This article was originally published in the October 2013 issue of The Autism Notebook under the title What A Parent Can Do to Bully Proof their Child with Autism
Do you remember being a victim of bullying? Most of us can conjure up a memory of someone using power inappropriately when relating to us. Bullies are everywhere. Unfortunately, some individuals are more at risk of being bullied and children on the autism spectrum are often selected as targets.
Targets are seen as socially withdrawn, passive and anxious. No one is to be blamed for being bullied but children with this profile are at higher risk of attracting a bully. Individuals with autism are often socially awkward and anxious but children off the spectrum can present this way as well.
I was a very shy and nervous child and swear I had a sign on my forehead that said – Attention Bullies! My worse bully memory revolves around a corner laundromat and a very tall girl that shoved me into a large tumble dryer there.
My childhood home had a washer in the bathroom closet and a dryer in the backyard – we called it a clothesline. The clothesline worked quite well, unless it rained.
Persistent showers always increased the possibility of going to the laundromat. This escalated my anxiety and affected my behavior in ways my parents could never understand. I became downright oppositional and would do anything to avoid going there.
Parents don’t always understand their child’s behavior and may misread fear or anxiety as being obstinate or resistant. Little did my parents know that I had been stuffed inside a dryer by a girl twice my size. This was enough to transform me from a compliant mother’s helper into a defiant little monster whenever it rained and clothes had to be dried.
Why didn’t I tell my parents? Threats from my perpetrator? An inability to fully understand what was happening?
I was a neurotypical child and I did not know what to do. Children with autism that are bullied are even less likely to understand what is happening and verbalize it in order to access help.
Therefore, preparing your child to deal with bullying behavior is imperative in today's world.
A bully and their target are often lacking in social skills but in different ways. Bullies typically know basic social skills but choose to ignore them and utilize power inappropriately to develop relationships. A child with autism CAN use appropriate social skills if taught – it’s not that they are intentionally awkward in a social situation or don’t want to make friends - they just don’t know how.
How does a parent prepare their child for the possibility of dealing with a bully?
- Teach your child social skills and how to think socially. Knowing what a healthy friendly relationship looks like is imperative. If your child has an accurate sense of what constitutes a real friendship he will be able to identify bullying for what it is before it gets out of hand.
- Teach your child to be assertive. Learning how to be appropriately assertive rather than passive, or aggressive, is one of the best gifts you can give your child. Bullies look for individuals who are passive and won’t spend time grooming someone who is likely to speak up for herself. Teaching your child appropriate use of the word ‘no’ is crucial. Non-verbal language also sends a powerful message to bullies - standing straight, using a firm voice and looking someone in the eye.
Many children with autism do not like to make eye contact therefore asking them to determine the 'color' of a person's eyes when talking to them is an option. This is a simple distraction technique for an uncomfortable task that will make them appear confident and self-assured.
- Build your child’s confidence muscle. Give specific praise each time your child makes an effort to try a new task. "You won the race by putting one foot in front of the other. You tried hard and didn’t give up!" Hearing this provides him with detailed information he can replicate and a feeling of accomplishment that will carry over into other areas.
- Enhance your child’s independence. Bullies actively search for those who seem helpless so guide your child to become as independent as possible. Be forever mindful of the tendency to do too much for your child because it can lead to learned helplessness. The feeling of “I can do it” is powerful and will serve as one more layer of protection from the taunts of a bully.
Hopefully you realized you are already doing a lot to prepare your child for a possible encounter with a bully without even knowing it. I encourage you to double your efforts and add even more strategies to help make your child bully proof.