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Empowering Awareness: Teaching People with Differently-Abilities to Recognize and Confront Bullying

Updated: Apr 7

By Karen Kaplan, MS 

“I am not perfect, but I will always be real,” said Tupac Shakur.

"All I can do is be me, whoever that is,” said Bob Dylan. 

“Bullying is not okay, Period,” said Jim C Hines.

So, parents and teachers, what can you do to help your student or adult on the autism spectrum understand bullying and confront those who would use such a strategy?

First, did you know that in a study completed by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research report, “63% of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, were found to have been bullied at some point in their lives?” IAN Research Report: Bullying and Children with ASD (

Secondly, are you aware that there are some common characteristics of those on the spectrum that provoke bullying from others? Let me share some with you:

  • Difficulties reading social cues

  • Not noticing or understanding the intentions of others

  • Taking things too literally

  • Trouble entering peer groups

  • Clumsiness

  • Poor hygiene

  • Rigid rule-keeping (enforcing adults' rules when other children would not)

  • Continuing to talk about a favorite topic even when others are bored or annoyed

  • Frequent meltdowns

  • Inflexibility or rigidity

If these characteristics are part of your students’ or individuals’ challenges, ensure interventions and supports are implemented immediately to address them. A speech therapist, a psychologist, and an occupational therapist can help find support, incorporate them into an IEP or Individual Transition Plan (ITP), and help them create goals.

Are you familiar with some of the effects bullying has on those who live on the spectrum?

Bullying may cause:

  • Negative mood or self-image, perhaps feeling weird and different.

  • A change in their eating and sleeping patterns.

  • A decline in school performance, like refusing to go to school or ride on the bus.

  • Shutting down, such as losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.

  • Outbursts of aggression, perhaps without a clear trigger.

Here are some ideas for parents and teachers to help address bullying. Let them know:

  • It is NOT their fault. They are not to blame.

  • They are NOT alone. You are here to help.

  • Bullying is never okay, and they have the right to be safe.

  • No one deserves to be bullied.

  • They deserve to be treated with respect.

  • They have the right to feel safe at school.

When a child is bullying your exceptional one, role-play with them on how to speak up assertively. Say, “Hey, stop. Leave me alone.” Practice words with your student or child so they can use them to get help from an adult when needed.

You might also teach them to respond like, “Everyone’s mind works a little differently,” “I just get overwhelmed, but I’m working on it,” or “These kinds of things take more time for me to figure out.”

Parents might do some or all the following:

  • Visit the school often – primarily as an observer.

  • Have frequent conversations with your child and ask open-ended questions such as: “Who did you sit with at lunch? Which friends do you talk to during the day? What is your least favorite class and why? 

  • Have open communication channels with teachers and ask them frequently about your child’s interactions at school.

  • Talk to the school administration about the characteristics of autism.

  • Have an open dialogue with teachers about your child’s specific strengths and challenges.

  • Speak to other school personnel (lunchroom monitors, bus drivers, etc.) about autism awareness. You may want to give them a handout or brochure to help educate them.

  • If you are concerned or your child is bullied, report it to the school and follow up.

  • Consider including bullying in your child’s IEP. Social skills and self-advocacy skill goals should also be included in the IEP.

  • Encourage the school to facilitate a buddy for your child. Any child, especially a child who might be a target for bullying, must have at least one good friend who can help accompany them during less structured parts of the school day.

  • Mentor your child and remind them of their strengths. Remind them that they are NOT inferior to any other child. Work with them to build their self-esteem.

For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Some helpful Resources (Books and Sites):


Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in speech pathology and audiology. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.


Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living  (which is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love).


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