How to keep the bullies at bay for those on the autism spectrum

Picture_Of_Self_ChristinaMacNeal

I was bullied by other kids, teachers and faculty, my own family at times and bosses and yet I couldn’t communicate what was happening until I was well out of my teens.

By Christina MacNeal

As someone who was an autistic teen and is now an autistic adult I want to share the problems of bullying that are faced by those on the spectrum of any age together with some solutions that can be implemented. Furthermore, this article comes right after anti-bullying week and this is a topic not addressed in our community as much as it needs to be.

This is coming from someone who was bullied from a young age into some of my adulthood. At the time I was unaware that I was being bullied; I just thought that is how people engaged with each other. As a result of being bullied for much of my adolescence it seemed much more normal and tolerable than it should have been. I was bullied by other kids, teachers and faculty, my own family at times and bosses and yet I couldn’t communicate what was happening until I was well out of my teens. I had to relearn how people are supposed to treat each other and what to look for, how to recognize a bully and what I should not accept in others behaviors toward me.

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Hopefully you can use this information and be more aware in order to protect yourself or your loved ones from being bullied. It is important to remember that there is no set age, look or role that a bully plays and he/she can be anyone from a classmate, friend and co-worker to a spouse; really it can be anyone.

These are solutions that are sometimes easy to overlook and there are others that you may not have thought of before. Maybe it will enable you to see something you are doing in a different light that you can cut out of your loved ones life. Or possibly you will find something to add to you or your loved ones life that helps combat bullying.

As most of us would agree the ideal end to bullying would be for it simply not to happen. That a child is shown the love and compassion they deserve and in turn they show the same to others. Until that happens prevention, awareness and action are the best options.

The purpose of this article is to share some insight from someone who has lived to tell the tale about what made my autistic childhood and adulthood experiences amazing and things that I could have lived without.

Bullying is something that should never be taken lightly and it is something that happens more often than not to those on the spectrum. There are multiple factors that play a part into this happening more frequently to those on the spectrum than neurotypical counterparts.

While human beings and particularly those on the spectrum are known for their resiliency, bullying takes away more than a bloody nose from someone even on the spectrum. Bullying takes away the things that are the most difficult to get back. Things that can shape the way a person views themselves, who they allow in their life and the choices they make for a life time.

Here are the some of the major reasons why bullying happens to those on the spectrum with tips that apply to teens and adults for helping prevent you or your loved ones from being bullied.

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Communication

We all have to some degree or another an inability at times to effectively communicate what is happening to us and to those around us; this makes bullying someone on the spectrum easier than someone who is not.

Make it part of the routine at the end of each day to address how treatment from others went as an assessment and use a chart if needed. Verbally asking doesn’t work for a lot of people on the spectrum; however use the favored communication tool, whether it be writing, assisted technology/typing, art, verbal communication or even pointing.

Being aware of how treatment from others was experienced every day sets someone with ASD up to be thinking about it into adulthood and the more of a routine it is the easier it becomes. Stay away from feeling-based questioning as it is harder to give a clear answer. Communication is key and the more people are on the same page about making sure that bullying isn’t happening the more successful prevention or intervention will be.

Another communication point for those on the spectrum and/or their loved ones to consider is this – do not assume that because it has not been addressed it isn’t happening.

Also make sure that the questions include anybody and everybody; that way you won’t miss anything and there is no distinction made between the different roles of the people that interaction occurs with. (As in no one is thought to be more important or not capable due to their role).

Behavioral

Equally appealing to bullies are behavioral differences such as repetitive behaviors and either a visibly responsive reaction or a visibly unresponsive reaction to bullying. Those with ASD respond differently than neurotypicals and any of the responses are appealing to bullies because of the reactions they generate.

Those on the spectrum don’t have control over how they react to things a lot of the time. However, knowing how the person with ASD or one’s self normally reacts to different situations and people can be extremely helpful as with that knowledge you have something that you can count on to work with. If you know that normally an individual is under responsive and when it is time to go somewhere or meet someone the individual makes a visibly responsive reaction, you’ll know something is not quite right.

The opposite is just as true of someone who is normally overly responsive. These can be warning signs that something including bullying could be going on. Being aware of the subtle differences in time and behavior is imperative to understanding if and when bullying might be taking place and with whom. It is a good reason to inquire from those who can offer any input, but most importantly asking the person with ASD or oneself what is going on and why this is happening when it is. (This asking, of course, not being while the person on the spectrum is going through these reactions or responses.)

Yet another reason our behavior can result in being bullied is that we are different from those of our neurotypical peers and unfortunately popular culture dictates that different is less even though our community knows otherwise. This again can be prevented by being aware of differences in behavior, time in behavior shifts and by clearly asking as many people as you can including the person on the spectrum. Communication with staff, other parents or students and the community about autism behaviors can greatly ease bullying due to behavioral reasons.

Processing

Not being able to process, or having a hard time processing what just happened and why is something typical for those on the spectrum and that includes if bullying occurred. Keep in mind bullying can be extremely obvious but it can also be very subtle in the way it is conducted.

This is a large problem for those on the spectrum when discussing why bullying goes unreported. It is not to say that it didn’t or doesn’t affect the individual in a huge way, it just means it has passed the point of communication. That isn’t to say that there is no memory or thoughts about it. It can be or feel very similar to when you are thinking about or talking about something and the answer is on the tip of your tongue and you know what the answer is, but you are unable to say it or tell anyone.

Also more than likely the reason for the bullying happening does not make any more sense to the person on the spectrum than it does to the non-bullying neurotypical. Whoever is around during the larger parts of the day, be it a caregiver, teacher, parent supervisor or yourself you can all but stop this from happening with regular how are you and observation behavior check-ins that should happen at least every three hours and be documented. For many on the spectrum charts with pictures or pictures and words are going to work better than just words. If emotional and behavioral check-ins are done correctly within a few months’ time you will have documented a pattern as to why this is always happening during this time or on this date(s). You can then yet again use steps one and two and you will have an even better picture about what is or isn’t most likely happening.

Social Skills

Those on the spectrum, generally speaking, tend to give their trust very easily and do not recognize dangerous situations. This coupled with a lack of social peer support and a strong need or desire to make friends leaves those with ASD a more open target for bullying because they are either unable or less likely to question people and situations they might end up in.

Those on the spectrum can give trust to others freely; as it doesn’t always occur to them that someone has ill intentions. The other part of giving trust freely and not recognizing danger is impulse control as living in the moment is where it is at for most with ASD.

Being optimistic about others isn’t a negative trait to have and it helps everyone on and off the spectrum live happier lives. The real problem is being more prone to be taken advantage of, becoming trusting of the wrong people or putting too much trust into the people we are told to trust and they become the bullies. Those with ASD are not picking up on the danger and just as hard as it can be to get into a situation, it can be equally as difficult to get out of one.

Make sure there is a well-known, trusted and compassionate group of people that have proven they are trustworthy and that can see, advise or point out danger to the individual with ASD. Another suggestion is social and peer groups online for socializing and advice; Facebook has the best ones. It is a support network that helps the person on the spectrum through life and those with ASD can mutually mentor, teach and learn from each other.

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Here is the final piece of advice about stopping you and/or your loved one from being bullied.

Starting as young as possible, educate the individual on the spectrum about bullying; about what they should look out for and what to do if they are bullied. Be sure to include why it’s important.

Remember that you alone will not be able to prevent bullying from happening to yourself or a loved one with ASD and that it takes a chosen group of trusted people for support in this effort.

Education and discussion about ASD within the community you live in and in places that the person who has ASD will be frequently attending are pivotal points for reducing bullying. It will also afford the person with ASD more freedom and options.

If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying or for more information go to:

StompOutBulling.org
Ability First
Stopcyberbullying.org 877-768-4600
Stopbullying.gov
Teenline.org 310-855-4673

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Christina MacNeal is a writer, journalist, activist, artist and public speaker who has autism. She is currently the director of development at The Gadget Guys Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those on the autism spectrum. She also runs the organization the Autism Collaboration Project. Prior to that she was an editor and communications director. For more information about Christina or for any questions or comments she can be contacted at christinamacneal@gmail.com or christina@gadgetguys.org

7 Comments

  • This is a really comprehensive piece. It actually pointed to a lot of the root issues for my son and me – especially the assumption that people have good intentions. Sadly, that one is not helpful in a lot of situations 🙁
    Thanks and love,

  • mari says:

    i like this website a lot thank you for the updates

  • Michelle Skigen says:

    This was a wonderful, comprehensive, well-written piece. Unfortunately, it leaves out one key element that is a huge contributor to why autistic people are easy victims.

    When someone who is autistic reports bullying, often the authority either 1) doesn’t believe them because of how the report is presented in tone and body language; 2) insists it is “tattling” and a minimal issue without clarifying the exact dividing line – “That person called me stupid” gets shut down as not worth reporting, so over time the autistic person learns that telling is useless; 3) sees the autistic’s effort at verbal, or even physical self-defense as being the aggressor; or 4) joins in on the bullying themselves.

    I have experienced all of these, as a child at school, and as an adult in the workplace.

    • David says:

      Another factor is when the bully is someone the authority has a high opinion of, whereas the victim is at the bottom of the social “pecking order” (as is often the case when the victim has autism). Sometimes the authority truly finds it difficult to believe that such a “respectable” person could possibly be a bully. Other times the authority seems to be fully aware of the “respectable” bully’s Dark Side, feigning ignorance of the bully’s aggressive actions yet actively protecting the bully from any punishment for them.

      • mathead says:

        Story of my childhood as the undiagnosed autistic son of a bullying adoptive father who was a respected person through and through.

        There’s one thing this article doesn’t mention: persons who “poison the well”. Those are bullies, like my father, who signalize to other potential bullies (teachers, relatives, …) that you’re a victim and not eligible of respect. Think of who informed whom with words, body language or any other interaction, that you can be bullied and how far back that chain goes. The damage these persons do in the victim’s life can be devastating and irreversible.

  • Henrik says:

    This was a brilliant article, I think it’s rarely mentioned that as a “retard” you are othen not just attacked by “other” kids. The adult world is in on it as well.

    I also thought ” that is how people engaged with each other” and then I always tried to engage people in the same way as they engaged me since I WAS always a very direct, honest and simple minded type of guy. That however didn’t work out well for me. I was even more ganged up upon for doing the same as they did to me and told to stop it also by teachers our I would be punished and whatnot.

    So I realized what was going on at a quite early age, then I withdrew as best I could; which isn’t really possible, since they seek you out to harass you and teachers always have some smug remarks the kids can laugh about. This made me angry, but I was way to small to strike back, but sometimes I struck back physically and was attacked phyisically back (also by piece of shit teachers).

    The only thing I wouldn’t agree to in this article is the way you identify bullies. According to my experience EVERY NORMAL/REAL HUMAN PERSON IS A BULLY, but they are only activated if you do something to expose that you are different (ie. do domething “wrong” or whatever). You have to act a certain way among ALL humans in order to be able to go with the flow. Something as small as a facial expression can set them off (not smiling enough for instance). Just like the movie Cubic.

    I’m autistic, but also schizoprenic with gelatophobia (good for me).

    I also recommend to ANY YOUNG “RETARD” PERSON reading my post. Attack bullies when they are alone (as they seldom are, but sometimes actually are), beat them with some object (rock, belt, stick, hard sock). It really doesn’t make it any worse, it’s a real kick in the pants and it wipes their sadist smile right off their evil faces, at least temporarily. 🙂

    I recommend to anyone reading this, change your diet, go vegan and your brain will become less “retarded”. It’s also important to work out alot.

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