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“All of my life I have been bullied.” Luke Jackson, Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger Syndrome

Luke speaks for thousands of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who experience bullying and harassment in schools. Once a silent epidemic endured by countless children daily, bullying in schools is now being recognized as a public health concern. How can we prevent and address bullying when it occurs? Recognize, respond, and report.


Recognize Bullying When It Occurs

Recognizing the startling prevalence rates of bullying for students with ASD is the first step in developing a comprehensive bullying and disability-based harassment prevention program. In a recent study by the Interactive Autism Network reporting on just over 1,000 children with autism, parent surveys indicated that 63 percent of the students with ASD were bullied in schools. A report from noted a Massachusetts Advocates for Children survey of 400 parents of children with ASD in 2011 that found that nearly 88 percent of parents reported their child had been bullied in school. “Because of difficulty with social interactions and the inability to read social cues, children with ASD have higher rates of peer rejection and higher frequencies of verbal and physical attacks,” notes Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clemson University.

 In addition to understanding the seriousness of bullying in schools, parents and school professionals must recognize the complexities and various forms of bullying. Bullying of students with ASD not only includes direct contact or physical assault but also can take milder, more indirect forms such as repeated mild teasing, subtle insults, social exclusion, and spreading rumors about the students. Adults must recognize that laughter at another person’s expense is a form of bullying and should be immediately addressed. It is no longer acceptable to ignore ongoing teasing and rumors as normal childhood behaviors.

 Recognizing the legal requirements that protect students with ASD is critical in preventing bullying. Bullying and/or disability-based harassment may result in violating federal laws including:

  1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112)
  2. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008 (PL 110-325)
  3. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004 (PL 108-446)

Parents and school personnel must recognize that educational institutions are held legally accountable to provide an educational environment that ensures equal educational opportunities for all students free of a hostile environment.


Respond Proactively

Educational programs for the prevention of bullying and disability-based harassment vary greatly across school contexts, demographics, and grade levels, but all programs should include multi-tiered interventions based on scholarly research and evidence-based literature. A multi-tiered flexible framework for preventing bullying and harassment includes:

  1. Written policies and practices for schools districts and individual schools that focus on universal prevention strategies that target the majority of students, including students with ASD
  2. Classroom interventions that explicitly teach a bystander education program through integrated activities within the daily curriculum
  3. Individual-level interventions that focus on providing evidence-based supports and services to students with ASD who may be the victim or perpetrator of bullying behaviors

Students with ASD, who statistically are often victims of bullies, must be taught age-appropriate adaptive skills for addressing a bullying situation. A student’s individualized education program (IEP) would include goals for social skills, speech and language skills, and self-advocacy skills. Students with ASD require an educational approach that is concrete and sends a positive message on addressing bullies.

Michelle Borba, Ph.D., has designed a bullying prevention approach that can easily be taught to students with ASD as it has simple rules and easy to follow steps. Her CALM approach describes step by step how a student should respond to a bully:

  • Cool down: Teach students to recognize stress signals and learn calming strategies. Deep breathing and positive value statements can be practiced with the student.
  • Assert yourself: Part of the social skills curriculum for students with ASD should include teaching assertive body language. Role playing and video modeling can assist in teaching nonverbal body language that can deflect bullying attempts.
  • Look them in the eye: Although eye contact can be difficult for some students with ASD, parents and school professionals should teach students how to face a bully and look the person in the eye. Using visual supports may be beneficial in teaching eye contact during a bullying attempt.
  • Mean it: The speech and language therapist and school team should work directly with the victim of bullying on specific language scripts on how to respond to a bully. Students should learn a nonconfrontational script such as “stop that,” “leave me alone,” “you are being a bully,” or “get away from me.”

Each step of the CALM approach can be taught discretely or through social narratives, role-playing, and other effective educational methods. It is important that parents and school professionals practice each of the steps of the CALM program repeatedly and throughout the child’s school years as bullying can change from year to year.


Report Bullying to School Officials

It is not enough just to recognize and respond to bullying in schools. In order to eliminate bullying and create a safe learning environment for students with ASD, parents and school professionals must systematically report bullying to school officials. Without transparent reporting systems, school districts will be ineffectual in designing interventions that are individualized and target the serious nature of the problem. Currently, there is only sporadic and intermittent reporting of bullying in schools. Failure to report or thoroughly investigate disability-based harassment can be a violation of federal laws.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights has made it clear to school districts that they must implement a comprehensive approach to report an incident of suspected disability-based harassment; eliminate the hostile environment, which may include disciplining the bullies; and monitor so that the harassment does not resume. Individuals with ASD have a right to attend school free of harassment where school professionals teach tolerance and create a positive school environment inclusive of all students.

Parents play an important role in insisting that school district personnel adopt policies and procedures for reporting and tracking bullying and disability-based harassment. You can find out more about your state’s reporting policies on the Web site.

 Remaining silent on the issue of bullying of students with ASD is not an option for the school community. A school is only a microcosm for the larger issues within a society. If the rates of bullying and harassment in schools continue to increase, the onus will be on the larger community to address the issues and attitudes for increasing tolerance and diversity. Just as the three R’s, reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic, have been the core components that have sustained our educational system, the three R’s for bullying and harassment prevention will carry us into the future:  recognize, respond, report.            

Dr. Lori Ernsperger is an international speaker, author, and board certified behavior analyst-doctoral from Henderson, Nev. where she is the executive director of Behavioral Training Resource Center, LLC. She has over 30 years of experience working in the public schools as a classroom teacher, administrator, and behavioral consultant. Dr. Ernsperger currently provides professional development and conference workshops to school district personnel and parents. She is the author of several books, including Recognize, Respond, Report: Preventing and Addressing Bullying of Students with Special Needs and Keys to Success for Teaching Students with Autism. Dr. Ernsperger can be contacted at