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Bullying of those with Autism and SEND

Bullying is an issue for many children and young people, but those with a disability, autism or SEN are particularly at risk.

Research shows that nearly one in two pupils with autism are at risk of bullying behaviour and there is clear evidence that this has devastating consequences on their emotional wellbeing and learning potential.

Bullying behaviour happens for a number of reasons and many children young people and adults experience it, however, when people are or perceived to be different, this can sometimes make them stand out. Because of this, they can be more susceptible to bullying behaviour. However, differences are not the only reason people are affected by bullying behaviour and it’s important we don’t give out the message to people that they are bullied because of who they are.

What is Autism?

Autism is a spectrum condition (also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) and a developmental disability affecting how people communicate and interact with the world. There are currently estimated to be around 700,000 people with autism in the UK. Around 1 in 100 young people have autism which equates to 1 young person in every 3 classrooms.

Every autistic person is unique and has their own strengths and challenges and while some autistic people live an independent life, others have complex needs and may need additional support throughout their lives. Autism can sometimes be described as a ‘hidden disability’.

Because of the different ways in which they communicate and interact with others, autistic children and young people are more at risk of bullying behaviour than their peers. As they get older, these differences are often noticed more by their peer group. Autistic children and young people can find it hard to read facial expressions and body language. Because of this, they find it difficult  to tell when someone is being friendly towards them or if someone is trying to hurt them and may misunderstand the intentions of their peers. As they sometimes prefer their own company and like to play alone, others may pick on them because of this. Autistic children and young people can often be more vulnerable to bullying behaviour because they find it harder to ‘read’ social situations or demonstrate different behaviours, such as hand flapping or making inappropriate comments.

Autistic children and young people can also display some bullying behaviours. They may become aggressive if a game is not being played the way they want and then try to control the situation. They may also become frustrated at being ‘left out’ in the playground and try to ‘make’ children become friends with them. Ensure your child knows bullying behaviour is. Help your child understand that calling people names or not including them could be bullying behaviour and is unacceptable.

What is SEND?

The Education Act 1996 says that a child has special educational needs if they have a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for them. The code of practice identifies four areas of need with SEND:

  • Communication and interaction (e.g. autistic spectrum or speech and language difficulties)
  • Cognition and learning (i.e. learning disabilities)
  • Social, emotional and mental health
  • Sensory and/or physical (i.e. visual, hearing of physical health difficulties).

Most children and young people with SEND attend their local, mainstream school and some may need extra help or support, or special provision made for them to enable them to have the same opportunities as other children of their age. Children and young people who have special educational needs (SEN) do not necessarily have a disability and some disabled children and young people do not have special educational needs.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities may be more at risk of bullying behaviour and in some cases, children can suffer from bullying behaviour that slips below the teachers’ radar, and when they eventually retaliate they can be seen as the problem.

For some children and young people with SEND, they may not recognise bullying behaviour and that they are being bullied. They may also have difficulty in remembering things and this can make it difficult for them to remember when they were bullied, who by and what happened. For those who prefer their own company, this means they may be more isolated and not have many friends, making it harder for them to escape someone who is displaying bullying behaviour towards them.

Due to the additional pressures and discrimination they face, some children and young people with SEND may not realise that they are displaying bullying behaviour themselves.

Talking to a Child Affected by Bullying Behaviour

It is important that when listening to a child or young person with autism or SEND who is affected by bullying behaviour, that you are aware of any specific communication needs they may have. For example, you may need to allow extra processing time for them to answer questions.

  • Be aware of any communication aids they may have and use them if appropriate.
  • Be mindful of any sensory issues the young person might have, such as, being distracted by noise or finding direct eye contact uncomfortable.
  • Provide a comfortable, safe environment in which they can discuss the incident with you. Be empathetic and respond in a calm manner.
  • If the young person has limited speech, you could ask them to draw pictures, or point to pictures to show you what’s bothering them.

It is important that there is more understanding of Autism and SEND with individuals, schools and workplaces. Creating warm ,welcoming environments in which diversity is recognised and celebrated work well, and at all levels, a tone needs to be set that clearly indicates that bullying behaviour is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

Online Bullying

Many young people with autism and SEN find communication challenging and this can create a reliance on the online world. In many ways in connecting people, the Internet can be amazing, however, it can also open people up to a world where there are no rules or protection. Social media and the online world can be a difficult place for us all to navigate and can seem very daunting, and for those with autism and SEN, difficulty around communication and interactions can leave them open to online bullying

Young people with autism and SEN have the same right to access and participate in digital spaces safely. It’s important to remember there are also many good things about the internet and social media can be really beneficial to someone who has autism. Ineqe Safeguarding Group have some excellent information on talking about online bullying to children and young people with autism and SEN. Click here to read.


Research from the Anti-Bullying Alliance, shows that ‘there has been a huge increase in the number of school exclusions for pupils with autism over the last 5 years and that autistic pupils are twice as likely to be excluded than their peers’.

It is important that the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 is completely understood. If not, this may lead to schools not identifying a pupil’s behaviour as being linked to the nature of their disability and it may be interpreted as disruptive, disobedient, or a failure to follow instructions. It is important for all school staff to have a clear understanding of how autism affects individual young people in their care and not to jump to conclusions. This will ensure that some actions and behaviours that may result from social misunderstandings are not perceived as ‘bullying’ and will enable school staff to understand what lies behind the behaviour and what has happened.

Clear, improved autism awareness and support is important for everyone within a school community, and will be most effective in increasing empathy and enabling each young person with autism to engage socially and be better understood by others.

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Need to talk?

If you are being bullied or are concerned about someone who is, you can receive help and support from one of our trained Mentors through our e-mentoring service.

If you would like a Mentor to email you, please contact: mentorsonline@bulliesout.com

If you would rather speak to someone over the telephone, you can call Childline on: 0800 1111

For any community-related issues, such as anti-social behaviour, we would suggest contacting your landlord, the local police or your local environmental health department (where applicable), as we are unable to deal with these types of complaints.