As part of Anti-Bullying Week, The National Autistic Society (NAS) is providing advice for parents of children with autism who are worried about bullying in school. NAS research suggests that over 40 per cent of children with autism and almost 60 per cent of children with Asperger syndrome have been bullied at school and recent research from the University of Manchester has also found that children with autism are two to three times more likely to be bullied than other children.
People with autism can struggle with communication and often have difficulty forming social relationships, making it hard to communicate about and overcome playground bullying. Unfortunately, bullying is not something that can be left behind at the school gate, and two-thirds of parents of children with autism who have been bullied say that it has led to mental health difficulties for their child.
It is vital that your child’s school has a zero-tolerance bullying policy and it is their duty to encourage pupils to report bullying and investigate reports. Here are some strategies that you and your child’s school can put in place to help overcome bullying:
1. Help your child to tell someone
Telling someone about bullying is tough for anyone, but for a young person with autism it can be particularly difficult to express emotions and anxieties. Sometimes it can be difficult for children with autism to even recognise that they are being bullied. It is important that your child knows they can talk to someone; if your child can’t communicate verbally about bullying, ask them to write it down or draw you a picture to explain what happens at school. You can also ask if your child’s school has a bully box, this lets your child write or draw their experience of bullying to tell an adult in school, without having to talk to them face-to-face.
2. Buddy up
Young people with autism can struggle to make friends, they can find it hard talk to someone they don’t know and may not always understand what they should say. Buddying schemes at school can be a great way for children with autism to learn how to develop friendships. Ask if your child’s school has a buddying scheme and, if they don’t, see if they will set one up. Your school can ask another pupil to stay with your child during breaks. Some schools also have a buddy bench where pupils can sit to show that they need someone to play with or talk to.
3. Make a plan for break time
A young person with autism may struggle with a lack of structured activity at break times and can become anxious at not knowing what to expect. Ask the school what structured activities your child could take part in during breaks and whether they have a quiet space or “safe space”, such as a library or classroom, where your child can go if they need to get away. You or your child’s teacher could also sit down with your child to write a “social story” for break times. A social story is a description of a particular situation, such as lunchtime at school, which explains what to do or expect.
4. Practice talking to bullies and understanding emotions
A young person with autism may struggle more than most people to know how to react to conversations, comments and bullying. Try talking to your child to help them understand body language and eye contact – both their own and that of the bully. You can also practise with your child how to respond to bullies and what they could say in different situations. A child with autism may also find it difficult to recognise emotions like fear, so it might also help to spend some time teaching your child more about different feelings and what to do when they experience them.
5. Get in touch with The National Autistic Society and talk to your child’s school
As the leading charity for people affected by autism, the NAS provides confidential advice for parents worried about bullying. Call the NAS Autism Helpline (0808 800 4104) for advice on coping with bullying and approaching your child’s school to address the problem and put the right strategies in place. The NAS Autism Helpline can also advise professionals and schools on strategies to help prevent bullying. You can also speak to other parents who may have been through similar challenges by calling the NAS Parent to Parent advice service (0808 800 4106). The volunteers – both mothers and fathers – have a wealth of experience, knowledge and insight and can talk through your concerns.
Caroline Hattersley, Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy for The National Autistic Society said:
“At the NAS, we routinely hear from concerned parents who are unsure how to help their child cope with bullying and how they can approach their child’s school. Bullying can have a devastating impact on the life of a young person with autism and NAS research has found that playground bullying can lead to mental health problems and setbacks in a child’s education and can potentially damage their outcomes later in life. Nearly half of all children with autism have been bullied and, because of the communication difficulties associated with this condition, it can be particularly difficult for a person with autism to adopt the strategies and techniques they need to respond and make sense of their experiences of bullying.”
“We hope that this advice will go some way towards helping parents of young people with autism to support their child have a fulfilling and rewarding time in school.”
For more information about helping your child to cope with bullying, please visit our bullying advice pages at: http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/education/bullying-guide-for-young-people.aspx.