As children make friends, sometimes they bond over similarities – living in the same neighborhood, attending the same school, or having the same interests.
But children also can tease or ostracize each other if they think another child is different because of their appearance, intelligence, or mannerisms.
Schoolmates of an autistic teenager tricked the 15-year-old during the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last summer. The incident drew national attention and put a spotlight on bullying among young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
According to research posted on the Autism Speaks website, an autism science and advocacy organization, “children with ASD are bullied at a very high rate, and are also often purposefully ‘triggered’ into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by ill-intentioned peers.”
“Kids with autism are less likely to pick up on social cues that they’re being ostracized,” said Adelaide Robb, MD, Division Chief, Psychology and Behavioral Health, Children’s National Health System. “They may not be aware that someone is picking on them.”
Depending on the child’s age and their level of autistic traits – for example if the child is nonverbal – a child “may not have the necessary social skills to navigate peer interactions including offers of friendship, teasing, and bullying.”
“One of the deficits of autism is difficulty in reading social cues and a deficit in social skills,” she said.
Dr. Robb said a subgroup of children with autism spectrum disorders “who have explosive, angry outbursts” may frighten their peers, which shields them from “being teased because they’re seen as someone you don’t want to antagonize.”
Where they fit on the spectrum also plays a role. Do they have physical characteristics that make them more likely to be bullied, such as being very tall or very short for their age?
“Sometimes kids with autism only like to wear a certain textured clothing and shoes,” Dr. Robb said, adding that if a child right now is wearing sandals and shorts in the winter, “they might be teased for appearing different.” Also, a child might be teased for their cognitive abilities or for repeating things.