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Bullying and Students on the Autism Spectrum

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I have the amazing opportunity to work with a selection of amazing professionals who provide training and support to autism programs across the U.S. and Canada called the Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs (NATTAP).  This offers a unique opportunity to collaborate on a number of projects including the one below in which we developed a brief on bullying and students on the autism spectrum.  They had much more to do with this than I did, but I wanted to share it with all of you.  It is a bit long comprehensive you can download the pdf version to share as needed and skip to the end for references/research and resources to use for awareness with your students. 

Most of us have had unfortunate experiences with bullying in our work with individuals on the spectrum.  While we must prevent bullying through education and supervision at all times, we also can take advantage of the designation of October as National Bullying Prevention Month to really hit this topic hard across our schools and communities.  

The more awareness we raise, the more likely we are to be able to prevent it.   So, spread the word.  Download the PDF version here.

and Students on the Autism Spectrum
Contributed by the NATTAP Partners
(Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs)
This article is dedicated to the memory of Sue Baker,
our NATTAP partner from Iowa.  She was a long-time
member of NATTAP and an incredible professional who was a champion for
individuals on the autism spectrum.  
Sue: You are gone, but never forgotten. 
It is not unusual to hear
stories about students – with and without disabilities – being bullied. Stories
about bullying have captured media attention across the country as children try
and cope with being bullied, suffer the impact bullying has on self-worth,
experience the humiliation and loss of feeling safe, and in extreme situations,
attempt to adjust to losing a loved one to suicide motivated by bullying. 
The reality is that students on the autism spectrum are bullied more often than
students with disabilities. In fact, of the students who are bullied, 63% are
on the autism spectrum. Regardless of the outcome associated with bullying, and
whether or not the student has a disability, bullying is a serious and
pervasive problem that must be addressed in schools.
Bullying involves repeated
harmful actions toward an individual or a group. It occurs when someone is
perceived to have a weakness, a challenge, or a difference that may serve to
isolate them and to make them a target for harmful acts. Bullying often occurs
in front of or includes others, and witnesses can play in important role in
increasing or decreasing bullying, if they choose.
There are various forms of
bullying, including verbal, physical, emotional, educational, and property
destruction. A growing area for bullying is cyberbullying, in which Facebook,
email, Twitter, and other forms of social media are used to spread unkind and
often untruthful information about students. While social networking can be a
great resource to connect people, it can and has been used in a harmful manner
to ostracize and exclude others.
The impact of bullying can be
significant and can include lowered self-esteem, heightened anxiety, depression,
fear, refusal to attend school, isolation, suicidal ideation, and suicide.
Sometimes the signs are apparent, and at other times, individuals who are
bullied try to mask or hide their reactions to the bullying. Involved
professionals and family members may notice that the bullied individual
experiences a decrease in grades, an inability to concentrate, a loss of
interest in academic skills, school avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism,
and ultimately the desire to dropout. Families and professionals should be
aware of behavior changes that may indicate a student is being bullied.  For example, if a child or adolescent refuses
to go to school, it may be an indicator that s/he is being bullied and does not
feel safe at school.
For students on the autism spectrum,
bullying may be difficult to detect and understand.  Because of theory of mind or “mind reading” challenges
and social skill deficits, these students become vulnerable targets for
bullying.  Theory of mind differences
result in difficulties grasping the intentions of others and understanding what
others are feeling and thinking.  In
terms of social skills, individuals with autism have difficulty reading
nonverbal cues, including body language and the facial expressions of others. In
addition, they may take comments literally instead of understanding the
underlying and, perhaps, unkind message. Many may have difficulty detecting the
difference between friendly banter and bullying.  As such, learners on the spectrum may over-
or under-react when perceived or real bullying happens. 
In addition to the emotional
toll on students and their families, bullying is becoming a growing area for
litigation. Schools must seriously investigate any complaints of bullying made
by parents or students. If the student has a disability, bullying could be viewed
as denying a student a free and appropriate education (FAPE). 
While bullying impacts
individual students, programs must be implemented school-wide. School-wide
anti-bullying programs should be conducted that focus broadly on teaching
tolerance and understanding, and on creating a safe school environment
overall.  Research shows that proactively
providing strategies and supports within the context of the school culture can
decrease or minimize the need to reactively respond to incidents (Espelage
& Swearer, 2008).  Building
leadership must demonstrate an absolute intolerance for bullying and the entire
school community must understand and support this belief.  Below are several suggestions:
·      Create a school-wide no-bullying policy that clearly
describes the various forms of bullying, outlines procedures to be followed
when bullying occurs, and articulates consequences.  This policy should be shared with parents,
and parents should be encouraged to discuss the policy with their children,
with or without, ASD.   The policy should
be revisited frequently with students and posted in various areas of the
·      Address anti-bullying as part of your school-wide
positive behavior support program. Establish rules and post these throughout the
school.  Rules should not be stated
simply in negative terms (telling students what not to do), but should tell
students how they are to act. Often times, rules are stated using abstract
terms, such as, “respect others.” Be tangible and teach what respectful
behavior looks like, teach how to be respectful, and teach others how to
respond to behavior that is not respectful. 
Revisit the rules regularly and share rules with parents. 
·      Highlight students who have exhibited acceptance
toward classmates. Staff should acknowledge random acts of kindness by posting
notices in central locations.  Staff can
also distribute reward cards to students when they notice students treating
classmates in a positive fashion.   
·      As a school, identify social skills that are important
to focus on.  For example, many students
lack problem-solving, negotiation, anger management, and conflict resolution
skills.  Choose a social skill of the
month.  Rehearse with students and
continually coach throughout the month. 
Staff should also remember to be a positive role model for these social
·      Hold meetings in which bullying is discussed. Allow
students to provide examples and discuss how it felt to be bullied. Make sure
students know the consequences for bullying. 
At the same time, make sure they also understand the importance of
establishing positive relationships. 
·      Many schools collect school-wide behavioral data. If
there are times or areas of the school where bullying is more likely to occur,
develop a staff plan for adult supervision. If recess, passing periods, bus
rides, or certain classes are more problematic, work with staff in those areas
to identify the signs of bullying. Oftentimes bullies are very discrete and bullying
may be hard to detect.  Work with staff
on strategies and a plan of action. If unstructured times of the day are more
problematic, it may mean that more staffing is required during those times.
·      Create information about cyberbullying that can be
sent home to family members and given to students. Students need to understand
that technology allows us to maintain a permanent record. It may be necessary
to establish rules for the use of personal technology in the school.  
·      Bullies seek power and attention from bystanders.
Empower peers to take action to stop bullying events by teaching them how to
seek help, distract a bully, and advocate on behalf of the target of a bully. Create
a process they can follow if bullying escalates. Make sure bystanders feel safe
reporting classmates and that confidentiality is respected.  
For specific students on the
autism spectrum who are potential victims of bullying, consider the following:
·      Help individuals on the autism spectrum clearly
discern what bullying is and is not. For some students with autism, it will be
helpful to explain in concrete terms what bullying is by providing specific and
concrete examples that do and do not depict bullying. Through the use of social
narratives, role playing and coaching, individuals can be presented with real
life concrete examples of bullying and teasing, and helped to learn the
difference between the two. Realize that it is difficult for many with, and
without, ASD to understand the true intentions of others. However, for students
on the spectrum, it is critical that they understand the differences.      
·      When bullying does occur, a safe person or safe place
should be identified for students on the autism spectrum to access quickly.  Write out and/or illustrate procedures that
students should follow if they believe they are being bullied or if they are in
a situation in which they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Provide opportunities
for students to practice the procedures at various times. It might be helpful
to provide a small procedure card for the student to carry in his pocket, wallet,
book bag, or backpack.
·      Another key to safety is to create a community of
friends around the student.  Students have
the potential to become victims when they are isolated in the student
body.  Making sure they are connected to
others through informal or formal means may increase their safety. If the
hallway is problematic, assign other students to be a hall buddy with the
person with ASD.
Bullying can heighten students’ anxiety, cause them to
feel unsafe, and hinder academic performance. 
All students, including those on the autism spectrum, have a right to
feel safe at school.  Each of us has a
role in making school a safe and caring environment that fosters learning and
positive social-emotional relationships. 
Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2008). Current perspectives on
linking school bullying research to effective prevention strategies. School Violence and Primary Prevention, 11, 335-353.
Bullying and Individuals with Special
Needs: Anti-bullying Webcasts.
CNN Health: Why Autistic Kids Make Easy
Targets for School Bullies.
IAN Research Report on Bullying and Children with ASD.
Model Me Confidence and Bullying Prevention, also includes information
on training DVD.
National Autism Association: A & S Bullying.
New York Times: School Bullies Prey on
Students with Autism.
Books and Articles
Baker, J. (2013). No more
victims: protecting those with autism from cyber bullying, internet predators,
and scams.
Arlington, TX: Future Horizons Inc.
Bernard, E.C. (2010). Four
minutes a day: A parent and teacher guide for victims of entertainment bullying
in school hallways.
Villanova, PA: Teacher Voice Publishing.
Espelage, D., & Swearer, S. M. (2008). Addressing research gaps in
the intersection between homophobia and bullying. School Psychology Review, 37, 155-159.
Dubin, N. (2007). Asperger
syndrome and bullying: Strategies and solutions.
Philadelphia, PA: Jessica
Kingsley Publishers.
Gray, C. & Williams, J. (2006). No fishing allowed bullying prevention program: “Reel in” bullying. Arlington,
TX: Future Horizons, Inc.
Heinrichs, R. (2003). Perfect
Targets: Asperger Syndrome and bullying: practical solutions for surviving the
social world.
Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.
McNamarra, B. (2013). Bullying
and students with disabilities: strategies and techniques to create a safe
learning environment for all
. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.
Sabin, E. (2006). The autism
acceptance book: Being a friend to someone with autism.
New York, NY: Watering
Can Press.
Simmonds, J. (2014). Seeing red:
An anger management and anti-bullying curriculum for kids
. Gabriola Island,
British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Sterzing, P.R., Shattuck, P.T., Narendorf, S.C., Wagner, M. &
Cooper, B.P. (2012). Bullying involvement and autism spectrum disorders:
Prevalence and correlates of bullying involvement among adolescents with an
autism spectrum disorder. Archives of
Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.790.
Zablotsky, B., Bradshaw,
C. P., Anderson, C., & Law, P. A. (2013). The association between bullying
and the psychological functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Developmental &
Behavioral Pediatrics
,34(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e31827a7c3a
Autism Partnership. (2013). Bullying and ASD: the perfect storm.
[motion picture]. New York: DRL Books, Inc.
Cerullo, C.V. (Director). Bullying and students with special needs.
[motion picture]. United States: Omni Publishing Company.
MacKinnon, S. (Director). (2006). Being bullied: Strategies and
solutions for people with asperger’s syndrome. [Motion picture]. United States:
Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Mobile APPS
Brenmark Inc. (2012). Bully Alert Plus (Version 1.0) [Mobile
Application]. Retrieved from
Do2Learn. (2012). The Bully Book. (Version 1.0) [Mobile Application].
Retrieved from
Penn Inovations, LLC. (2010). Bully Shield. (Version 1.03) [Mobile
Application]. Retrieved from
SAMHSA. (2014). KnowBullying. (Version 1.01) [Mobile Application].
Retrieved from
The Guidance Group Inc. (2012). Let’s Talk about Teasing and Bullying.
(Version 1.0) [Mobile Application]. Retrieved from
The Line Campaign, Inc. (2012). Circleof6. (Version 1.1) [Mobile
Application]. Retrieved from
Document created by the Network of Autism
Training and Technical Assistance Programs (NATTAP) associated with the Autism
Society.  Members involved in product
development include:
Barbara Becker-Cottrill, Autism Training Center Marshall University
Sheri Dollin, Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center
Julie Donnelly, Private Consultant
Debbie Irish, Geneva Centre for Autism
Sue Kabot,  Autism Institute at
Nova Southeastern University
Brenda Myles, Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence/Ziggurat Group
Cathy Pratt and Anna Merrill, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
Christine Reeve, Reeve Autism Consulting   
Lee Stickle, Autism and Tertiary Behavior Supports, Kansas
State Department of Education

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