Almost everyone has had an experience with bullying in their lifetime. Some of us were bullied, others may have been bullies, and most people have seen at least one example of bullying taking place. But what is bullying? Most people from my generation (let’s call ourselves “older adults”) had a pretty simple view of bullying. Bullying was when the biggest kid in the school stole someone’s lunch, made someone cry repeatedly, or “picked on” a smaller kid. But if you look at changes in society over the last few (well, several) decades, bullying doesn’t really have a simple definition any longer. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services website stopbullying.gov, begins a full webpage that defines bullying by saying it is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” The webpage goes on to further define and give examples of different types of bullying behaviors.
Why are we talking about bullying in a blog related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Lots of people get bullied, right? It’s not just an ASD thing. But actually, it is a much more common occurrence for children who are “different” than for children who easily blend in with their peers. Children who look different, speak differently, dress differently, or act differently (sometimes called “weird” by other kids) are the common victims. And I think most of us will agree that children with ASD often are different from their classmates. Additionally, children and adults with ASD typically have difficulties understanding social norms and social communication, and can sometimes be easily tricked into doing something that is embarrassing, potentially harmful, or illegal – and that is another form of bullying. As a result, those of us who care about children and others with ASD need to be especially aware of bullying, and ways to help prevent it from occurring.
In addition to the face-to-face bullying that seems to have been around for a long time, the popularity of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and the like) has resulted in the advent of cyberbullying. Rather than trying to give you a good explanation of it, I recommend you check out an article published in The Atlantic in February, 2013. It describes some examples of cyberbullying and some possible responses; including a good look at the process Facebook has in place to address the issue. And for those of you who missed last week’s blog entry, a group of students calling themselves the Fantastic Ferrets embarked on a project last year to try to make it easier for victims to report cyberbullying. You can read about them and their project in our blog.
Bullying has real consequences for the victims. Victims can become withdrawn to the point of isolation; they can become depressed; they can develop fear and anxiety about people and places. There have even been cases of victims committing suicide to escape the pain and embarrassment of being the victim. Some research suggests that the alleged perpetrators of many of the school shootings had been bullied, and the shootings were their response. And some victims go on to become bullies themselves as they grow older, making others experience what they experienced, and even finding new ways to bully others.
There are a number of state and local laws and policies enacted to prevent bullying and protect children from being victims. You can look up your state on the stopbulling.gov website, and see what state-level protections are in place. You should also check with your local school board to see what they have in place to prevent bullying, protect students, and respond to bullying activities.
What can you do as an individual to stop bullying and protect others? The stopbullying.gov website has some suggestions, just check out the “Prevent Bullying” and “Respond to Bullying” sections. You can find other ideas at Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, the American Psychological Association, and see what the Illinois State Board of Education School Bullying Prevention Task Force has done.
Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Recognize and use your power to stop bullying.
Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager