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Bullying and Autism Spectrum Disorder
So, in case you didn’t know, I have ASD or autism spectrum disorder. I’m not shy about it, though it still carries with it a significant stigma, thanks in part to semi-ridiculous portrayals in popular culture. Contrary to popular belief, autism is not a funny quirk. It’s a serious disorder that fundamentally alters the entire course of your life and the lives of anyone close to you. However, autism isn’t a disaster that ruins everything it touches. The best way I can describe it is that different people have different ‘flavours’ and autism is like black licorice. A lot of people are going to be super put off by it, but there are people who will meet you, know you have it and still love and care for you deeply; just like weirdos like me who like black licorice. And the nice part is that when you do really connect with someone, it’s usually a deep, profound and life-long connection. The not nice thing is that the vast majority of people will not connect with you and, at worst, you will be ostracized and targeted by bullies because having autism makes you an easy mark. But why are people with autism at such a high risk of bullying and what can be done to help?
One study shows that about 46% of kids with autism are experiencing bullying, compared to just over 10% in the neurotypical population. Most parents think this is a conservative estimate. This is because many kids with autism might not even realise that they’re being bullied. This was often my experience. Hindsight is 20/20 and I often wouldn’t recognize that bullying was happening until it started to get out of control. What made it doubly confusing was it was often my ‘friends’ at school who were the ones bullying me. However, they were also the ones who I spent time with, so I didn’t want to report their bullying either. To compound things even more, no one knew I had ASD at the time. In fact, most people didn’t even know that ASD (or Asperger’s syndrome, as it was known at that time) was a thing. To myself, my parents and all of my classmates, I was just ‘weird’ and ‘different’. Many kids with autism remain undiagnosed, especially minorities and people in developing nations. Many could go their entire lives without getting the help they need. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I started to suspect I might have Asperger's syndrome and I wasn’t given an official diagnosis until I was 25. Labels and diagnoses aren’t for everyone, but for me knowing what I had and that I shared traits with millions of people around the world was liberating. It showed me that I wasn’t alone and allowed me to look back at past experiences with a new perspective.
So, what can be done? Whether you’re a person with autism or simply want to be empathetic and supportive to the people around you, there’s a few things you can try. This Autism Advocate article is super helpful for starters.
Beyond that, I would say it’s super important to recognize what bullying is and why it’s happening to you or someone else you know. For most people with ASD, bullying comes as a result of our difficulties with communication and social skills. This can mean things like not knowing when others are upset or excited, not understanding your own emotions and not knowing how to react when others are in an emotional state. If you know someone who has ASD, just know that they might have difficulty in these areas and do your best to explain verbally how you feel, so they understand. A lot of people with autism are mislabelled and misunderstood because of their inability to understand others and express themselves. It may seem like they don’t want any friends, but I can guarantee that this is not the case. It might be hard getting to know them at first, but I promise it’s worth it. People with ASD can add a new perspective to any conversation, because they see things so differently. Also, bear in mind that a lot of people with ASD don’t realize when they’re being offensive or hurtful and usually don’t do it on purpose. They can be blunt and often say whatever they think without filtering. The best thing to do is to calmly let them know that what they said wasn’t OK. Then explain how they can avoid saying something hurtful like that in the future. Socializing doesn’t naturally to us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t learn with good friends and the right guidance.
Secondly, people with autism often have very deep and passionate interests, which they’re sometimes embarrassed about, because they may have been made fun of for it in the past. Let them know they’re in a safe place to express what they love. You might find it just as fascinating. After all, passion is contagious. If you are an individual on the autism spectrum, the best thing you can do is seek out clubs and local groups with the same hobbies and interests, so you can meet friends and express your passions in a safe space and maybe learn even more about something you love. Sites like meetup.com are great or even just do a quick search on Facebook or Google. If a group doesn’t exist yet, you can make one.
Next, it’s important for people with ASD and their loved ones to know what triggers them, as this can lead to meltdowns, sometimes publicly, where other kids might just shrug it off. This could include being touched, having too much eye contact or, in my case, being told to do something else when I’m in the middle of doing something. Knowing what triggers you is the first step to developing strategies with those around you to avoid triggers or deal with it when a triggering event does occur. This can be as simple as practicing breathing techniques or finding a quiet place to cool off. Sometimes you have to hit something or scream. That’s OK, let it out, but do it safely.
Also, if you see something, say something. Silence is a bully’s best friend. Don’t stand by if you witness bullying and if you are being bullied, tell someone. I wish more people had spoken out for me when I was being bullied, but the people who weren’t picking on me were often complicit through inaction. This included teachers in some cases. Don’t be like that. Say something to the bully or speak to someone in charge to let them know what’s going on. Start an anti-bullying campaign at your school by putting up posters and posting the school’s anti-bullying policy somewhere visible. Make it abundantly clear that this is not OK.
Finally, for people with ASD, there are lots of great resources out there. Autism Speaks Canada has this great page about preventing bullying for people on the spectrum and in the US the Autism Society has this page on bullying prevention. Our very own Kathryn has also written a blog highlighting some mental health advocates in the autism community. Also, keep checking mindyourmind.ca all month for great articles on bullying and bullying prevention.
David is a former intern at mindyourmind. He is a mature student currently in his second year of East Asian Studies at Huron University. He speaks English, Japanese, terrible, broken Spanish and a few basic phrases in Mandarin Chinese. A lover of anime, fitness and weird music, you can often find him working out at the gym or blasting some random band through a pair of headphones (or both). He loves travelling and has lived abroad twice, in Taiwan and Colombia, and hopes to go study in Japan next year. David has Autism Spectrum Disorder with depression and OCD and he hopes to spread the word to Canada’s youth that they are not alone.
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