While we all learn early on in life to treat others with kindness and respect, bullying still persists. It can be an especially frustrating fact of life for parents with neurodivergent children. According to one study, 60% of parents of neurodivergent children reported that their child had been bullied at one time or another. While some may feel bullying is simply a rite of passage for most children, it can be devastating to a child’s development, mental health, and sense of self.
Neurodivergent children are nearly twice as likely to be bullies as their neurotypical peers. The reasons for this vary but include behavior that may be deemed unusual or socially unacceptable, repetitive behavior that can make a child a target, or a difference in social skills that makes it hard for neurodivergent children to make friends.
So, how can parents of these children prepare themselves for what their children may face at the hands of bullies, and how can they be equipped to best deal with the issue of bullying when it occurs?
A different way of being in the world
Children with ADD, autism, or other neurodivergent conditions have a different way of being in the world. Joseph Heiner, Executive Vice President and CMO of ABA Centers of America, explains the diversion: “Neurotypical children often learn social skills organically in their natural environment through interacting and imitating the people around them. Neurodivergent children may not naturally pick up these skills, but this does not mean they are not capable of learning to be social.”
Neurodivergent children, for example, may not have a “filter” when it comes to what they say around others. In addition, they may not have the ability to properly defend themselves against bullying, or understand that they are even being bullied. Additionally, neurodivergent children are far more likely to isolate themselves from their peers, making them more of a target for bullying.
The different ways that neurodivergent children approach social interaction may make them targets for bullies, especially within public school environments. However, with extra effort placed towards developing social skills, neurodivergent children can use their unique personalities to make friends and develop lasting relationships.
How parents can help
When our children are being bullied, it can be endlessly frustrating — not to mention heartbreaking. Few parents know exactly how to handle this situation, and it can easily make parents feel helpless. So, what can parents do when they suspect or know that their neurodivergent child is being bullied? To experts, it all begins with awareness.
“The first step is to recognize the signs of bullying and to recognize where bullying might be occurring,” says Heiner. He cautions parents who may believe that bullying only happens in person as online bullying can be just as insidious and damaging to neurodivergent children.
If one’s child is seeming withdrawn or easily agitated, it could be a sign that something is going on at school, in social settings, or even online. Parents should be alert to any devolution of behavior or personality which could be their child’s way of saying that an issue exists.
Once the bullying has been identified and confirmed, it’s essential that parents provide a support system for their child. If the child is already receiving professional treatment, the therapist should be notified as well. The child’s teachers and school administrators should be made aware of bullying issues, even if the issues are occurring online or outside of school hours.
Ongoing bullying can cause radical personality shifts in all children, especially those who may be neurodivergent. Anyone who has regular contact with the child in an education or support capacity should be aware of what is going on.
When neurodivergent children are being bullied, they need assurance from others that they are not alone. Bullying can make a child feel lonely, so they need to know that they still have people in their corner. “The greatest step a parent can take is providing a safe space for the child to discuss their feelings and experiences. It can help them process what has happened,” explains Heiner.
How ABA therapy can help
ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is one of the foremost therapies for conditions such as autism and ADHD and can help in cases of bullying and social issues. Through ABA therapy, children can learn new skills, how to recognize and interpret facial expressions and body language, and how to approach making friends. ABA therapy can also help children build confidence, which can make them less susceptible to bullying.
Through this form of therapy, neurodivergent children can also learn to identify and label their own emotions which can lead to better emotional regulation. ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors, such as eye contact or holding conversations.
Keeping it inclusive
Parents can combat bullying by placing emphasis on inclusivity for their children. Increased education about neurodivergent conditions has helped with the issue of inclusivity, but there is still work to be done in the social realm to drive the issue home.
“To prevent future issues related to neurodivergence and bullying, we need to raise awareness about conditions and establish more inclusive environments where all children are included and respected,” says Heiner. “This means promoting understanding and acceptance. It also means providing opportunities for neurodivergent children to socialize and make friends in safe and supportive environments.”
Giving neurodivergent children the tools they need to better relate to others can help them circumvent the threat of being bullied. Some tools that could be helpful include positive reinforcement during socialization, playdates within the home environment, exploring the meaning of friendships and feelings, and studying facial expressions and body language.
Education begins in the home for neurotypical children as well. Children should be taught to treat others with kindness and compassion, well past the early years of school.
“By working together, we can create a society that is welcoming and inclusive for all,” says Heiner. “Creating a more inclusive world can help prevent bullying before it even starts.”
Neurodivergent children deserve the same access to friendships and social connections as everyone else. By better understanding neurodivergence and the ways these children relate to the world around them, we can help them avoid the bullying behavior of others and lead full lives full of friendships and meaningful connections.