Students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are said to targets of bullying much more often than their fellow classmates. A research study shows that autistic students may be bullied nearly five times as often as their peers.
During the study, around 46% of autistic children in middle and high school reported that they were victimized at school within the previous year, compared with just over 10% of the general population of students. These alarming statistics have left parents questioning if their child with ASD is safe at school and wondering what's being done to respond to this epidemic.
Children who have autism struggle with perceiving social cues, which can lead to complex misunderstandings and socially awkward behaviors. Some students with ASD welcome bullying because they fail to understand that others are being mean to them. Instead, they believe that the attention they are receiving is friendly or harmless. In addition, students with autism are often hypersensitive to interactions with others and changes in their environment. For these students, emotional meltdowns are common, drawing attention from others and showing that the child can be easily upset.
Bullying, by definition, is an imbalance of power where the aggressor seeks to assert power over another individual by making them upset. These students will use behaviors like name calling, jokes, rumors, social exclusion, and even pushing and shoving to evoke a reaction from their target. Unfortunately children with autism are often easy targets as the simplest of stimuli can set many into an emotional tailspin. Since bullying is simply a power game, children that seek to dominate via bullying often target children that they know will give them the maximum reaction.
Parents and educators can help prevent bullying by empowering students with autism with skills and practicing responses. Many parents and educators believe that it is not possible for children with ASD to recognize and appropriately respond to bullying without adult intervention. While adult intervention is sometimes needed, especially in the case of students that are low functioning or severely developmentally disabled, there are many things that adults can do to help students with autism increase their resilience and respond appropriately to mean behavior. Children with Asberger's Syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism according to the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, are often able to learn the techniques rather easily, with adequate practice and encouragement from caring adults.
Peace Cards were developed by youth treatment specialist and social skills educator Jeff Veley to teach a student with autism what to say when he was bullied at school. The cards feature three 'magic phrases' that any child can use to respond to mean behavior and de-escalate the situation. In addition, they remind students of coping skills and provide a crisis hotline and online training video which teaches the "Peace Sign Approach" to a psychological response which empowers students to respond to bullying/social aggression in two simple steps. Today they are distributed to thousands of students at schools across the country each year. In addition, they are a key component of Jeff's Private Coaching Program to help students that are being bullied.