Does your child have a bully problem? If not, consider yourself lucky that you don't have a bully to deal with right now but would you and your child be prepared if one should arrive on his or her doorstep tomorrow?
Bullying is difficult for anyone to deal with, regardless of age. All children are targets for bullying but a child on the autism spectrum is especially vulnerable. Due to the fact that the social part of their brain is wired differently, this type of behavior can be very complicated for a child with Autism to understand and deal with. Therefore, they desperately need our guidance in learning how to label bullying behavior and practice in ways to manage it.
Teaching a child with Autism to cope with bullying behavior is imperative in today's world. Bullies like to target peers that they consider to be weak or passive. Weakness may be determined by physical size but can also be interpreted as someone who is sensitive by nature, has a quiet personality, or seems needy or isolated. Bullies also enjoy taunting a peer who is easily provoked to tears or triggered into a meltdown.
A bully and his or her target are often lacking in social skills but in different ways. Bullies typically know the basics of social skills but for various reasons choose to ignore them and utilize power and force to develop relationships instead. On the other hand, a child with Autism will use appropriate social skills if taught - it's not that they are intentionally awkward in a social situation or don't want to make friends - they just don't know how in many cases.
How do you prepare your child for the negative social interactions she or he may have to deal with?
Studies show that helping your child develop a sense of self-confidence and a mindfulness of body language can help reduce their possibility of being targeted by a bully. You may be doing a lot already to prepare your child for a possible encounter with a bully without knowing it. I invite you to review the following strategies and see if there are any new ideas you can incorporate into your teaching role as parent.
- Help your child be social: Social skills training and teaching your child how to think socially is imperative. Whatever social skills your child is able to acquire will be helpful. At a minimum, knowing what a healthy friendly relationship is like will be a positive asset to many situations. If a child has an accurate sense of what constitutes a friendship he or she will be able to identify and see bullying for what it is right from the start. The sooner one spots a bully the easier it is to deal with.
- Teach assertiveness: Learning how to be appropriately assertive rather than aggressive or passive is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Bullies are counting on their targets to be passive and will not spend time grooming a child who is likely to speak up for her or himself. Teaching your child the word no and how to say it in various forms and ways is crucial. The non-verbal language for assertiveness is just as important and it involves standing straight, using a firm voice and looking someone in the eye - all of which send powerful messages to bullies.
It is a well-known fact that some children with Autism do not like to make eye contact. Try challenging them to determine the 'color' of a person's eyes when talking to them. This a simple distraction technique for an uncomfortable task that will make them appear confident and self-assured.
- Build confidence: Give specific praise each time your autistic child makes an effort to try a new task. "You climbed the ladder by looking at where to put your feet. That's the safest way to do it!" This gives your child a detailed picture of what she did which makes it easy to replicate for continued success. Hearing that she is climbing the ladder safely and correctly provides her with a feeling of accomplishment that can carry over into other areas.
- Encourage independence: Children who appear capable are less likely to be targeted by individuals who bully others. Bullies actively search for those who are vulnerable, those who seem helpless. Helping our children become as independent as possible is important and we need to be mindful of the tendency to do too much for our children with special needs because it can lead to learned helplessness. Don't ever hesitate to help your child learn and master a new task if you think they are ready. The feeling of "I can do it" is powerful and will serve as one more layer of protection from the taunts of a bully.
- Address fears: All children have fears that are caused by a number of different sources. Learning to identify and express their fears is crucial to children's emotional well-being. It is important to give your child language for his fears and various ways to express them such as speaking, signing, drawing, writing or acting them out depending on their abilities. If your child is being bullied you want to make sure he will have the language and the avenue to tell you what is happening in a safe environment.
- Preparation and practice: Whenever time allows, helping your child prepare for new situations will boost their confidence for the real event. New experiences are often difficult for many children with Autism to approach because of their reliance on routine and resistance to change. The first day at preschool or the transition to a new school, can be a worrisome affair to many young children. Because we often fear what is unknown, the more information and practice opportunities we can present to a child, the better the chances will be for success.
Find a social skills curriculum or a book about bullying that will help you and your child practice what to do in the presence of a bully. Bullies are a Pain in the Brain by Trevor Romain takes a humorous approach to bully-proofing yourself and uses lots of pictures which appeal to visual learners.
Also, remember to take the time to discuss bystander behavior with all of your children. One of the most effective interventions for bullying behavior is the response from those who are witnessing it. Bullies often rely on bystanders to help intimidate their target but it can be just as powerful, and often ends the bullying, when a bystander or two supports the child who is being picked on.
Connie Hammer, MSW, parent educator, consultant and coach, guides parents of young children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to uncover abilities and change possibilities. Visit her website http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com to get your FREE resources - a parenting e-course, Parenting a Child with Autism - 3 Secrets to Thrive and a weekly parenting tip newsletter, The Spectrum.