Autism and Bullying

February 1, 2016 by Dr. Raymond T. Heipp

Autism and Bullying is an issue that we continue to face in our society, and more specifically, in our classrooms every day. We find that the source of this bullying is a lack of understanding and common misconceptions from people. However, this lack of understanding does not excuse or eliminate the pain associated with autism and bullying. How can we strive to reduce this issue and bring a better understanding to those outside of the autism community is a question that needs to be answered.

Autism and Bullying: Source of the lack of understanding

Autism and bullying tend to arise in the school settings because of the students not understanding why some of their peers might not interact with them in a way that they interact with others. It might also stem from the lack of understanding of what “stimming” is and how all of us actually have some form of “stimming,” but do it in what is perceived to be a “socially appropriate” manner. A lack of understanding differentiates students and, therefore, distinguishes them for the rest of their peers. So how do we teach students about each other?

I witnessed a program a couple of years ago at a district who had experienced a significant rise in the number of students with autism. They found that most of these students were in inclusive classrooms and they wanted to address “stimming” to reduce any potential autism and bullying issues. They invited a teacher who was also a mother of a child on the spectrum to conduct lessons in each elementary classroom about everyone’s “stimming.” The critical piece was that she was able to address this issue in a pedagogical manner from both a teaching and a mother’s point of view. The lessons worked extremely well as students began to identify what they did along with what others were doing. These lessons created an understanding of “stimming” in a manner that all of the students could understand. Hence, the focus was not autism. The result was that autism and bullying incidencies declined.

Autism and Bullying: Parental Knowledge

With some cases of bullying, the root arises from the parental viewpoints of the bully. Parents may have views that are limited and see certain groups in ways that do not promote diversity or understanding. This root has arisen in some cases of autism and bullying. It still amazes me that in this day and age, parents presume things about autism that are simply not true. The most outrageous belief lies in the parents who believe that autism is “contagious.” These are the parents who tell their children to stay away from children on the spectrum. They also paint the picture of anyone with autism having set characteristics and not being able to function in real life, which is completely inaccurate!

How do we better inform the parents in an effort to eliminate that as a potential cause for autism and bullying? That is a question which does not have a simple plan. The unfortunate thing is that so much of the information on autism shared with the general public come from news stories or tabloids that focus on specific stories and not always the facts. In my travels throughout the country, I have not found any strong parental programs in the discussion of autism in our public or private schools, except those schools focused on students with differing abilities. This is not the fault of the schools, but an issue with which they must contend.

Autism and Bullying: Next steps

As I speak at various conferences, I listen to presentations on and am asked questions about autism and bullying. There is not an easy answer as bullying is something that all schools deal with and they often have to fight the fact that the root of it may come from outside of the school walls. The first step must be a program for students in the early elementary years recognizing the beauty of each of them and all of their peers. We must operate in a grass roots format so that the students become better equipped to understand any difference between them and their peers. We must be supportive of their learning of these differences and tolerant to the idea that some of their inaccurate beliefs may be supported at home.

We cannot and must not stop supporting our students who are bullied. Autism and bullying should not go hand-in-hand in schools. Our students who are on the autism spectrum must be given all of the respect any other student would be given. We must lead the way, serve as role models, and do what we do best, teach! Through our educative practices we can begin to diminish the rates of autism and bullying. We must also strive to educate the outside world to the beauty of every individual no matter what their abilities might be!

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