A bullying guide for parents

 Autistic children and young people can be more at risk of being bullied than their peers. However, they may not be able to communicate this to you.

Here you can read about what bullying is, the signs to look out for and how it may affect your child, and what you can do to help them – from talking to your child’s school to discussing a range of approaches with them directly. You can also read about how to take your complaint further, if you are not satisfied that the school has done enough to stop the bullying.

What is bullying?

The is no definition of bullying in legislation. Anti-bullying organizations suggest that bullying could involve.

  • name calling
  • making fun or teasing
  • spreading rumors
  • ignoring or leaving out
  • threatening or humiliating
  • pushing, pulling, hitting, kicking or other physical acts
  • taking or interfering with money or other items.

The internet and mobile phones mean bullying can now happen both during the school day and out of school hours. Online or cyber bullying includes bullying via text messages, emails, websites, online gaming, instant messaging and social networks.

Bullying and children or young people on the autism spectrum

Autistic children and young people can be more at risk of being bullied than their peers because of the different ways they communicate and interact with others. Their peer group will often notice these differences more and more as they get older.

Because autistic children and young people find it hard to read facial expressions and body language, they can’t tell when someone is being friendly or if they are trying to hurt them. This means they may misunderstand the intentions of their peers.

They can also be easy targets in the playground as they sometimes prefer to play alone.

As a result, other children find it easy to pick on them as they do not have a support structure around them. Other children may also pick on them if they see them doing ‘odd’ things such as hand flapping or making inappropriate comments.

Autistic children and young people can also become the bully themselves. They may become aggressive when a game is not being played the way they want and then try to control the situation. They may also become frustrated at being ‘left out’ in the playground and try to ‘make’ children become friends with them.

How to tell if your child is being bullied

It’s not always easy to tell if your child is being bullied and they may not always realize they are being bullied. This may be because they have difficulty understanding the intentions of other and their communication difficulties can make it harder for them to tell you or school staff about an incident.

As a result, you may need to look for other clues as to whether or not your child is being bullied. They may:

  • come home with dirty, damaged or missing clothes, bags or books, with bruises or scratches, without money they should have or asking for more money the next day
  • arrive at school or get home late because they have changed their route to or from school
  • be reluctant to go to school and making excuses to miss attending
  • seem to be stressed, depressed, unhappy or unwell
  • show a deterioration in concentration or the standard of schoolwork
  • show an increase or change in obsessional/repetitive behavior.

An autistic child or young person may also show sudden changes in behavior, which may be due to bullying. This might be increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping or outbursts at home. Some may mimic the acts of bullies at home by bullying their siblings because they don’t understand that this behavior is unacceptable. To them, they are simply acting out what their peers are doing.

The effects of bullying on your child and what you can do to help

The long-term effects of bullying can be serious. Research suggests bullied children can end up with long-lasting insecurities, behavioral issues and low self-esteem, as well as poor concentration. They may refuse to take part in social situations because they are afraid of being bullied or experience stress-related illnesses. Some may go on to develop mental health illnesses.

You may need to build up your child’s self-esteem at home. Praise for specific pieces of work or good days at school can help remind your child that being autistic helps them to be good at things. You could make an achievement book or board with photographs and pieces of work to remind them of this, keeping it in an easy to access place for reference.

You could also tell your child about successful and famous autistic people and find out about or read their personal accounts. Social groups are a good way for your child to meet others with similar difficulties and experiences, this can help to make them fell less isolated.

What if your child is the bully?

If your child is a bully, think about what they are trying to do or communicate. It could be that they are trying to get attention, fit in, or follow suggestions made to them by other children and consequently be completely unaware they are hurting others. They may benefit from social skills training or help on how to ask others to play with them. You could also ask the school to set up some structured play activities for your child.

You may also need to teach your child another activity they could try if they do get frustrated. For example, you do not hit, but you find someone and show them your help card (this is just a piece of card with help written on it for those who have difficulty communicating) or kick a ball.

It is important to explain to autistic children that they don’t have to be friends with everyone in their class. They not realize that it’s okay if the children in their class are not all friends.  You could use a social story such as:

We are all classroom colleagues. A colleague is someone who works with you and may also be your friend. Like your mum or dad, you will work alongside people you like and people you don’t like. If we don’t agree, that’s interesting but we will learn to work it out and develop rules to keep everyone’s body, feelings and belongings safe. Gray 2001

What you can do

Talk to your child

Try to:

  • speak to them without getting angry or upset
  • listen carefully and give your full attention
  • make sure your child knows that you believe them, it’s not their fault and they are not alone
  • discuss with your child what they want to happen and what they want (or don’t want) you to do
  • agree a way forward with your child.

Some autistic children and young people will find it difficult to talk to you face-to-face and will find it easier to write about the incident or draw a picture about what happened. You could try using a diary system, emailing, or have a box to leave questions in and write replies. These forms of communication may take longer, but you may get more information from your child this way. You could ask siblings if they have seen anything and make notes of what they say.

If keeping a diary of the incidents make sure you record:

  • who was involved
  • what happened
  • what action the school took (if any).

Your child may not realize they are being bullied. Try to help them understand the difference between behavior that is friendly and bullying. Explain that when behavior hurts or harms someone either physically or emotionally, it is bullying.

Talk to school staff

Once you have spoken to your child, make an appointment to talk to your child’s class teacher and:

  • ask for a copy of  the school’s anti-bullying policy to see what has put in place
  • be specific and make a note of what the teacher said and what action they agreed
  • try to remain as calm as possible so that lines of communication stay open with the school and your concerns are listened to
  • ask if the school has suggestions of practical things you can do to help
  • after meeting the class teacher, send them a letter outlining what was agreed so that everyone involved has a clear understanding of the situation and future actions.

The class teacher and other staff at school may not be aware of the problem, however, this does not mean it does not exist. Children and young people who are bullies are often secretive and underhand.

Approaches to help your child

When you see your child’s class teacher, it may be useful to put forward some suggestions of what you and the school could do to help.

Using maps

Make a map of your child’s world and identify the areas where they feel most and least vulnerable. This could include a map of school as well as the route to and from school. It can then be used to identify areas that the school needs to be aware of.

Social skills and communication training

Your child may benefit from social skills and communication training to help them learn to recognize when someone is being nice or nasty. You may find it helpful to use a favorite television program to illustrate this, such as Mr Bean and The Simpsons. These program have over-exaggerated body language and facial expressions, which can be a good teaching tool. You could also ask your child to help you sort out pictures and photographs of people into nice and nasty piles.

Teaching your child what to do

You may also need to teach your child what to do if they are upset by an incident at school, write a social story or a list of rules to follow. You could give them a reminder to stick in their school diary, such as a prompt to go and see a certain teacher, or to write a note and leave it in the bully box if an incident takes place.

Break times and lunchtimes

The school playground is one of the places where autistic children and young people can be most vulnerable. Unlike their peers, who find the playground the most relaxing time of the day, they can often find unstructured periods of time difficult as they are not sure what is expected of them. As a result, they may be alone in unsupervised areas of the playground.

It can be useful for your child’s school to bring some structure to break times/lunchtimes. For example the school could:

  • provide lunchtime clubs
  • let your child go to the library
  • let your child use a computer during breaks
  • set up structured playground activities for your child and a couple of their peers so that your child gets to socialize, but also knows what is expected of them.

Buddies, befriending and friendship

A buddy or befriending scheme in the playground may also help to reduce bullying. School could identify some buddies for your child in the playground so they can widen their friendship group. Some schools have a friendship bench where children and young people can sit if they need someone to talk to or play with.  A circle of friends can teach other children about autism and also helps to teach the person with autism about social skills.

Raising awareness of autism through lessons

You could ask your child’s class teacher to teach other children about autism in a way that is sensitive and does not single out your child. Most schools now teach children about different faiths, disabilities and race.

Bullying box

Schools need to be aware that children with autism don’t always want to tell a teacher face-to-face about bullying. A bullying box enables pupils to report incidents of bullying secretly. This also means they have more time to think about what they want to say.

Outside help for schools

School may also be able to get some outside help with putting into action anti-bullying measures. Your local or education authority may have resources and professionals who can help.

Taking the issue seriously

It can be helpful to identify a team of people that your child can rely on rather than depending on just one member of staff. Ideally, this team should include staff who are around at different times during the day. The school should also aim to involve lunchtime support staff and make them aware of the problem and what to do if your child reports an incident.

School staff need to be aware of what to do when an incident is reported. Consistency is important to autistic children. If they feel they have not been taken seriously or a staff member has not done what they were supposed to do, they may become more frustrated and upset. They may also be reluctant to report future incidents if they feel there is little point in doing so.

Despite preventative measures, bullying can still happen. It is important that the school take your concerns about bullying seriously and that your child has a point of contact.  Any half-hearted measures may make the situation worse. For example, the school should make it clear to bullies that their actions are not acceptable and their behavior policy should clearly outline the consequences of bullying.

A whole school approach

Studies have shown that schools taking a whole school approach to bullying often report a general reduction in bullying. This approach includes:

  • providing all pupils with anti-bullying lessons as part of the curriculum
  • encouraging children to tell someone when they are being bullied
  • including all staff and pupils in preventing bullying
  • having clear posters and literature to emphasize the zero tolerance approach of schools to bullying.

Dealing with online bullying

Autistic children and young people find social networking, forums, emailing, instant messaging, texting and online gaming an easier way to socialize. They can help them build up self-esteem and confidence with positive interactions and can encourage them to interact with others. However, children with autism may not be able to recognize cyber bullying as easily as their peers.As a result, you may not want to monitor their use of the internet or mobile phones. Be aware of any changes in your child’s behavior. If they suddenly don’t seem keen to get onto the computer, then this could mean some bullying has taken place. Here are some suggestions of how you can make things safer:

  • get to know more about the technology and social media your child uses
  • understand the risks, and take an active interest in how and with whom they are interacting
  • use parental settings for mobile phones, laptops, tablets or games consoles
  • use filters for applications
  • use privacy settings for online gaming and social media sites.

Try making an agreement with your child about how devices must be used. Establish appropriate behavior online and help your child to identify when they or others are being bullied online. Encourage your child to share any messages that are nasty or upsets them with you.

As part of the agreement you may want to ensure that your child understands that:

  • They must never disclose personal information
  • Everything posted online can be traced back to the individual
  • Online or offline, everyone must be treated with respect
  • They should think before they post – written communication can be misconstrued.

Health and safetySome parents will be concerned about their child’s welfare and would like to keep them off school until the situation has been dealt with. However, you must remember that, legally, you have to make sure your child receives education, normally by sending them to school. If you think your child is too unwell because of stress for example, then you should get a medical note from your child’s GP or another NHS medical professional with whom they are registered. You should also let the school and local authority or education authority know about this and discuss arrangements for alternative education for your child.

Taking matters further

If you are not happy with the response you get from the class teacher and you have also talked to the head of year, then talk to the head teacher (and board of governors if you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland). If necessary you can involve your local authority or education authority (or governing body if your child attends an independent school).

Bullying behavior that becomes a criminal act, such as theft, damage to property or physical assault, can be reported to the police. Local Police may also offer or take part in anti-bullying initiatives.

A bullying guide for young people

Find advice about what bullying is, what to do if you think you are being bullied and how to stay safe from bullies. You’ll also find guidance on what to do if you are the bully, tips on how to survive socially at school and make friends, and some useful resources to help you further.

What is bullying?

Bullying is something that can hurt you on the inside or on the outside:

  • bullying hurts you on the outside if someone hits you or hurts you physically
  • bullying hurts you on the inside if someone calls you names or teases you, and hurts your feelings.

Here are some other things about bullying:

  • bullying is done on purpose
  • bullying is not an accident. If someone hurts you during a game by accident, this is not bullying
  • if every time you played a game, someone hurts you or your feelings, this is bullying
  • bullying happens more than once
  • bullying is wrong
  • no-one has the right to hurt you or make you feel bad.

How you may feel if you are bullied:

  • sick
  • in pain
  • worried or stressed
  • frustrated
  • isolated
  • lonely
  • feel like you don’t want to go to school
  • have difficulty eating or sleeping
  • vulnerable
  • scared
  • want to hurt yourself or to hurt others
  • helpless
  • feel like no-one is listening to you
  • not feel very good about yourself.

What to do if you are being bullied

Bullying will not go away by itself. The bullying may get worse if you ignore it. Remember, if you are being bullied, it is not your fault. No one deserves to be bullied.

Tell someone

It can be very hard to talk about bad things that have happened to us. It can also be very hard to talk about how these bad things are making us feel, however, it is very important that you tell someone if you are being bullied. The bullying won’t stop unless you tell someone about the bullying.

If you don’t feel you can talk to someone, you could try writing a note about the bullying to your parents or someone who takes care of you. You could write about the bullying in a worry book or you may prefer to send a text or email explaining that you are being bullied.

What you write or talk about should include how the bullying has made you feel. It might be easier to write or to talk to someone outside of your immediate family like a grandparent, cousin, aunt or uncle and ask for their help. If this isn’t possible, you can tell a teacher or a doctor, or perhaps a school nurse.

Put your thoughts in a bully box

Some schools have bully boxes. A bully box is to help you tell an adult that you are being bullied, without having to talk to them face-to-face and without worrying about other people hearing. You can write about the bullying or draw pictures about the bullying and put this information in the box. Someone will empty the bully box, take out your information about bullying and get help for you.

How to stay safe from bullying

Try to stay away from bullies or stay with a group of other pupils or friends when you don’t feel safe. Ask your friends or someone you can trust to look out for you. Try not to fight back. Fighting back could get you into trouble or you could get hurt.

The organization, Kidscape, suggests the following ways to deal with one bully or more than one bully, if you can’t get away from them immediately. For example:

  • With a friend or someone in your family practice ‘fogging’. This means having an answer to a taunt or something nasty a bully may say to you. For example:Bully: ‘Your shoes are horrible.’
    You: ‘That’s your opinion.’ or ‘They are comfortable.’
  • Practice having answers to things that a bully may say to you, and perhaps write these answers down. The bully may say things about how your look, your family or things you like to do. For example:
    …this is what I will say when the bully says something about how I look.
    …this is what I will say when the bully says something about my family.
  • Having to deal with a bully or bullies is scary for everyone. It’s OK to feel scared. It is important to recognize that you are scared and to get away from the bullying. You may find it difficult to recognize emotions like fear, so you could ask an adult or a friend to spend some time teaching you more about different feelings and what to do when you experience them.
  • You could also ask an adult or friend to help you understand body language and eye contact – your own body language and that of the bully.
  • Kidscape also suggest that you practice saying ‘No!’ to the bully, firmly and loudly.

Go to safe placesTry and stay in a group, rather than being on your own. When you are not at school, your local public library, community center or leisure center are places you could try because they are usually places with lots of other people in them.

The places you go to don’t have to be places you know or places where the adults in them know you. The important thing to remember is that by going into places such as your local library, you are no longer alone and can ask an adult for help.

Stay safe on the internet

You may get unwanted and nasty emails, texts or have something written about you on a website. This is called cyber bullying. When you are on the internet, you need to follow some rules to make your time on the internet or in a chatroom as safe as possible.

What if you are you the bully?

If young people around you are bullying other young people and you feel you may be left out if you didn’t join in, you could become a bully yourself.

Some young people think that bullying is a way of getting respect. This is not true. Bullying causes lots of misery for anyone who is bullied. Remember, you have the choice not to bully others.

If you bully other pupils, you need to get help. Just like if you are being bullied, it is important to tell an adult you can trust if you have started being a bully. Don’t worry about getting into trouble. It takes courage to admit that you have been a bully and an adult could help you find out why you are bullying other pupils and help you stop being a bully.

Sometimes, if you don’t feel good about yourself, you may start bullying other people. An adult can help you find other ways to make you feel better about yourself.

Your school teachers have a duty to look after you. If they are mean to you and bully you, your teachers are being unfair. You have a right not to be made to feel stupid, be called names or punished unfairly.

Talk to another teacher you can trust and tell them what is happening. Or try talking to your parents or another person who cares for you.

Surviving socially at school

Information about some things that young people with autism many find difficult, such as making friends, or knowing what to do during break times at school.

Making friends

One boy with Asperger syndrome says:

I want to make friends, but I don’t know how. In my last school I was bullied and kicked around and didn’t have any friends. The kids at this school seem to be OK, but I just know I’ll do something wrong.

You may find it difficult to make friends. You may find it very difficult to start talking to someone you don’t know for the first time and to know what to talk about. You may also not know when to stop talking and allow the other person to speak.

Here is some advice to help you make friends:

  • decide who you are going to talk to and what you would like to talk about with the person
  • look to see if they can talk straight away and are not doing their school work or other activity
  • go up to them and say ‘hello’
  • wait for them to say ‘hello’ to you
  • ask them how they are
  • wait for their reply
  • ask a particular question about themselves
  • tel them about yourself.

Your conversation may be about, for example, things going on at school, a TV program you have watched, plans for the weekend or something you have bought. Think about a conversation between two people as a turn-taking activity. During a conversation, it is nice to talk about yourself and your own life, but it is also nice to hear about what the other person has to say.

Sometimes, you may find it difficult to know when to stop talking. You can look for signs that can tell you that the person wants to talk or needs to move on. These signs may include, for example, looking away from you at other things going on around you and showing signs of not really listening to you any more. When someone looks like they are not really listening to you, you can say, for example, ‘Nice talking to you. Bye.’ You may have a friend or someone you can trust who can support you in understanding the rules of conversations with others. This person can prompt you.

What makes a good friend?

You may find it difficult to know when someone is being nice and when someone is being nasty. Ask an adult to help you sort pictures or photographs of people showing different facial expressions, to help you identify different emotions.

A good friend is a person who:

  • is kind
  • is polite
  • offers to help others with their work or offers to carry things for you
    asks others to join in
  • is welcoming to new pupils at school
  • is willing to share
  • will help you
  • is fair
  • will comfort you if you are upset
  • will listen to you.

What to do at break times at school

Break times at school can be difficult. You may not know what to do during break times or what you are expected to do. You may feel isolated and very lonely. You may want to talk to other pupils, but you may not know how to do this.

Social stories can be helpful. A social story is a short description of a particular situation that shows you what to do in the situation or what to expect from it. You can ask a friend or an adult to write down what to do in particular situations where you may need to talk to someone.

Some schools have lunchtime clubs or let pupils go to the library or use a computer during break times. Your school could also set up structured playground activities for you and a friend or group of friends to take part in.

Ask a teacher and your parents or the person who takes care of you about setting up structured playground activities. Ask school staff to look at the following websites for ideas about different activities:

Your school can also set up a buddy or befriending schemes in your school playground to help reduce bullying. Your school can ask another pupil to stay with you at break times. Some schools also have a friendship or a buddy bench where pupils can sit to show that they need someone to play with or talk to.