In the wake of Joel Langford’s tragic death, I wanted to discuss the unique nature of bullying directed at autistic people. Neil Kenny is a Researcher at the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC) at DCU. He holds an B.A. in Psychology from University College Dublin, got his PhD from Maynooth University in 2011 and a Specialist Diploma in teaching, learning and Scholarship from the University of Limerick in 2014. Dr. Kenny teaches on a range of post-graduate courses for practicing teachers in the domains of autism specific education and provision for students with complex needs. He is course Chair of the new Master of Education in Autism (MEDA) at DCU’S Institute of Education. We previously spoke to him about Student Voice and inclusion in mainstream Irish schools.
In what way is bullying towards autistic people different from that directed towards neurotypicals?
Bullying is, unfortunately, a relatively common feature among children in schools in Ireland(and adults in workplaces), without even bringing in neurodiversity. It’s a symptom of social interaction and relationship dysfunction, group processes and the way people misunderstand each other. People on the autism spectrum often present themselves, express themselves and interpret social cues differently. Sue Fletcher Watson and colleagues are doing research on the ability to read others socially. The study notes since individuals on the spectrum present their facial features, their tone and verbal communication differently, they find other autistic people easier to read than neurotypicals. Importantly, this also leads to neurological individuals reporting autistic peers are harder to “read” and rate autistic individuals more negatively (see also Sasson, etc al 2017)
This aligns with the evidence that many autistic young people experience social exclusion in mainstream schools. There’s a lot of complexity there, meaning it’s sometimes really challenging to figure out what is and isn’t bullying. As many as 80% of people on the spectrum in the UK are victims of bullying (Bancroft, 2012: UK). In fact most often autistic bullying victims are those with some degree of social skill, whose difficulties or differences are somewhat “hidden”. Their peers are less tolerant because they can to xyz but can’t seem to stop one certain behaviour.
I sometimes wonder about the role of social skills training in this situation. Autistic people may be conditioned to assume they are in the wrong in social conflicts. Do you think this leaves the person vulnerable to gaslighting?
A lot of social interaction and relationships depending on moving understandings of the other person and the interpretation of subtle cues. Learning them is a lifelong thing; especially if you’re also facing the challenge of people finding you hard to read. I think it’s slightly odd that the literature until recently has focused on teaching young autistic people to fit in and read other people but there’s not a lot of focus on the peers or institutions. In reality it’s a dialogical experience on both sides, a reality highlighted by “bi-directional miscommunication” perspective that emerged from the Milton’s (2013) work on the “double empathy problem. As mentioned earlier, Sasson and colleagues highlighted the impact of “thin slice” negative judgements by neurotypical individuals and their resulting reticence to socially interact with autistic peers.
Bullying has a lot to do with boundaries and what others are implying or saying while also understanding your own feelings. Even before learning to read others, knowing yourself can be challenging. It’s important in bullying not just to focus on the victim or the person engaged in bullying but everyone surrounding them. It’s almost like an ecology. Social skills training is very necessary but the focus on the autistic people to acknowledge they need to fit in is out of step with what is best practice for situations of bullying. A multi-elemental approach involving all stakeholders and influence of organization culture is important, as is increased understanding of autism. It should not be all on the autistic individual to “change” to avoid bullying.
When I experienced bullying school I remember most of my classmates wanting to stay out of it. They argued that my problem was with him. If bullying is about everyone, not just the victim and the perpetrator, how do we address that?
Current literature around bullying stresses the need to address the people not directly involved. There will always be clashes between people in social settings. Adults can sometimes struggle to deescalate conflicts because they can’t always tell the difference between an isolated conflict and a more repetitious pattern of bullying. It can depend on the bystanders, whether they’re peers or adults. It can make a difference to step in and say “stop doing that. They don’t like that.”
Joel Langford, 17, was one of many who was pushed to suicide after sustained bullying
The advice to bullying is often to ignore them and not give ammunition. How does this advice prepare someone for abusive behaviour?
It puts the work on the person being targeted. In reality the person bullying should be mandated and advised to change. I saw a recent case of a person with a favourite hat which they always wore. The bullies then took the hat and began tossing it around to get a reaction. The research suggests individuals with a history of bullying people will target people of low status, socially isolated with few friends and no one to interject. In a once off situation I guess not wearing the hat in might be a first step.
But the bigger picture general the individual should learn to take care of themselves, to respect themselves be true to themselves, to develop healthy relationships and ask for what they need in an effective and socially acceptable way. This should be what we’re teaching in schools. It’s complicated learning to communicate and recruit assistance. Finding assistance in a way that doesn’t reflect badly on you is crucial as well. It’s a multi-pronged approach, it won’t be solved by simply not reacting.
Could you elaborate on learning to respect yourself? I feel like it’s an important distinction to make.
Using the example of the person with the hat earlier: the hat was part of their special interest and they have a right to wear it and not be interfered with. They have the right to tell other people they shouldn’t steal it and that socially humiliating them isn’t acceptable. People who feel vulnerable struggle to say in an effective way that somebody is upsetting them and the reasons that the treatment.
A recent Guardian article had a lot to say about autistic people ‘being involved in bullying’ which wasn’t great wording. While autistic people are disproportionately victims, do you have any comments on them displaying bullying behaviour?
There is an emerging literature showing that autistic people bullying other autistic people is not uncommon. This feeds back to bullying tying into understandings of social skills and relationships. It also feeds into issues around boundaries and reading others. Many teachers I work with say that young autistic people sometimes can’t recognise when bullying is occurring or what constitutes a real friend versus someone showing attention, but in an abusive manner. Some young people even join in on bullying of themselves because they feel included in a way they aren’t normally, or are glad to be socially included. In this sense the act of bullying another can seem to alleviate their own exclusion. In this sense it’s not unheard of.
If advise a victim of bullying and the institution they’re in, what would you say?
I think that bullying makes an individual feel shame and anger. Victims will often bottle up these negative emotions. My advice firstly would be that everyone at some point experiences it in their lives; this behaviour is wrong, not you. They should talk to the people who are important to them in their lives and tell them this is happening. Make it clear ‘I don’t like this.’ This isn’t always appropriate, but sometimes it’s important to make it clear to the person doing the bullying that you don’t like this. Everybody has the right to feel good about themselves.
My advice for schools or institutions is firstly that everywhere there are people there is some form of social exclusion; it’s part of how humans, unfortunately, often behave. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s going to come up at some stage. Some schools will say ‘we don’t have bullying here’ which is just not believable. If you aren’t doing anything about it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Managing bullying is about the culture and the whole environment. Humphrey and Symes looked at autistic young people in mainstream schools. Where they found there weren’t systems of support in place to manage social isolation and bullying, autistic people experience high levels of social isolation, negative peer interactions, and were ,more involved in negative physical and verbal altercations (Humphrey & Symes, 2011).
A system should be put in place where peers, perpetrators, victims, and most importantly parents all come together. They should develop a plan to prepare for future instances of bullying. Everyone should know what’s expected of them and what bullying is; how it should and shouldn’t be reacted to. Peer mediated supports are very effective: it engages bystanders. It’s a protective against negative social interactions, which will happen. The literature shows that in nearly all interactions someone on the spectrum is more likely to experience this.