Welcome back to our blog series on autism and trauma. Today we will discuss bullying. This is a very important and emotionally charged topic for many of our clients at Open Doors Therapy. Many if not most individuals on the autism spectrum have experienced or are still experiencing bullying, even as adults.
It’s not news that bullying is a major problem. Bullying can affect anyone. It affects neurotypicals and neurodiverse individuals alike. Furthermore, bullying doesn’t stop once an individual reaches adulthood, it just takes on new forms.
Frequently, bullies target individuals who do not conform to the social norm But, being on the autism spectrum puts an individual at an even greater risk for bullying. In fact, research shows that individuals with autism are 63% more likely to be bullied at school, at home, or at work. The trauma from being bullied can be devastating and long-lasting, especially when you’re on the autism spectrum. Unfortunately, this leads to an increase in severe mental health concerns and even suicidal thoughts. However, therapy can provide support and heal the wounds that come from trauma.
Why Autistic Individuals Often Experience Bullying:
Bullying is very common today. But, there are common characteristics that many autistic individuals have that makes them more susceptible to being bullied by their peers.
These characteristics include:
- Trouble reading facial expressions and body language
- Awkward communication
- Social anxiety
- Sensory sensitivities and meltdowns
- An interest in uncommon special interests
Understanding Social Cues and Sarcasm is Hard for An Autistic Individual making them targets for bullying.
Many people with ASD have trouble understanding social nuances and sarcasm. So they may not even realize they are being bullied. Sometimes when the bully reacts as if what they’re saying or doing is funny, an individual with autism may not realize that the words or actions are actually hurtful and meant to make fun of them. Bullies typically look for targets that are less likely to defend themselves. So, an individual who doesn’t understand they’re being made fun of is a likely target.
Self-advocacy is important to combat bullying
Individuals with autism may also lack the skills to self-advocate and report being bullied. If the bullying goes unreported, it’s likely it will not stop and even get worse. Furthermore, if teachers, school officials, and mental health professionals do not understand autism, then they may not fully grasp the bullying that’s occurring. They may even be dismissive or unsympathetic.
Gaslighting, bullying, and trauma
Many people with autism report experiencing “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a term that describes a form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is the act of forcing someone to question their own thoughts, feelings, and memories. Someone who has experienced gaslighting may even begin to question their own sanity. So, if an individual with autism reports bullying and experienced gaslighting where they were questioned or made to feel like they did something wrong, they may wind up experiencing even more trauma. It may also cause them to be afraid of reporting bullying in the future if they were made to feel this way.
College Students with Autism Frequently Experience the Trauma from Bullying
They may also lack the ability to label and express their feelings to others. This makes it hard for their loved ones and supports to help them cope with the emotions they’re experiencing. A common thing many young adults and college students with autism face when they leave their home is the painful realization that their “safe spot” and supports are no longer as readily available. Therefore, the bullying they experience in a college or work environment may be even more devastating. Also, when an individual has trouble labeling their feelings and emotions, they may be less likely to be aware that they need support. So they are less likely to reach out to a mental health professional to talk about the trauma they’re experiencing.
An Autism Therapist’s Tips on How to Combat Bullying and the Trauma It Causes:
So far, this blog has been heavy, but I want to end it by offering some tips on what you can do to combat and cope with bullying. Autism parents, these tips are things you can discuss with your child to help them stand up to bullies.
Tip 1: Identify what bullying looks like.
As an autism parent, it’s critical you work with your child to help them understand what constitutes bullying. Then, it’s important to help them understand why it’s not okay and reassure them that you are available to support them if they experience bullying.
As an adult, this can be a bit more complicated. Bullying on an adult level can often be more subtle and nuanced. But 1 in 6 autistic adults report being bullied at work. https://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/how-the-autism-society-can-help/safe-and-sound/bullying-prevention/. Common signs of bullying at work include being excluded or ostracised by your peers, being undermined or contradicted, public humiliation, hostility, someone using their power or position to intimidate you, unkind or hurtful language, passive-aggressive actions such as gossip, mimicking, or hurtful jokes and cyber bullying or “catfishing.”
Tip 2: Self-advocate
Self-advocacy is a huge step in preventing bullying. At Open Doors Therapy we talk a lot about offering mini-disclosures. You may be wondering what a mini-disclosure is, so let me clarify: A “mini-disclosure” is like an explanation or qualification for your behavior. A mini-disclosure consists of the following key parts:
- Identifying your behavior
- Sometimes I move my hands repetitively.
- Explain why you do this
- It helps me calm down when I am anxious.
- Request support
- If you see me doing this, please offer me a reassuring smile or nod. Or, ask me what’s wrong.
A mini-disclosure and self-advocacy are useful for both teens and adults on the spectrum. Even though it feels uncomfortable it can help you or your child’s peers understand you better and create a culture of greater acceptance.
Tip 3: Make a plan
For many children and teens on the autism spectrum, an IEP can be very helpful in encouraging self-advocacy and support. An IEP provides academic, social, and emotional support for a child with unique learning needs. As an autism parent, we encourage you to talk to your child’s education team about including a plan to keep them safe from bullying and what to do if it occurs.
If you’re an adult and not in a school setting, consider working with your autism therapist to discuss situations, like bullying, that bother you and come up with a plan on how to avoid it.
Tip 4: Seek Support From an Autism Therapist
Work with an autism therapist for trauma treatment to deal with the lasting effects of bullying. Working with a trauma-informed autism therapist can help you learn how to cope with the effects of bullying and make a plan for how to advocate for your needs. They can be a valuable support in your life or your child’s life.
Begin Autism and Trauma Therapy in California:
Bullying is a mental health epidemic plaguing neurodiverse and neurotypicals alike. But, with support and help from an autism therapist, you can heal from the trauma it has caused. To learn more about autism and trauma and begin autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free 30-minute phone consultation using this link. You will meet with one of our autism therapists.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our autism therapy clinic.
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of autism services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our autism therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.