Bullying can happen to people of all ages and abilities but young people with developmental differences or disabilities are especially vulnerable. Bullying involves an imbalance of power and takes physical or psychological form. Psychological bullying includes threatening, coercive and manipulative behaviour.
The effect of bullying
Whilst greater community understanding of the effects of bullying over recent years has seen an overall decrease in the incidence of reported bullying, research indicates that for young people on the autism spectrum this is not the case. The frequency of bullying experienced by young people with autism remains high and increases over adolescence. 1 For young people with autism, the impact of bullying can be debilitating and the effect can be felt by the whole family unit.
“The negative effects of bullying on children with autism are distressingly clear. It has damaging effects on children’s self-esteem, mental health, social skills, and progress at school… Bullying does not just impact on children with Autism. Their brothers and sisters may also experience bullying about their sibling’s disability… In addition to the child missing school this has a broader impact on the whole family and can mean that parents are unable to work”. 2
Adolescent social groupings become more complex in the middle years. When a child’s level of social understanding is not as developed as their peers’ they become vulnerable to bullying.
How to tell if a young person with autism is being bullied
Young people with autism may not always be able to identify when they have been bullied. Developing effective protective behaviours and detection skills, appropriate for the young person’s intellectual abilities are essential. 3
The Amaze/Autism Tasmania Information Sheet, Bullying and Autism Spectrum Disorders includes tips for identifying that your child is being bullied and strategies to help. It also includes information and strategies for occasions when the child with autism is the bully. The full information sheet can be downloaded from the Autism Tasmania website.
With the rapid increase in modern computer technology, particularly social media, “cyber-bullying” has become a way in which young people with autism may be vulnerable to harassment and abuse. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reports that in 2013, home computer use amongst young people was extremely high, with a minimum of 95% of young people from the ages of eight to seventeen years having regular access to the internet. 4
The number of young people using the internet for social media platforms (online services where ‘members’ can chat with each other via instant messaging, email, video or voice chat, share photos and videos and post comments in online forums or blogs) increases rapidly over the middle years. 97% of young people within the 14-15 year old age range were reported to use social networking services such as Facebook. 5
The Australian Cybersmart website defines Cyberbullying as including:
- abusive texts and emails
- hurtful messages, images or videos
- intimidating others online to set them up (also known as “trolling”).
- excluding others online
- nasty gossip and chat 6
There are several resources available to help combat cyberbullying:
- Whilst not autism specific, the Cybersmart website has a range of interactive and engaging information on staying safe online suitable for a variety of age ranges.
- Online Safety for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum is a book by Nicola Lonie which discusses Cyberbullying and other key concerns such as parental controls, grooming, internet addiction and hacking. Risks and warning signs are clearly explained alongside practical solutions.
Hebron, J and Humphrey, N. (2014) Exposure to bullying among students with autism spectrum conditions: A multi-informant analysis of risk and protective factors, Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, Sage Publications↩
National Autistic Society (2006) B is for Bullied: the Experiences of Children With Autism and Their Families, National Autistic Society, accessed May 28 2015 http://network.Autism.org.uk/sites/default/files/ckfinder/files/B_is_for_bullied%5B1%5D.pdf↩
Heinrichs, R (2003) Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying -Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World, Autism Asperger Publishing Co.↩
Like, post, share: Young Australians’ experience of social media (2013) Australian Communications and Media Authority↩
Ibid, p 8↩
Cybersmart (2014) Cyber Issues: Bullying Online, Australian Government, accessed 19 June http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/Parents/Cyber%20issues/Cyberbullying.aspx↩