Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

New guide to address and prevent bullying of autistic young people

The Anti-Bullying Alliance has developed a new guide to address and prevent bullying of autistic young people in schools and other educational settings.

Research has found that bullying of autistic children and adolescents is extremely common, and they are considerably more likely to be bullied than those with other or no special educational needs and disabilities.

Prevalence estimates vary from study to study, but they are always worryingly high, with the highest rate reported as 94%.

Bullying can have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing, and the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s focus group reported that bullying made autistic young people feel lonely and isolated, have low self-esteem and poor mental health, and made them lose their sense of self.

They also reported not feeling safe, not wanting to go to school, and not trusting teachers and adults. This had led to a huge increase in the number of school exclusions for autistic pupils, with research showing they are twice as likely to be excluded than their peers.

What does the guide cover?

The guide explains what autism is and how it can affect people, as well as different types of bullying, bullying as a group behaviour and why autistic young people may be targeted.

It then goes on to explain how to prevent and respond to the bullying of autistic young people. This includes taking a whole-school understanding and approach, which involves training school staff so that they are aware of their responsibilities towards disabled pupils.

The guide also explains that pupils need to be supported to understand autism and neurodiversity so that they are aware of the specific challenges autistic pupils experience.

The guide states that the approach therefore needs to be based on:

  • improved autism awareness for everyone within the school community
  • increased understanding of the underpinning disability duties in the Equality Act 2010
  • a strong voice for pupils themselves
  • close partnership with parents
  • identifying appropriate support for autistic young people
  • implementing effective bullying prevention and response strategies that address the most pressing autism-specific needs.

Teachers and other members of staff can use the guide to learn how to respond to bullying and how to support autistic young people in the aftermath.

If further resources are needed, the guide provides the contact details of 11 organisations which can be leaned on for support and further information.

An individualised approach to bullying

The guide, Bullying and Autism: Developing effective anti-bullying practice, has been produced as part of the United Against Bullying free whole-school anti-bullying programme funded by the Department for Education.

It has included the views of autistic young people who have experienced bullying themselves, as well as professionals from the Council for Disabled Children, Kidscape Professor Peter Smith, Ambitious Youth Network at Ambitious about Autism.

One autistic young person said: “A lot of people are unaware of the sheer size of the autistic spectrum and we’re all different, simply linked by the fact we have differently wired brains to the general lot. They think we should fit to their definition of autistic, and get angry when we don’t.”

Others pointed to how traditional methods of reconciliation are often not suitable when autistic young people are involved. For example, one said: “Being made to ‘make up’ can often be making the wound made by the bullying worse, as the bully would most likely not mean it, they’d only say sorry so the teachers will let them off.”

Another said: “Staff asking bullies to apologise, the apologies are often not authentic and often bullies are not told why their behaviours are wrong.”

Instead, teaching staff should ensure they are taking a person-centred approach when providing support for autistic people, as everyone will be differently affected by their condition.

As the guide states: “Work with individual autistic young people to understand their challenges and needs and what support they would find most helpful. Support autistic young people to be themselves rather than feeling they must change or fit in to be like others. Give them time to process ideas and questions and to learn social skills together.”

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