In Scotland bullying is defined as follows:
‘Bullying is both behaviour and impact; the impact is on a person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. This is what we term as their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships; it is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened and left out. This behaviour happens face to face and online.’
Scottish Government ‘Respect for All’, p.2
Research has shown that autistic learners are far more likely to be bullied than their peers. They are also far more likely to be bullied than other groups of learners who require additional support e.g. dyslexic learners. Siblings and parents of children with autism are also at greater risk of being bullied.
Why are autistic learners more likely to be bullied than their peers?
- Autistic learners struggle to understand the social world and how to navigate it. They can struggle to understand the motives and intentions of others (theory of mind difficulties). It can therefore be hard to build positive relationships
- Inflexible thinking can lead learners to try to police others
- They may find it hard to recognise bullying or know how to respond to it
- Peers may find it hard to understand why the autistic child or young person is behaving in a particular way. This can lead to a reduced acceptance of difference
- Peer lack of understanding, combined with the autistic learners poorer social competence, can lead to poorer quality and less frequent interactions with peers, less friends and less social support for the autistic learner
- Provision of in-school adult support to autistic learners may reduce opportunities for social interaction and increase social distance from peers.
Autistic learners are more likely to be bullied if:
- They have behaviour difficulties
- They are older: usually bullying is more prevalent in younger children but the increase with age for autistic learners may be related to the increased complexity of the social world they need to navigate as they enter adolescence
- They use public transport
- The learner is in a mainstream setting
- If they are receiving additional support from professionals.
Risks reduce with increased positive relationships and parental engagement. The influence of gender and intellectual ability has not yet been identified.
Outcomes of Bullying on Autistic learners
There are limited studies in this area but those that exist suggest bullying can be a precursor of high anxiety. One study of UK parents and children found that bullying of autistic learners was associated with school refusal, absences, changing school, diminished social skills and relationships, problems with school work, damaged self-esteem and metal health difficulties. High levels of anxiety and emotional difficulties in autistic adolescents have been linked to bullying in a UK study.
School culture and climate
- A committed leadership is needed to promote inclusion and children’s rights
- Promote respect for diversity/difference in all forms including difference displayed by autistic learners
- Create consensus within the school community that bullying is always unacceptable and should be addressed
- Actively engage children and young people in influencing anti-bullying policy and actions
- Staff model respectful behaviour and challenging stereotypes
- Create physical and social environments that support those with autism e.g. safe and structured opportunities for autistic learner to be seen in a positive light by peers.
Teachers and Support staff
- A positive relationship between teacher and autistic learner positively influences peer acceptance
- Key teacher qualities identified include tolerance, acceptance, encouragement of differences and individuality, recognising the need to adapt pedagogy, showing empathy, respect and liking for the autistic learner
- Explore the values and beliefs of staff in relation to bullying as there may be beliefs held that encourage bullying e.g. the belief that bullying is part of growing up
- Consider how in-class support is managed as it may be distancing learners from their peers
- Observe autistic learners as they may not know they are being bullied, or may assume the teacher will automatically be aware of what’s happening
- Listen to autistic learners and support their communication e.g. using their strengths and interests, explore alternative means of communicate such as drawing, building with lego, or using visual prompts.
- Involve parents and carers in the development of anti-bullying policy
- Involve parents and carers in planning for the autistic learner, ensuring goals around social inclusion are included
- Where an incident has occurred, listen to the parental perspective, taking their views seriously
- Collaboratively plan and agree on the response
- Ensure progress is shared regularly
- Where parents and carers also have autism, be aware of where communication may need to be adapted
- If required involve appropriate organisations who can provide parental support.
- Deliver wider education on rights and disability e.g.
- Increase empathy for learner through autism education e.g.
- Videos of young people, poetry, animations, current famous adults and young people.
- Increase quality and frequency of peer interactions e.g.
- Increase opportunities for shared interests
- Interventions with peers need to take into account the individual strengths, interests and difficulties of the autistic learner
- Clubs that reflect autistic learners strengths and interests e.g. Manga club, Lego club
- Co-operative learning that is scaffolded and supported
- Peer Buddies to support playground games.
- Increase social networks, friendships and social support
- Encourage bystander intervention
- Circle of friends.
- Develop understanding of bullying (learners may think an accidental bump is targeting them but may not recognise behaviour is bullying even though they are upset by it)
- Reinforce the message that bullying is never acceptable and is not the learner's fault
- Offer supported activities to aid the development of friendships
- Support development of social thinking to support making and keeping friends
- Identify a key adult (and a back up adult) who the learner can go to with concerns. Practice this process of help-seeking.
The behaviour of some autistic learners might be experienced as bullying behaviour if it makes someone feel hurt, threatened or left out and affects their sense of agency.
As autistic learners struggle to understand other people’s feelings and the impact of their behaviour on other people they are unlikely to be behaving in this way to humiliate or gain power over the other person. The NAS (2009) list possible reasons for the behaviour including the following:
- It may be a learned behaviour that they have witnessed or used previously to gain a desired response
- ‘Cause and effect’ may be the only kind of interaction they know how to initiate
- They may lack the skills to maintain an interaction appropriately, and have difficulty ‘reading’ another person’s responses, so they don’t realise when the other pupil is no longer enjoying the interaction
- They may feel left out and want to force a friendship.
When considering how to respond it is important to consider what has led to the behaviour. The learner may need clear guidelines for what are acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing feelings. Educators will need to explicitly teach what good friends do and don’t do. The learner may need taught calming strategies and have a place to go to when they need time out from a situation.