While the phenomenon of school bullying is growing at an alarming rate, numerous studies have demonstrated that children on the autism spectrum face an extremely high risk of being bullied. The scientific evidence available suggests that there is a strong link between the social skill deficits experienced by autistic children and their vulnerability to bullying attacks. As a result of their difficulty in interpreting social cues and understanding the intentions of others, for instance, children with an autism spectrum disorder frequently become the victims of so-called ‘covert’ bullying acts, whereby they are manipulated by fellow-classmates to behave in a way that exposes them to ridicule.
Specialised intervention that focuses on social skill training holds a strong potential to reverse this devastating trend as it can equip children with valuable social skills which can be used as coping strategies against bullying. Within the vast spectrum of social skills, there appear to be 7 skills that are particularly important when supporting autistic children in dealing with bullying incidents:
1. Emotion perception: recognising one’s own feelings and the feelings of others
2. Decoding social cues and making social inferences
3. Perspective taking and broader empathy skills
4. Conflict resolution skills
5. Emotion regulation: being able to manage one’s own feelings
6. Confidence in addressing others: being firm and assertive
7. Problem-solving skills: choosing an appropriate behaviour in different social situations
Let us now look at how these social skills manifest themselves and acquire significance:
- before a bullying incident occurs,
- during a bullying incident and
- after a bullying incident.
BEFORE A BULLYING INCIDENT:
Bullying does not come without warning signs. To be able to detect them, children need to master the following skills:
Social skills needed:
1) Emotion perception: recognising the emotions of others e.g. recognising when someone is angry at you.
2) Perspective taking: recognising the intentions of others to be able to respond appropriately e.g. being able to understand that a classmate who is asking you to let him copy off your homework and take away your pocket money or school bag so that you can become his friend, most probably doesn’t really want to be your friend.
3) Making social inferences: interpreting social cues and drawing conclusions within social situations e.g. being able to recognise which types of behaviour are forms of bullying.
DURING A BULLYING INCIDENT
As a result of becoming the victim of a bullying episode, a child is likely to release a wide range of negative emotions. Being able to control these emotions and move away from the scene of the bullying incident are essential skills to ensure that the child remains safe.
Social skills needed:
1) Emotion regulation: being able to control one’s feelings, e.g. being able to control one’s anger.
2) Conflict resolution skills: being able to resolve a conflict as it arises, e.g. being able to quickly think of a solution that will possibly satisfy both children involved in a conflict.
3) Confidence in addressing others: being firm and assertive; being able to respond assertively to negative comments that a classmate may make about one’s appearance or competences, e.g. responding to a classmate’s comment, such as “Your hair looks awful,” by saying “That’s your opinion.”
4) Problem-solving skills: choosing an appropriate behaviour in different social situations, e.g. knowing when to tell someone to stop doing something that annoys you or determining when and how to seek adult help.
AFTER A BULLYING INCIDENT
Bullying can have a devastating impact on a child’s emotional well-being, particularly in the case of children with an autism spectrum disorder, who may already feel excluded by their peers and the school community. In addition to confidence-building, follow-up activities should focus on helping children learn to generalise across incidents so that they know how to respond in a similar situation in the future and nurturing the social skills they need to overcome the negative feelings they may experience when encountering the children they have been bullied by on a daily basis at school.
Social skills needed:
1) Problem-solving skills: choosing an appropriate behaviour in different social situations, e.g. knowing how to recognise a similar bullying incident in the future and how to react to it.
2) Perspective taking and broader empathy skills.
Empathy skills can help children adapt to being within the same school environment as the children who have bullied them. Taking an interest in the perspectives of other children may also support them in building new friendships and thus enhancing their self-esteem.
3) Emotion regulation: being able to control one’s feelings, e.g. learning to control the negative emotions arising because of their previous bullying experience and reacting positively to social encounters with their peers.
Identifying the main social skills that children may resort to at each stage of a bullying incident and providing explicit instruction on these skills, on a step-by-step basis, can considerably support children with autism in coping with bullying incidents more effectively. This type of targeted social skill training can be accomplished using a wide range of methods such as specialised intervention (group-based, one-on-one or peer-mediated intervention) and resources built on role-playing and picture-based social situation scenarios, which prompt learners to make social inferences and come up with solutions to social interaction problems.
Check out our website for our upcoming publication on the subject of bullying and autism: Tackle Bullying: A Specialised Toolkit for Children on the Autism Spectrum, © www.upbility.net. This resource aims to provide specialists and parents with a comprehensive set of ready-to-use activities to empower children with autism in tackling the challenge of bullying.