Bullying is a prevalent topic; more so these days considering that children are constantly being physically and or verbally harassed at school. “The estimated rates of bullying and victimization worldwide vary from 5 to 38% for girls and from 6 to 41% for boys (Due et al. 2005).” This can be considerably problematic when children are struggling to find an identify of their own and are just hoping to fit in somehow. If you are a parent; the last thing you want is to see your child suffering and upset over their experiences at school.
Unfortunately aversive social interactions with bullies affect everyone, more so with children with developmental disabilities. A lot of research has been done on the topic of bullying but has been primarily focused on adolescents in the general education setting. Little to no attention has been brought up on the topic of bullying and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The purpose of this blog entry is to raise awareness on the topic and to provide some resources and information on how to deal with the increasing percentages of bullying with children and adolescents on the spectrum.
Perhaps, one important reason could have to do with how these children and adolescents understand and view the behaviors of others. More specifically, can they actually understand that bullying and or victimization is occurring in the moment? Typically, children with ASD exhibit deficits in Theory of Mind skills. These skills allow for the individual to understand not only their own mental state but the mental state of others in order to predict their behavior (Baron-Cohen 2000). Mental states are referred to as beliefs, desires, intentions, perceptions, imagination, and emotions (Repacholi and Slaughter 2003). If these children do have deficits with Theory of Mind skills, then it can be very difficult for them to understand what the behaviors of others mean and how to change their own behavior (i.e., go tell a teacher or tell them to stop) accordingly.
Another important reason for the higher rates of bullying and victimization within this population could be their repertoire of social skills. In general, making friends is a difficult task for children on the spectrum, it can be even harder when attempts at social interactions are made and these children are harassed because of their attempts. This can in turn result in emotional distress and the internalization of such aversive social interactions. As a clinician within the field of ABA, one can easily identify that the social interactions can take on punishing effects and therefore decrease the probability of further attempts at social interactions.
The good news however is, there are solutions for the above mentioned problems. Clinically, specific programming can be implemented for Theory of Mind deficits. Programs would include exposure to and the generalization of the different types of mental states (i.e., beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.). The individual would learn about their own mental state and how it is different from the mental state of others. They would learn such skills through comic strip conversations, natural environment teaching (NET) and role playing (just to name a few).
In regards to social skills deficits, there are various avenues that could foster appropriate and beneficial social skills for children with ASD. There are various social skills groups that help teach appropriate social behaviors. These groups are supervised by trained professionals that can help facilitate positive social interactions. Also, it would be important to set up play dates for your child so that they have positive social interaction opportunities. This could be a less stressful way to introduce socializing since the environment is safe and you can supervise the interactions between your child and their peer. If your child finds a liking to this peer then that friendship could get transferred to the school environment.
Your child’s school would be an important source to connect with if you find that bullying is in fact taking place. You could then do the following:
- Find out what the school’s anti-bullying policies are
- Find out of these policies are actually being implemented
- If their policies are not being implemented then indicate that to your child’s school.
- Do not allow for any excuses
- Get them to understand the role of ASD on the bullying situation
Please go to the following websites for further information on bullying with children on the spectrum.
Baron-Cohen S. Theory of mind and autism: A fifteen year review. In: Baron-Cohen S, Tager-Flusberg H, Cohen DJ, editors. Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press; 2000. pp. 3–20.
Due P, Holstein BE, Lynch J, Diderichsen F, Nic Gabhein S, Scheidt P, Currie C. Bullying and symptoms among school-aged children: International comparative cross sectional study in 28 countries. European Journal of Public Health. 2005;15:128–132. doi: 10.1093/eurpub/cki105.
Repacholi B, Slaughter V. Individual differences in theory of mind: Implications for typical and atypical development. New York: Psychology Press; 2003.
Didden R., Van Roekel E., Scholte RH. Bullying among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: prevalence and perception. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders. 2010 40(1): 63-73.