Asperger syndrome and bullying

Rebekah Heinrichs M.S.N., M.S. Ed.

I often get asked what I think is most important in protecting young people diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) from bullying. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have an answer for this particular question. My answer is always this, “Proactive, trained adults are the key to successful bullying prevention.” Having said this, one of the most crucial aspects of this training must include providing adults with the information they need in order to identify individuals who are extremely high-risk for being targeted. This will enable them to more effectively prevent bullying and intervene when it occurs.

There are a lot of myths surrounding bullying. “Boys will be boys,” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “Bullying is just human nature, a fact of life,” “Kids can be so cruel,” and my least favorite, “We don’t allow bullying here. We have a zero tolerance policy.” The facts are less palatable. Every day 160,000 children do not go to school because they are afraid of being bullied. Moderate to severe physical and psychological symptoms and disorders can occur as a consequence of being bullied (or from taking on the role of the bully). School avoidance, refusal, and eventually withdrawal can result when children are bullied. Furthermore, there is considerable agreement among many bullying experts that zero tolerance not only doesn’t prevent bullying, it may in fact cause additional problems; including but not limited to, an increase in suspensions and expulsions and a lack of real change in the attitudes affecting school culture.

According to the research of Dr. Liza Little, 94% of children and youth with AS are bullied. Compared to studies of the general population, kids with AS are four times more by their peers or siblings. In my own experiences with facilitating a parent support group for parents of children diagnosed with AS, working as a counselor at a camp for children of all ages with AS, and other relationships and correspondence working and learning from individuals with AS, I feel the incidence of bullying is closer to 100%.

Accordingly, children and youth with AS are over represented in the 5-10% of individuals who are so frequently, chronically, and too often severely bullied and excluded that if they do not receive significant support from adults, they will most likely not be able to progress positively in school and certainly will not reach their potential.

What can adults do in light of these sobering facts? We start by truly understanding and acknowledging the vulnerability of individuals with AS and actively seeking information from them about their social experiences. Because of their high-risk status and social deficits, I feel strongly that students with AS should be given a bullying survey followed by an individual interview concerning their social experiences at school and elsewhere. Special attention should be given to whether they are experiencing any verbal, physical, or social bullying, including peer shunning. Peer shunning is the act of ignoring or excluding someone. Dr. Little identifies a high incidence of peer shunning experienced by individuals with AS, which continues to increase throughout the school years and peaks in high school. Where there is peer shunning, there is social isolation. Social isolation, or being alone, increases the risk of being bullied and decreases the likelihood of peer protection when bullying occurs.

In my book, Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying--Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World, I included a modified bullying survey called the “Modified Inventory of Wrongful Activities.” This survey states questions clearly and concisely, using examples to help clarify the intent of social language and nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, some individuals with AS are not even aware when that they are being bullied because of their social naivety and impaired social cognition. As a result, adults must be exceptionally vigilant in their observations and be willing to do additional detective work when problems occur involving the social arena. It has been my experience that sometimes well-meaning adults are often too quick to point out a social error the child with AS has made when such issues occur. This may contribute to further victimization because individuals with AS are very likely to make social blunders or errors because of the innate characteristics of their disability. Since many people who experience chronic, frequent bullying carry a lot of self-blame and shame, we must be careful not to add on any further blame and shame. We cannot expect the most vulnerable, least empowered individual, the child with AS who is being bullied, to fix the problem.

Another critical aspect of our adult role in bullying prevention is to address low-level bullying when it occurs in our presence or is reported to us. When low-level bullying is ignored or even encouraged, it implies acceptance and further victimizes the targeted child. It also creates a heightened sense of hopelessness and feeds the tendency of children not to go to adults for help. A few examples of low-level bullying are name-calling, other types of put-downs, nonverbal gestures and “dirty” looks, and intentionally leaving someone out of a group activity. These are common occurrences in the school environment and only a sampling of the types of bullying children experience. Unfortunately, research indicates that adults almost always underestimate the extent and impact of bullying compared to what students report they are experiencing. Research also indicates a “culture of silence” where children do not report bullying and hold low expectations for the amount of support and help adults will give them. Obviously, we need to be more diligent in our awareness of bullying and our responses when it occurs or is reported to us.

An equally important adult responsibility is to make sure that we model the behaviors we require from our students or our own children. Efforts to impact the behavior and attitudes of our children will fail miserably if we as adults do not hold ourselves to the same or higher levels of respect and accountability. The use of sarcasm is a common type of adult bullying and though it may be useful in the short term at controlling behavior, it comes at the expense of humiliating and angering our youth. For children with AS who may already be experiencing bullying by their peers and have less social support, this can create even more vulnerability and may contribute to them becoming a scapegoat for an entire class or school community. Adult acceptance, support, and protection are extremely critical for any child in this situation. Having an adult take action, take a stand, or even take an interest in this child can make all the difference. Bullying prevention programs are not just programs for kids. Adults play a key role. We have a long way to go before we can expect our children to trust that we are committed to making a difference where bullying is concerned, but the stakes are high and it is worth the effort. Students who are bullied are less likely to succeed in school and are more likely to experience potentially serious psychological and/or physical consequences, including contemplating or committing suicide, as a result of being bullied. It matters less what we say; what matters most is what we do.

Rebekah Heinrichs M.S.N., M.S. Ed. earned a Master's degree in pediatric nursing (University of Kentucky, 1982) and a Master's degree in special education/autism and Asperger Syndrome (University of Kansas, 2001) and is the author of Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying--Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World

Courtesy of APPC

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