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 organisations suggest that bullying could involve. 

  • name calling
  • making fun or teasing
  • spreading rumours 
  • 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 realise 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 behaviour. 

 

An autistic child or young person may also show sudden changes in behaviour, 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 behaviour 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, behavioural 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.

Some children or young people may need professional help to boost their self-esteem and confidence. You can try searching our Autism Services Directory (www.autism.org.uk/directory) for details of counsellors who work with autistic children. Alternatively, contact national counselling bodies, such as the National Counselling Society or the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy but check that individual counsellors have knowledge of autism. If your child would like support from someone over the telephone, they can call ChildLine.

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. Search our Autism Services Directory for information about social groups in your area. Your child might also find social skills training helpful.   

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 realise 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 realise they are being bullied. Try to help them understand the difference between behaviour that is friendly and bullying. Explain that when behaviour 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 recognise when someone is being nice or nasty. You may find it helpful to use a favourite television programme to illustrate this, such as Mr Bean and The Simpsons. These programmes 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 socialise, but also knows what is expected of them.

 

Buddies, befriending and friendship

A buddying 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.

The teacher could plan a lesson that explains autism, using worksheets for younger children. Taking part in Schools' Autism Awareness Week is a great way to do this.

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 behaviour 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 emphasise the zero tolerance approach of schools to bullying.

 

Getting extra support

Your child may require an assessment of their special educational needs in order to get extra help in school.

Dealing with online bullying

Autistic children and young people find social networking, forums, emailing, instant messaging, texting and online gaming an easier way to socialise. 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 recognise 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour 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.

 

The Department for education gives advice for schools and parents/carers on cyber bullying.

Health and safety

Some 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 behaviour 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.

Exploring other options

Some parents decide to take their child out of school completely and instead send them to another school or home educate them.

 

Further information

The National Autistic Society's Education Rights Service can provide information, support and advice on education provision and entitlements for autistic children and young people.  If you are not happy with the way that school are dealing with a bullying situation then please contact them.

 

Website: www.autism.org.uk/educationrights
Email: educationrights@nas.org.uk 
Tel: 0808 800 4102 

Bullying UK
Offers practical information and advice to young people and their parents through their website and by email.

CEOP: Child Exploitation & Online Protection 
Offers advice and help to children and parents on online safety.

ChildLine (UK)
Tel: 0800 1111 
ChildLine is a free 24-hour confidential helpline for children and young people. 

Kidscape (UK) 
Aims to equip young people, parents and professionals with the skills to tackle bullying and safeguarding issues across the UK.

KidSMART (UK) 
Website for children, parents and professionals to teach children how to get the very best out of the internet and use technology safely and responsibly.

Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF)
NIABF brings together over 25 regional statutory and voluntary sector organisations, all committed to tackling the bullying of children and young people in schools and communities in Northern Ireland. 

Respectme (Scotland)

Scotland’s anti-bullying service funded by the Scottish Government.

 

Resources

Incentive Plus (UK). Sells a range of anti-bullying resources, including DVDs, videos, books and board games.

Bully Stop. Mobile phone application that helps parents and children stop bullies and predators from contacting children on their mobile phone.

 

Books

Asperger syndrome and bullying strategies and solutions by Nick Dubin, 2007.

Freaks, geeks and Asperger syndrome by Luke Jackson, 2002. A good self-help guide for autistic teenagers with suggestions as to what they and parents can do to help with bullying, as well as other difficulties they may have.

Martian in the playground by Clare Sainsbury, 2000. A personal account, written by a woman who has Asperger syndrome, on her experiences of school and how autistic children can be supported in school.

If you are reading this information from a print-out, you can visit the web page and find out more at: www.autism.org.uk/bullying