“People in my class know about my Autism, that’s why they pick on me.

Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience difficulties in communication, interaction and imagination, and often find the social world difficult and confusing. Most students with ASD attend regular schools, where there have been concerns about their needs being met—particularly when it comes to relationships with other students.

Struggling with social norms and trouble relating to peers means that autistic children are often picked on, bullied and teased. New research in public schools comparing kids with ASD to their peers finds that children with ASD are more likely to be rejected by their peers, receive less social support from their friends and classmates, spend more time alone at recess and lunch times, chat and play less with others, are verbally abused more often, are more likely to react aggressively and are three more times likely to be bullied.

Why Kids with ASD are Targeted

“Sometimes it’s like… ‘make me normal.’”

The difficulties in social communication, interaction and imagination experienced by children with autism put them at odds with their peers. They’re perceived as displaying “odd” or “strange” behavior—particularly when others are unaware of their diagnosis. This can isolate them from classmates and make them vulnerable to bullying and further social exclusion.

Autistic students are also less likely to tell others what’s happening, either because they don’t pick up on social cues that hint they’re being bullied, or they assume others are already aware of the harassment. The more bullying they experience, the more likely such students are to withdraw even further from their peers.

How School Personnel Can Help

  • Mainstreaming doesn’t cut it. Make sure that your school’s inclusion program meets the needs of kids with ASD—including training on how to socialize and build friendships with peers. Putting autistic students in regular schools can help to develop their social skills, but they require hands-on teaching about social norms. Recent research suggests that autistic children would be receptive to social training—one student with ASD said that having autism ‘restricted who I can’t talk to and who I can get on with’ and this meant that they ‘find it hard to make friends and keep them’.
  • Establish comprehensive social-emotional skills programs for students with autism. Find a program that focuses on improving autistic kids’ understanding and recognition of emotions, teaching the best ways to approach their peers and initiate interaction, and helping to develop conversation skills, such as teaching them to share experiences with their classmates. Social stories and videos modelling positive examples of social behavior are great resources. Coping strategies to deal with bullying—like how to recognize inappropriate behavior and who to tell when it occurs—should also be taught.
  • Promote peer awareness. “I want a friend that can stick up for me and not just walk away. Develop a “circle of friends” where members of an autistic child’s peer group can be used as a support system. Sensitively share the autistic kid’s diagnosis with the group, so that other children will be more likely to accept personality differences, and better understand the ASD. These pals will be instrumental in creating a positive social environment for autistic children. In our research, a child suffering from autism experienced conflict with his peer group, which often resulted in name-calling and physical bullying. The student was moved to a new class, but before he was introduced to them, they were told about his diagnosis and given information about what it meant. As a result, the new class were much more supportive and understanding, and the bullying was dramatically reduced.
  • Be an ally. The more you advocate for kids with ASD, the better their school experience will be. Keep the lines of communication open with autistic children, so that you’re always in tune with their needs.

Kids suffering from autism often miss out on social rites of passage because of their struggle to communicate effectively with other children. By establishing a safe, supportive environment at school, you’ll allow kids with ASD the chance at “normal” friendships with their peers—and the communication skills necessary to participate in the social sphere down the road.

This article is based on the following research reports:

1. Humphrey, N. & Symes, W. (2011). Peer interaction patterns among adolescents with ASD in secondary mainstream school settings. Autism: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 15, 397-419.

2. Symes, W. & Humphrey, N. (2010). Peer group indicators of inclusion for pupils on the autistic spectrum: a comparative study. School Psychology International, 31, 478-494.

3. Humphrey, N. & Symes, W. (2010). Responses to bullying and use of social support among pupils with autistic spectrum disorders in mainstream secondary schools: a qualitative study. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs [special edition on autism and education], 10, 82-90.

4. Humphrey, N. & Symes, W. (2010). Perceptions of social support and experience of bullying among pupils with autistic spectrum disorders in mainstream schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25, 77-91.

5. Humphrey, N. & Lewis, S. (2008). ‘Make me normal’: the views and experiences of pupils on the autistic spectrum in mainstream secondary schools. Autism: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 12, 39-62.