Bullying and Autism



On April 20, 1999, two boys at Colorado’s Columbine High School went on a shooting spree and killed twelve students then themselves. Because these boys were victims of bullying, several academic studies resulting in new recommendations for school policies against bullying are now in place. Most schools have “zero tolerance” for bullying, fighting, violence and disability harassment. If students do these things, they are automatically suspended or expelled.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability harassment is against the law in all schools, school districts, and colleges and universities receiving public funds. Children with disabilities who are bullied or harassed have legal rights to grievance procedures and due process on the local level; they can also file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights.

Unfortunately, school bullying is still a problem.

In spite of all these laws and policies, the National Education Association estimates that every seven minutes of every school day, a child is the victim of bullying. In addition, 85% of the time there is no intervention by other students or adults. Even if your child’s school has anti-bullying policies, they may not be effective or practical.

Special Needs Students and Bullying

Children in special education are the most frequent victims of bullies. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are easy targets for bullying – one expert puts the percentage at 100%. The reason is that autistic children fit the profile of a typical victim: a “loner” who appears different from other children. Like hungry wolves that attack a limping sheep falling behind the herd, those with ASD are vulnerable to bullying. Their symptoms are often obvious and subject to ostracization. Even worse, the autistic child often suffers in silence not telling his parents or other adults.

Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old boy with high functioning autism explains it like this:

ASD kids don’t realize which things they are supposed to bring up at home. When parents ask about their day, they wouldn’t automatically mention they were bullied unless the subject was brought up.

Recognize the Signs of Bullying

Here are a few common signs your child is being bullied:

  • Signs of extreme stress or anxiety
  • Missing school because of headaches or stomach aches
  • Physical injuries or torn clothing
  • Stealing money from you, possibly to “pay off” a bully


Once you determine that your child is a victim of bullying, you have to be careful not to make the situation worse. Writing in his book Freaks, Geeks & Asperger Syndrome, Luke describes what happened after his mother spoke up to his tormentors.

  • “The bullies left me alone for some time after that. But no amount of threatening by my brother, by the teachers, fear of expulsion, pleasant reasoning, absolutely nothing made any difference and they never left me alone. In the end, they were physically pushing me around and punching me and it was about the worst time of my entire life.”

Luke endured not only physical beatings, but also name-calling, teasing, tripping, having his books destroyed, and chairs pulled out from underneath him. He ended up changing schools.

Problems with School’s Anti-Bullying Policies

One major problem that Luke’s mother and other parents of autistic children face is a school may have an anti-bullying policy, yet the staff looks the other way when it happens. Some school administrators are simply more tolerant of bullying than others. Some schools tolerate a “pecking order” in which athletes and popular students have special privileges and develop a sense of entitlement that leads to a “bullying atmosphere.”

In these types of school environments, if parents report bullying, the principal may advise them to enroll their child in karate or teach him to stand up for himself. The underlying attitude is that it is the victim’s fault. One principal told a parent of a ASD child, “Your son is a little different and it bothers other children, so he brings this on himself because of who he is.” Sadly, there are times when teachers and coaches bully the child, too.

Another problem with reporting bullying is an autistic child does not have the social savvy to tell his side of the story effectively. Bullies typically lack empathy and self-esteem. The reasons they bully may be due to deep seeded emotional problems like abuse or a dysfunctional family. Many are good at crying on cue and playing the victim. Often the bully receives no punishment unless the autistic child has an effective witness.

In a recent survey by York University, only 23% of students agreed with the statement “teachers usually or almost always intervene” when bullies attack. However, 71% of the teachers in the survey agreed. Part of the problem is that teachers do not witness most bullying because it usually happens off-campus (which also means the school may not be legally liable for it). Children with ASD are most vulnerable when they walk alone to and from school. The other times bullying occurs is during unstructured times such as lunch hour, recess, and passing periods. Bullying peaks in junior high school.

Ways to Protect Your ASD Child from Bullying

There are things you can do to protect your child. It is a good idea to demand an anti-bullying clause in your child’s Individual Education Plan. This is a proactive way of having solutions in place and holding the administration accountable in the event your child is bullied. If your school does not have an anti-bullying program, try to work through the PTO to get one in place. Dr. Dan Olweus’s model, first used in Europe, is still one of the best. It involves hiring a bullying coordinator, keeping monitors in the lunchrooms, restrooms, corridors and playgrounds, and making sure there is consistent intervention.

If your child is a victim of bullying, don’t approach the parents of the bully or the bully himself. According to some authorities, parents of bullies are often physically abusive people and some even have criminal records. You should talk to your child’s teacher and principal in private. Ask for an adult aide to accompany your child at all times, if necessary. If the bullying does not stop, you can involve the police or file grievances through your local Office of Civil Rights.

If your child is in immediate danger, you can homeschool him until the situation is under control or transfer him to a private school. If you have to file a lawsuit against the school and the parents of the bullies, find a lawyer whose expertise is in special education law.

Bullying is a serious problem, especially affecting children with special needs. By understanding the signs of bullying and knowing the appropriate course of action, you are securing a safer environment for your child.


Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.

Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: from pre-school to high school: how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

“Disability Harassment,” The United States Department of Education, July 25, 2000, posted at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html

Heinrichs, Rebekkah. Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying (New York: Autism Asperger Publishing Company) 2003.

Hyman, Irwin. Dangerous Schools: What We Can Do About the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Our Children. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 1999.

Jackson, Luke. Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers) 2002.

National Bullying Awareness Program,” The National Education Association, posted at http://www.nea.org/schoolsafety/bullying.html

Newman, Katherine. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Olewus, Daniel See http://modelprograms.samhsa.gov/pdfs/FactSheets/Olweus%20Bully.pdf.

Pepler, Debra. “The Teen Relationship Problem: What We’ve Learned about Bullying,” posted at http://www.arts.yorku.ca/lamarsh/projects/trp/trp_wwl01.html

Sheras, Peter. Your Child: Bully or Victim? New York: Fireside, 2002.

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The team behind Your Little Professor is dedicated to providing factual information for parents and caretakers of adolescents on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. We believe in connecting families to the necessary resources in order to help individuals on the spectrum succeed in day-to-day life.

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