Ask an Expert

Ask the Expert - Bullying

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Welcome to the Scott Center’s Autism Advisor toolkit on coping with bullying.

Bullying is hurtful behavior that occurs repeatedly in a relationship characterized by an imbalance of power.
Nearly 2/3 of students report having been bullied at some point in their school careers.
Of course, there is tremendous variability in these students’ experiences including physical assault, teasing, cyber-bullying, or being purposefully excluded from social activities.

And the bullies and victims are not always clear-cut. Children can simultaneously play different roles- they might be victimized by their peers and also be bullies to other classmates.

And these interactions become particularly complex with children who have autism and other disabilities who may not fully understand how their behavior may be affecting others. 
Also, children may interpret interactions differently. For example, what seems like harmless teasing to one child may be quite hurtful to a child who is socially anxious.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about bullying is that it is not “part of growing up.”
How do you know if your child is being bullied?
Obviously if your child is becoming more withdrawn or emotional than usual, showing sadness, anger or anxiety - you’ll want to find out what’s going on.

Primarily, you want to be involved in your child’s school.  know his or her friends and how your child fits into the social environment. Is he or she a leader or a follower? Does he or she tend to be a referee of other children’s behavior?
Is he or she quick to tell teachers or other adults when peers are misbehaving, being characterized as a “tattle-tale.’
And what situations are most difficult for your child?
Sports may be particularly problematic for children who are not highly coordinated.
And small-group activities can easily become characterized by several children teasing or excluding a particular member of the group.
In such cases, one-on-one interactions go more smoothly and provide the child with a friend who is likely to serve as a buffer of sorts in more difficult situations.

The most effective way to handle bullying is through effective monitoring and feedback from teachers and caregivers. These are the people who are responsible for ensuring a safe environment and they are the ones who can intervene when children are not being respectful of one another..
And they cannot rely on victims to tell them when bullying is going on
Having to tell an adult puts a victim in a vulnerable position. “Will the adult embarrass me?”
“Will the kids tease me for telling?” Furthermore, bullying is complicated and it may be difficult for the teacher to figure out exactly what happened.
It’s far more effective for the teacher to observe a bullying situation and take the opportunity to teach respectful behavior.
What if this isn’t happening? Focus on solutions. 

It doesn’t help to go to the school angry and screaming. This just makes teachers/officials defensive. Needless to say, it also doesn’t help to call the other child’s parents and threaten them.
Rather, calmly discuss the situation with your child’s teacher and Counselor. If these professionals are not responsive, take it up the line of command. Contact the principal, superintendent, PTA.
If your school is not creating a safe learning environment, it is likely that other parents are experiencing the same frustration.
And always keep a record of the instances in which your child has experienced bullying.
Sometimes the emotions get the best of us when it comes to our children, and it is far more effective to present objective data about the problem as well reasonable solutions.
And talk to your child about ways they can respond to the bullying. Perhaps they are engaging in behaviors that are attracting negative attention and you can work to reduce these.
Perhaps they can develop a “come-back” statement that allows them to save face when others are tormenting them.
This should be something that indicates the bully is not getting to him or her without being mean in itself.
For example, a come back might be “why do you care?” or “I have better things to do than listen to this.”
Seeing your child in distress is heartbreaking, and it is a very helpless feeling when you cannot protect him or her from bullying.
However, there is hope. If your child knows one child or group with whom he fits in, it can make a huge difference. You can also provide a supportive relationship where he or she can turn to express frustrations.
And never stop advocating for your child. Model assertive, though not not aggressive behavior for your child .  Assertive behavior will teach your child that neither he nor anyone should be treated with anything but respect.
Please refer to other resources in this Autism Advisor tool kit for information, tips and strategies for coping with bullying.