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Bullying in the Autism

Community

Andrea Marin

Tasche Bryant

Blackstone Academy Charter School

January 19, 2017


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Introduction

In just seven years, the number of students who have reported being bullied in schools

has almost doubled with students reporting that, often times, adult help is infrequent and

ineffective. This is problematic. People must demonstrate an intolerance for bullying and school

communities must understand and support this action. According to Autism Speaks, an

organization that promotes solutions for the needs of individuals with autism, have suggested

that the best ways to help are starting conversations that explain what is happening in schools

and communities while encouraging people to speak up. Bullying occurs across the country as

children try to cope with the effects of being bullied. The reality is that students on the autism

spectrum are bullied more often than students with other disabilities because students with

autism find it difficult to detect and understand that they are being abused both physically and

mentally. Therefore, it is important that schools increase awareness and acceptance while

encouraging self-advocacy.

Background Section

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterized

by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. The

term “Spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person

with Autism. In 1908, the word Autism was​ used to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients

who were especially withdrawn and self-absorbed. It was not until ​the early ​1940s when

Asperger’s Syndrome became a part of the Autism ​Spectrum Disorder ​(Autism Speaks). ​What

distinguishes A​sperger’s Syndrome from the Autism ​Spectrum Disorder is that A​sperger’s

syndrome has less severe symptoms and people that are diagnosed with this type of autism
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frequently have good language and cognitive skills. On the other hand, children with ASD do

struggle with understanding social cues, so they may be unable to understand what others are

feeling. As a matter of fact, 1 in 68 children in the United States have been identified with autism

(Autism Spectrum Disorder). When the math is done, more than 1 million students have autism

in the United States and have to deal with the effects of being bullied within ​America's ​school

systems.

Unfortunately, 1 out of every 5 (20.8%) students reported being bullied during 2016

(Bullying Statistics). This shows how bullying has increased in the past nine years considering

that in 2008 it was 1 out of every 88 children. Now imagine how bad the bullying can get for

someone with developmental issue? Children between 12 and 18 years of age reported a mean

prevalence rate of 35% for traditional bullying involvement and 15% for cyberbullying

involvement (​Network of Autism).​ ​A growing area of bullying is cyberbullying, in which

Facebook, Email, Twitter and other forms of social media are used to spread unkind and often

untruthful information (Network of Autism). The way cyberbullying works is that through social

media, people spread rumors that, not only the people they are surrounded by can read, but also

strangers. Often times, cyberbullying can lead to larger issues, such as suicide or alienation from

peers (Autism Speaks).

In addition, bullying often occurs in front of or includes others and witnesses can play an

important role in increasing or decreasing bullying if they choose to (Network of Autism). Also,

m​ore than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student

being bullied (​Network of Autism)​. ​That is the main reason why people should not be afraid and

speak up for others in order to help decrease bullying.


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Children diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or

depression have the highest risk of being victims of bullying (Bullying Causes). In the same way,

if they are receiving special education services, research shows that they are at higher risk of

being victimized than regular education students. ​Although r​eceiving special education is

necessary for students to help overcome their challenges, it can also place a target on their backs.

People make fun of them and that could be one reason why people bully them. Between 6th and

12th grades appear to be the worst in terms of children with autism being bullied, and 28% of

children with autism in those grades are currently bullied (Stopbullying.gov). The behaviors and

traits associated with becoming a target of bullying at this age include poor hygiene, rigid rule

keeping, talking obsessively about a favorite topic, frequent meltdowns and inflexibility (New

Data Show), all characteristics of autism. This is happening because this is the age where

students may see the difference between a child with and without autism by the way they behave.

Additionally, bullying occurs when someone is perceived to have a weakness, a

challenge, or a difference that may serve to isolate them and make them a target for harmful acts.

Studies ​found that bullying was most pronounced in regular public schools (43%), but occurred

less in special education public schools (30%), and lowest in regular private schools and special

education private schools (28% and 18%, respectively) (Walton). These studies demonstrate that

bullying is more pronounced in regular public schools because students do not think about the

damage that they are causing in the victim's lives. There is not enough exposure to different

disabilities nor is it part of every school’s culture to make students aware of them. This is

unfortunate and does nothing to help decrease acts of bullying.

As a result​ of being bullied, studies have shown that 8 percent of the children were
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physically harmed (Diament). Findings also show that these children are not only being bullied,

but are also experiencing significant short-term effects, including poor mental and physical

outcomes that likely lead to long-term effects like the well-being of an individual. Accordingly,

14% of parents said their child was scared of his or her own safety after facing a bully while 40%

said that their child responded with a meltdown (Diament). This could affect the way they

interact at school with others.

Additionally, a child that is being bullied may have difficulties eating or sleeping which

were not previously present. They may also experience nightmares with the thought of being

verbally or physically hurt (Bullying and Autism). Therefore, this is a widespread problem that

deserves more attention, especially since ​parents who have a child with ASD have a 2% to 18%

chance of having a second child who will also be affected (​Autism Spectrum Disorder​)​.

Ultimately, this has become a growing concern that must be addressed.

Section 1: Starting a Conversation

Sev​eral children in today’s schools are terrified to attend due to a high rate of bullying.

According to​ StopBullying.gov, bu​llying is defined as, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among

school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is

repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” (​StopBullying.gov). ​Bullying has been

on the rise, especially among students who have disabilities or a perceived “weakness.” While

much of the focus has been around the prevention of bullying in general, there is not enough

understanding about how to help those with autism avoid being a target. It is imperative for

people to understand what bullying is, as it has morphed over the years with the development of

social media. Further, more and more adolescents are being diagnosed with Autism. According
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to Autism Speaks and a survey conducted by the ​National Center for Health Statistics​, 1 in 45

children are diagnosed with autism. Since there is a high rate of autism, the need to understand

the disability as well as how to look for signs of bullying are so important.

The first step to reducing bullying is to educate teachers, parents, and students about

disabilities and acceptance. According to Ron Sandison, an advisory board member of Autism

Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American, “An understanding of disabilities

(autism) helps create acceptance. If teachers, parents and administrators confront bullying,

students will do the same” (Sandison). Sandison claims that when parents, teachers and

administrators constantly teach acceptance and love to those who are different, bullying will

occur less. Children with physical, developmental, intellectual, emotional, and sensory

disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their peers. Any number of factors, physical

vulnerability, social skill challenges, or intolerant environments, may increase their risk.

(StopBullying.gov). This statistic shows that schools need to be better educated in looking for the

signs of bullying while understanding autism because bullying can have very negative effects on

students.

Bullying has a negative impact on everyone involved. Therefore, it's important that both

parents and teachers teach children to recognize and understand bullying. Students with autism,

often times struggle to understand that they are even being bullied. Students with autism may be

unable to communicate what is happening to them which is why people must start the

conversation so they understand what bullying is and its negative impact. According to Autism

Speaks, schools and families must, “Teach children to know and understand what bullying is and

means. Teach them to know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate treatment.”
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(Autism Speaks). In fact, the Autism Speaks society provide useful resources and programs to

help schools create Autism Awareness Ambassador Programs. These programs help spread

awareness in schools. Further, children need to be able to talk with adults and explain their

feelings and treatment with others. In the article, Take a Stand on Bullying, it explains that, “The

environment at school sets the tone for how potential bullies behave and how safe students who

may be bullied feel. Having conversations about celebrating differences is one important way to

help educate students on disabilities such as autism.” (Autism Speaks). Schools must make

students understand that differences are something to be celebrated and not ridiculed.

Further, conversations will help students understand that children with autism are

vulnerable to bullying. “Many children with autism have poor self-esteem, they have difficulty

understanding facial expressions as well as the voice and body language of others.” (​Network of

Autism​). For example, smiling doesn't necessarily mean a person is happy; the person can be

fake smiling when they're really angry, for example. Similarly, crying doesn't mean a person is

necessarily sad; they may be crying tears of joy. Basically, there are too many nuances and

exceptions to rules to be able to memorize what body language means in people if children​ ​can't

naturally "read" the language. That can make the world a very frightening place. Oftentimes,

children with autism don't know know how to read a situation because they struggle to read the

cues. People need to teach the skills to handle what bullying is and to help these children

communicate. Additionally, students need to be aware of cyberbullying as this is another avenue

that leads to bullying.

Children must be made aware of the dangers of cyberbullying. Research states to, “Make

sure children are aware of people who they think are their friends in some cases who may be
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targeting them through emails, instagram, facebook, etc” (Sandison). Unfortunately, students live

in a world where they can hide behind social media. This makes it very easy for people to

become victims of bullying. Whenever there is a troubling incident that involves bullying, most

people tend to wonder how this could even happen. Why didn’t people come forward to stop it

from happening? This can be difficult to answer directly. Children can be fearful which leads to

them saying nothing. They do not want to become the next target.​ “If you are a teacher,

administrator or parent and you know a child is bullying someone, the first thing you should do

is speak to them (the bully)” (Autism Speaks). They need to teach children to understand the

bully and the bully to understand that what they are doing is wrong and inappropriate. Caring

about others can teach children about heroism, generosity, and compassion. It takes a tremendous

amount of courage to speak up and make a change, but children must understand that they need

to speak up.

Section 2: Increasing Awareness and Acceptance

People with autism are vulnerable to bullying because, typically, they do not realize they

are easy targets. Since autism has become more prevalent in recent years, it is vital to become

more aware and understanding of this issue. According to Autism Speaks, “Teaching about their

classmate’s disability has helped prevent bullying, as well as make disabled children feel more

accepted by their peers.” (Autism Speaks). A study that was conducted in 2012 revealed that, “A

total of 63% of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, had been bullied at some point in their

lives” (Autism Speaks). Teaching students about autism demystifies children that have autism

and makes the community and other students more comfortable and accepting of them. Media

companies like CNN and Facebook have started online anti-bullying campaigns designed to raise
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awareness about bullying. ​Other companies have started the "Stop Bullying, Speak Up"

Facebook page to give students and parents a place to voice their support for victims of bullying.

The webpage also includes tips to resist bullying and a place to register a "bullying prevention

group" in schools, just to name a few of the resources available to schools. CNN's Anderson

Cooper also hosted a town-hall style meeting with anti-bullying experts on his show, ​Anderson

Cooper 360°​. (Koebler).

Additionally, “Schools should guide students without autism on, ‘how to reach out to

their peers with autism’, possibly through workshops and/or specially structured activities.”

(Kabaki-Sisto). More friends and stronger friendships will help promote respect and acceptance.

There are resources available to parents and teachers to help establish a community of

acceptance which should be utilized. “As advocates for students with disabilities, school

counselors are positioned to take the lead in their buildings to ensure that these students have

positive school experiences, develop skills for future academic and career success, develop social

skills, and enjoy emotional health” (Milson).

Another way to help is to make sure that people understand that children on the spectrum

are unique. “Children with autism may find it difficult to manage change in their daily routines,

look you in the eye, communicate, or follow directions” (Lawrence). They also have difficulty

making friends. Children with autism have difficulty with peers, changing routines and have

difficulty with communication so understanding that they are unique is essentially important.

This helps all be aware and understand that these students who have autism or are on the

spectrum, are both unique and different.


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It is well known that people with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty interacting

with others and often prefer “things” to people, but this must be understood when a child is in

school. “Having ASD causes difficulties in certain areas and strengths in other areas”

(Lawrence). Recent research on children with ASD and with infants without these disorders may

shed some light on this problem. Becoming familiar with common autism traits will make

acceptance and tolerance easier. For example, some research shows that, unlike people without

autism, individuals with ASD tend to avoid looking at pictures of faces. One study looked at

infants at risk for ASD (those with a family member having ASD) and those not at risk and

measured their brain activity to faces. It is important to accept and not judge them because of

their differences. Understanding that children with ASD struggle with social interactions will

help typical developing children better understand how to interact with them.

Ultimately, avoiding eye contact can cause a major disadvantage when trying to learn

communication and social skills. “Don’t shy away from kids on the spectrum because of their

differences. Instead, be open to these differences” (Lawrence). No matter what their condition is,

they do not deserve to be treated different just because of their disabilities. Society needs to

accept everyone. Children who don’t seem quite right in one way or another have been made fun

of and ignored for so long and a change in conversation is needed to create a more inclusive

environment.

Section 3: Encouraging Self-Advocacy

To prevent bullying it is important to have a mentor f​or the c​hild. A mentor cannot only

give the child self motivation, but it can also help the child become more self disciplined. “Find a

mentor or buddy your child feels comfortable with to report bullying” (Sandison). Having a
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mentor can help prevent bullying since a bully often preys on a child who is alone. Additionally,

it is important to stay connected with people that are trusting. Having support will help maintain

independence and not be afraid to talk to others. “Bullies operate by making their victims feel

alone and powerless. Children reclaim their power when they make and maintain connections

with faithful friends and supportive adults.” (Whitson). Having supportive adults is important

because it will help an individual’s emotional wellbeing.

Further, re-defined tattling is when the victim of bullying talks about this to trusted

people and the bully begins to feel threatened because others know about the situation. “When a

bully realizes that they will not be able to keep a victim isolated, they immediately begin to lose

power” (Whitson). The victim should be able to tell an adult or another person so the bully

begins losing power.

Responding assertively is a technique used when talking to children who are victims to

explain that they need to stand up for themselves and be confident. “Teach your child that taking

action against the bully and taking it sooner rather than later is the best way to gain and retain

power” (Whitson). The person who is being bullied should speak up themselves, be an advocate,

and when the need arises, talk with other people.

Leaving in a positive way is when victims try to avoid danger or trouble sometimes with

the help of trusted people. If the victim is alone, they should remove themselves from a bad

situation. “Leaving an unsafe situation is often the wisest and most effective solution for getting

away from trouble” (​Face Bullying​). Stepping out of line or changing seats is often the safest

choice for getting away from someone who is acting unsafely.


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Acting with confidence and taking charge of yourself, your body language, and walking

away from something bad or standing up for yourself will help develop confidence because

students do not want to feel inferior around the bully. “Projecting a positive, assertive attitude

means holding your head high, keeping your back straight, walking briskly, looking around, and

having a peaceful face and body” (​Face Bullying​). It is important to show young people the

difference between being passive, aggressive, and assertive in body language. Tone of voice and

choice of words also makes a difference.

Counterargument

It seems very difficult to defend the act of bullying. Research shows that there is plenty

of evidence that condemns bullying so it may seem awkward to develop a counter argument in

support of it. The majority of people have the opinion that bullying is inexcusable, as it

disregards those affected by the act. However, some argue that bullying is a form of character

building and young people actually learn useful life skills as a result of being bullied. Some

people might argue that hardship and struggle can lead to greatness. Some might say that without

bullies, this world would be without great men and women who have learned about strength and

courage. Yet, sometimes, excessive bullying can lead to depression. In some instances, the

bullying can become so bad that children may contemplate suicide, ”​Of all the negative

outcomes associated with bullying, suicide is definitely the cause for greatest concern. Along

with being the third-leading cause of death among 10 to 19 year-olds in the United States”

(Vitelli). ​Schools teach students to speak up when they feel like they are being mistreated or

bullied, but some argue that this tactic just encourages children to be tattletales who never learn

the skills to defend themselves. However, while people may believe that bullying is a form of
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character building, it is still important to encourage students to come forward when they witness

bullying or are victims themselves.

Conclusion

With the recent focus on the toll of school bullying, more schools are updating their

anti-bullying policies and states are giving the issue renewed legislative attention. Even with

these changes, bullying still is a widespread problem, especially when it comes to children with

autism. Schools need to develop anti-bullying programs that are comprehensive and involve the

entire school and not just individual students. Research shows that programs that work well help

encourage a warm school environment in which diversity is celebrated; they also rely on adults

at the school, from the principal to the staff and personnel, to set a tone that clearly indicates that

bullying is not acceptable. “Students in schools that create such a welcoming atmosphere

perform better academically” (Milson). ​The reality is that students on the autism spectrum are

bullied more often than students with other disabilities because students with autism find it

difficult to detect and understand that they are being abused both physically and mentally.

Therefore, it is important that schools start conversations, increase awareness, and move towards

acceptance with the goal of encouraging self-advocacy.


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