Recognizing Bullying and Its Emotional Repercussions on a Child with Asperger's

Regrettably, bullying in school, on the playground, and beyond is a fact of life for people with differences. Most people on the autism spectrum report bullying experiences in school. Some research indicates that 94 percent of children with Asperger Syndrome are bullied in school.

Bullying is characterized by four key components:

  • A power imbalance. The bully may be stronger, have better social awareness or social status, and have other physical or psychological advantages.

  • Intent to harm. The bully takes negative actions with the intent to reduce the innocent person’s standing in the community and to generally cause physical and emotional suffering or injury.

  • A distressed target. A bully often focuses on a person who’s different than most of the others in a group. A child with Asperger Syndrome often fits the bill.

  • Repeated negative actions. Bullying isn’t a simple, one-time event; it’s a series of attacks that tend to escalate in nature.

Sometimes a teacher uses sarcasm to control students’ behavior or to elicit particular results, often without malicious intent. This is often referred to as educational bullying. If you suspect educational bullying, you may want to schedule an appointment with your child’s principal to discuss your concerns. Make sure you address your concerns with the teaching style instead of blaming a teacher who likely means no harm.

Bullying can have significant negative impact for people with Asperger Syndrome. Some people report suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome resulting from mistreatment by their peers. Other life-long effects range from poor self-esteem and depression to, for those with autism, an even greater reluctance to engage in social interaction for fear of reprisal. Intervention is important as soon as you detect signs of bullying.

Signs of bullying

Difficulties in reading nonverbal social cues may be part of the reason why children with Asperger Syndrome have such a high rate of bullying. Consider the following example:

Four students who are part of the “in crowd” walk up to Tommy and ask, “What’s up?” Tommy thinks for a moment, lifts his eyes upward, and proceeds to report the number of lights in the ceiling and how the tiles are glued to the ceiling so that they remain “up.” The other students laugh and say, “Great job, Tommy.”

Later, you ask Tommy about his classmates. Tommy says, “They are good friends of mine. They talk to me, ask me questions, and laugh a lot.” You make up your mind to talk to Tommy’s teacher about the situation.

If your child with Asperger’s shows one or more of the following conditions or behaviors, chances are high that he or she is being bullied in school:

  • More scratches and bruises than usual. Other school children may be pushing, punching, or otherwise excessively roughhousing your child.

  • School avoidance. Your child may try to stay home, complaining of a stomachache or other illness. Sometimes school can be so stressful that the child becomes sick more often.

  • Changes in character. The child may seem sad or depressed. Sometimes, the child being bullied acts out the events he or she experiences by becoming the bully to siblings or even pets.

Taming the bullies

Fortunately, a growing number of educators, parents, and others are realizing the life-long damaging effects on self-esteem that bullying can have. More and more schools are beginning to educate their faculty and students on detecting and preventing bullying, and more schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for bullying.

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