them.
Additionally, if your child is especially vulnerable to bullying, you can work with your child’s school to do the following:
- Have them stay close to a supervisor or take the help of their teacher to work out a buddy arrangement with one of their friends
- Refrain from sending any valuables or money with them to the school
- Create a detailed recess schedule for them which would keep them occupied. For example, the first 10 minutes are for having lunch, the next five for the swing set, the next five to be used for a quick washroom visit, etc.
What to do if they still get bullied?
If your child confides in you about any incidents of bullying at the school, assure them that you believe them. This holds true for both parents as well as teachers. Bring the incident to light by reporting it to the school officials and follow the procedures and protocols set by the school.
Teachers are the first line of defence against bullying for these children. To help them avoid or escape bullying, as a teacher you can encourage them to talk to you freely about anything that bothers them. Provide them with reassurance that talking about it is the right thing to do. Make sure you talk to the bully and the child they are bullying separately and bring the situation to their parents’ attention.
And if you want to inculcate empathy in other children that interact with an autistic child regularly, this can help.