prevent bullying

With the recent surge in teenage suicides reported on the news, our national attention to bullying has increased.  It is an especially sad subject, especially, because it is so preventable.

You may remember in a previous blog I addressed the issue of being proactive (“…address something before it happens, rather than waiting to react to something after it has already happened.”)  It’s critical to deal with bullying proactively to prevent these extreme reactions.  But, even before dealing with the bullying, per se, children would need to know they are being bullied.

Bullying can take many forms and children with social language deficits including ASD, often don’t even know that they are being bullied. When it’s verbal and a bad word or nasty name-calling is used, typically kids with ASD know that’s wrong or hurtful. It’s more of a black and white issue in those instances. But, most bullying is about the intention of the person and the relationship of power between the people. Interpreting the situation correctly is a necessary first step, and one that most kids with ASD have difficulty doing.

How do you know whether a peer is engaged in friendly teasing or being hurtful? How do you know whether someone is your friend and therefore it’s okay to do what he or she asks, or whether you’re being manipulated? One would first have to recognize that simply because someone says they’re a friend, doesn’t mean they are a friend.

What about the kids with ASD who are perceived as the bullies because they don’t make the distinction between that friendly bantering that everyone at the lunch table was laughing about and the continuation of that behavior into the classroom, minutes and hours later?  Too often, as kids with ASD try to ‘fit in’ with their peer group, they have difficulty making this distinction.

Often kids with ASD can’t adequately explain a social interaction or don’t know how to actually report the injustice and so go silently away with issues unresolved and often repeated.

There are other kids with ASD that want the connection with their peer group so badly, they are happy to be included in any way, even if that inclusion is actually a form of bullying or intimidation, and they know it.

There is much to say on bullying, but let me address just a couple ways we can be proactive:

  • First, we have to teach our children about friendship. I realize that’s easier said than done. Recognizing that what someone ‘says’ versus what someone ‘does’ is an important distinction to learn to make.  Saying “I’m your friend” versus sitting with you at lunch or inviting you to a birthday party are different.  There is a difference between “a friend” and a school acquaintance or peer. This is an ongoing process of constantly using your individual child’s experiences to teach him or her the necessary social skills and rules. A team approach of parents, therapists, and teachers is necessary to help kids see these skills in practice in many different contexts.
  • We need to be sure that our schools have bullying programs in place and that they are in fact, being implemented (many schools simply don’t do what they say their programs do). Recent studies may now be helping that cause as the U.S. government may cite schools for civil rights violations which in extreme cases may cut their federal funds.
  • On a more individual level, you may request anti-bullying goals in your students IEP.
  • As parents, we need to model tolerance, acceptance, and standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
  • Create a ‘safe’ zone at school or ‘safe’ people, who kids can go to when they are being bullied as an escape.
  • Bullies are opportunistic. They look for the chances to bully when they are least likely to get caught by an adult.  Therefore, it is critical that teachers and other adults are especially vigilant and do not claim, they didn’t see it so they can’t address it.
  • Adult to student ratios should be increased where bullying has typically been occurring (e.g. lunch, recess).
  • Rewarding kind behaviors, compassionate behaviors, supportive behaviors and friendship as an integral part of a classroom can also go a long way to changing a classroom culture.

It’s not okay to bully ANYONE under ANY circumstances. And there are no easy answers for how to address this very complex issue. Raising awareness is obviously a necessary step, but actions speak louder than words.


Diane Yapko, MA

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APA Reference
Yapko, D. (2010). Bullying. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Nov 2010
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