We have a nine-year old daughter with ASD who started 3rd grade in a new school. She is coming home every day very upset due to other students calling her names and isolating her from social activities. We wanted her to attend the neighborhood school but how can we protect her from bullying?
Answered by Lori Ernsperger, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Executive Director of Behavioral Training Resource Center, LLC and author of Recognize, Respond, Report: Preventing and Addressing Bullying of Students With Special Needs
Unfortunately, bullying and disability-based harassment is a common issue for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). As parents, you have a right to ensure that the school provides a multi-tiered framework of protection for your daughter to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment and free from disability-based harassment. Start by educating yourself on the current legal regulations and best practices for preventing bullying in schools.
Recognizing the startling prevalence rates of bullying for students with ASD is the first step in developing a comprehensive bullying and disability-based harassment program for your daughter. According to the Interactive Autism Network (IAN, 2012), 63% of students with ASD were bullied in schools. An additional report from the Massachusetts Advocates for Children (Ability Path, 2011) surveyed 400 parents of children with ASD and found that nearly 88% reported their child had been bullied in school. According to Dr. Kowalski, a professor at Clemson University, “because of difficulty with social interactions and the inability to read social cues, children with ASD have higher rates of peer rejection and higher frequencies of verbal and physical attacks” (Ability Path, 2011).
In addition to recognizing the prevalence of bullying of students with ASD in schools, parents must also recognize the complexities and various forms of bullying. Bullying of students with ASD not only includes direct contact or physical assault but as with your daughter’s experience, it can take milder, more indirect forms such as repeated mild teasing, subtle insults, social exclusion, and the spreading of rumors about other students. All adults must recognize that laughter at another person’s expense is a form of bullying and should be immediately addressed.
Finally, recognizing the legal safeguards that protect your daughter is critical in preventing bullying. Bullying and/or disability-based harassment may result in the violation of federal laws including:
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112)
- Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008 (PL 110-325)
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004 (PL 108-446)
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), along with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), have written guidance letters to all schools to clarify that educational institutions are held legally accountable to provide an educational environment that ensures equal educational opportunities for all students, free of a hostile environment. Any parent can access and print these Dear Colleague Letters and distribute them to school personnel working with their child.
- US Department of Education/Office of Civil Rights (October 2014)
- US Department of Education/Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (August 2013)
- US Department of Education/Office of Civil Rights (October 2010)
- US Department of Education (July 2000)
Effective programs for preventing bullying of children with ASD in your daughter’s school should include multi-tiered interventions, starting with prevention strategies at the district level and extending down to individual level supports in the classroom. As a parent you should insist on a comprehensive and nuanced intervention that is not piecemeal or otherwise unidimensional. A multi-tiered framework for preventing bullying and disability-based harassment includes:
- District-wide and school-wide written policies and practices that focus on universal prevention strategies that target the majority of students, including students with ASD.
- Classroom interventions that explicitly teach a “bystander education program” through integrated activities within the daily curriculum. A bystander education program teaches all students to identify when students may need help from peers, how they can safely intervene, and specific reporting procedures.
- Individual-level interventions that focus on providing evidence-based supports and services to students with ASD who may be the victim or perpetrator of bullying behaviors.
As parents, you can request written policies and procedures from your district leaders and discuss classroom interventions with your daughter’s principal and teacher. In addition, because students with ASD are often victims of bullying, your daughter’s individualized education program (IEP) should include written goals for social skills, speech and language skills, and self-advocacy skills. Students with ASD require an educational approach that is concrete and sends a positive message on how to address bullies. Dr. Michelle Borba (2001) has designed CALM, a bullying prevention approach that can easily be taught to students with ASD, with simple rules and easy to follow steps.
- The first step in the CALM approach is to “Cool down.” Teach your daughter to recognize stress signals (e.g. sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, and stomachache) and learn calming strategies such as deep breathing and positive value statements which can be practiced at home and at school.
- The second step is to “Assert Yourself.” Part of a social skills curriculum for children with ASD should include teaching assertive body language. Role playing and video modeling can assist in teaching non-verbal body language that can deflect bullying attempts.
- The third step is to “Look them in the eye.” Although eye contact can be difficult for some students with ASD, parents and school professionals should teach children how to face a bully and look them in the eye. Using visual supports may be beneficial in teaching eye contact during a bullying attempt.
- The last step in the CALM approach is “Mean it.” The speech and language therapist or other highly trained school personnel should work directly with your daughter on specific language scripts on how to respond to a bully. Students should learn a non-confrontational script such as “stop that,” “leave me alone,” “you are being a bully,” or “get away from me.”
Each step of the CALM approach can be taught discretely or through social narratives and other educational methods. Integrating the steps for the CALM approach within your daughter’s IEP will ensure that school personnel will monitor progress for mastering these skills. In addition, role-playing an incident of bullying at home can provide the necessary practice for your daughter to feel competent during an actual incident of bullying.
The bullying your daughter is experiencing may be disability-based harassment if it meets the 4- Prong criteria detailed by the Office of Civil Rights (see below). It is important to remember that even if the bullying of your daughter does not meet the 4-Prong criteria, a bullying incident may be considered a violation of FAPE and the IEP team should meet to consider any changes to her program.
In order to investigate and determine a violation, parents must report bullying to school officials. Unfortunately, not all states require reporting and some have insufficient reporting procedures. For more information on how to report bullying and sample letters for writing to the school principal, the National Bullying Prevention Center has numerous resources available for parents to utilize (please visit: http://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/parents/).
The U.S. Department of Education and OCR have made it clear to school districts that they must implement a comprehensive approach to report an incident of suspected disability-based harassment, eliminate the hostile environment – which may include disciplining the bullies-, and monitor that the harassment does not resume.
Individuals with ASD, like your daughter, have a right to attend school, free of harassment, where school professionals teach acceptance and create a positive school environment that is inclusive of all students. In order to protect your daughter from the long-term ill effects of bullying, you must communicate your concerns directly with school personnel and maintain documentation. Request an IEP meeting to incorporate your observations into the IEP. Share the “Dear Colleague Letters” with school personnel and convey your intentions to closely monitor the situation.
Parents play an important role in demanding that school district leaders adopt policies and procedures for reporting and tracking bullying and disability-based harassment. For more information, please visit www.stopbullying.gov.
Bullying 4-Prong Criteria for Disability-Based Harassment
- Student is an individual with a disability and receives unwelcome conduct or harassment based on the student’s disability
- The bullying is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive to create a hostile environment,
- School officials know or reasonably should have known about the harassment, and,
- School failed to respond appropriately to end the harassment. School personnel must take immediate action to eliminate the hostile environment and prevent it from recurring and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.
Ability Path, (2011). Walk a mile in their shoes: Bullying and the child with special needs. Retrieved from www.abilitypath.org/areas-of-development/learning–schools/bullying/articles/walk -a-mile-in-their-shoes.pdf
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.
Borba, M. (n.d.). Bully-proofing our kids. Retrieved June 6, 2011 from www.micheleborba.com.
Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004). Interactive Autism Network, (2012). New data show children with autism bullied three times more frequently than their unaffected siblings. Retrieved from www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_bullying
ISBE, 2004 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is published in the United States Code at 29 U.S.C. 794.
United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2013). Dear Colleague Letter and Enclosure: Bullying of Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/bullyingdcl-8-20-13.pdf.
U. S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2000). Dear Colleague Letter: Reminder of responsibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitative Act. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html.
U. S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2010). Dear Colleague Letter: Harassment and Bullying. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet- 201010.pdf.
U. S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2014). Dear Colleague Letter: Responding to bullying of Students with disabilities. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-bullying-201410.pdf.
*Parts of this response appeared previously in the August 2015 issue of OARacle published by the Organization for Autism Research., available at www.researchautism.org/resources/newsletters/2015/September2015.asp#Message.
Citation for this article:
Ernsperger, L. (2015). Clinical Corner: Preventing and addressing bullying of students with autism spectrum disorder. Science in Autism Treatment, 12(4), 18-22.