I was a target of bullying for many years, like many kids or teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I felt terrible when my peers picked on me or harassed me because they saw me as “different.” Bullying hurts and can have some long-lasting negative effects. Bullying is so serious that it is now considered a form of youth violence.
Bullying is a question of power. Bullies want to feel more powerful so they often target those seen as weak, socially isolated, quiet, and/or lacking confidence. Those adjectives describe many people with ASD. These characteristics can be thought of as risk factors that make many of us particularly vulnerable to bullying.
Many adults tell young people with ASD to ignore bullies, but that usually doesn’t work. A good way to protect vulnerable students is to reduce their risk factors and increase their protective factors. It’s a matter of turning around the perception of being weak or isolated and helping students on the spectrum feel stronger, more confident, more connected and able to speak up for themselves.
How can this social transformation happen while staying true to who we are? My mother and I wrote an article to answer that question that was just published in Exceptional Parent Magazine. Here are four bullying antidotes that we highlight in the article: valuing, belonging, contribution and acceptance.
Valuing. Schools need to teach students to appreciate diversity. It is OK to be different! Our whole society is moving in this direction. Students may need help to understand this idea and embrace all kinds of people. Everyone is safer and happier in places where differences are valued rather than feared or ridiculed. In addition to focusing on inclusion of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and gender identity, appreciating individuals with disabilities needs to be included in every discussion about diversity.
Belonging. Find ways for students with ASD to shine. Many students on the spectrum have gifts and talents. Showcasing a student’s assets rather than deficits can go a long way to improving self-esteem and improving how the person is perceived by others. The television show The Big Bang Theory focuses on abilities and accomplishments of the characters. The “geek is chic” attitude highlights finding a niche where you can belong. A particular club or organization may be a great fit with the interests of someone with ASD. It may be especially helpful if a student can be invited as a guest or accompanied by a peer mentor to overcome some of the social anxiety surrounding joining a group.
Contribution. Finding ways for students with ASD to contribute to the good of others or the community can really boost self-esteem. Volunteer work can help the student feel capable and help them make friends while making a difference. Again, it may be especially helpful if the student can get some support from peers to get involved in something new.
Acceptance. As you know my mantra is “Know yourself. Love Yourself. Be Yourself.” Bullies like to pick on what they see as flaws and weaknesses. Everyone has them. If a person with autism accepts his/her differences, the bullies will have less power over that person!
Read and Comment. For more information please read “Understanding the Nature of Bullying” by Emily Iland and Thomas Iland at http://thomasiland.com/media/ Please add your comments below to share anti-bullying strategies that have worked for you or someone you know.