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When Bullies Target Autistic Kids

Why do some kids always get bullied and what can parents do? We spoke with Kari Dunn Buron about “provocative victims,” kids whose social challenges make them an easy target for bullies and whose behavior sometimes make it hard for adults to see that they are being victimized.

Kari has been working with students with autism for over 30 years. Kari is one of the founding members of the Minnesota Autism Network, a statewide network of ASD educational consultants. Kari serves on the Professional Advisory Boards for the Autism Society of Minnesota, Lionsgate Academy and for the Autism Asperger Digest. She is the co-author of The Incredible 5-Point Scale, and the author of When My Worries Get Too Big, A 5 Could Make Me Lose Control and A 5 is Against the Law! (2008 ASA literary award winner). Kari is also the co-editor of a new textbook for educators titled Learners on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators and recently created a new magazine designed for students with ASD called The Social Times.

What makes some kids the target of bullies?

I find that the best way to understand this is to understand what social cognition is and how a lack of good social cognition can lead to bullying. Social cognition is the skill of social thinking, social reasoning, social communication and social understanding.  Individuals with autism have difficulty with this and it is really the hallmark of autism spectrum disorders.  Kids who do not read social cues or nonverbal social messages do not adjust their behavior to “fit in” and that makes them stand out as different.  A person with ASD doesn’t even have to say anything, often their own nonverbal messages communicate this difference to others (facial expressions or other body language).  Social competence is highly developed even at age 5 so even very young children can recognize this difference in others.  Even children with Asperger Syndrome are soon recognized by other children as different in some way even if they are not sure what that difference is.  A child with autism is socially vulnerable and bullies are attracted to those who is different and vulnerable.

Sometimes it is difficult for adults to “like” provocative victims; how can parents effectively advocate for their child’s protection with an adult who is having trouble seeing that they are being targeted?

Again, one needs to know what they are observing.  How we think about what we see determines how we choose to address it and what strategies we choose to use.  If an adult observes a child with autism repeatedly making the same social blunders, they might begin to think that the child is not trying hard enough and so is somehow to blame.  If a child is difficult to understand and motivate, an adult might find themselves resenting the child.  The adults who support and educate children with autism need to understand that social cognition is a learning disorder.  Social learning in typical children happens so early and so naturally that we don’t even have to think about teaching it.  However, children with ASD do not develop these skills in the seemingly seamless way that others do.  These skills need to be taught and the supportive adults need to understand the nature of a social disorder, that it stems from a lack of skills.  We are learning a lot about how to teach those skills but the first step is a true understanding of the problem.

How can adults address the provocative victim’s behavior without excusing the bully’s behavior?

To say that bullying is normal behavior is not really to excuse it but to acknowledge that it happens.  Nobody likes to be bullied but there are children who are particularly vulnerable to teasing and who can be terribly damaged emotionally.  Children with ASD do not understand people and they are trying to survive in the ultra social environment of the school without the skills to understand, negotiate and manage social situations.  I don’t think it is too far off to relate teasing a child with autism to tripping a blind child.  We are asking the child with ASD to handle a situation they are not equipped to handle and for that reason, they need protection.  I recommend structured social settings that are more easily monitored.  Recess can be a nightmare without caring and understanding adults present to help solve the social problems or even pre-empt them by anticipating them.  Address the provocative victim’s behavior by offering more structure and support – don’t throw him in the deep end of the pool with no life jacket.  Dr. Nancy Minshew, a noted autism researcher, once said that if a child is failing to fit in after a year of school, there is a problem with social cognitive development.

Can you explain a little bit about the 5-point scale you’ve developed?

It is based on a systemized learning style – teaching social and emotional information using a system rather than conceptual language. The 5-point scale can be used to help teach the person with ASD to recognize different levels of stress and anxiety.  The scale visually breaks down a person’s responses to stress by labeling each level with what the behavior looks like, what the level feels like, and what stress reduction exercise or routines can be used to reduce the stress level.  The person with ASD and his caregiver can begin to think in terms of ‘being at’ a level 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 using the scale as a visual prompt.  After much practice and patience, the person can be prompted to bring their stress level down from a 4 to a 2 using the scale as a guide.  The 5-point scale is a cognitive behavioral method of teaching that attempts to teach the student how to recognize their own internal emotional states and then to practice successful responses to those emotions.

You can see the scale itself including examples of its use by clicking to Kari’s web site here!

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3 Comments
  1. Lynnae BadalL
    October 5, 2010 | Reply
  2. Amy
    October 5, 2010 | Reply
    • wellness2011
      October 5, 2010 | Reply

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