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Children With Autism Often Victims of Social Rejection And Bullying

Jiawei Wang |
May 12, 2014 | 12:19 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Thibodeaux family joined the Autism Speaks Walk to raise the awareness of the prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fernanda is in the wheelchair, Saturday, April 26, 2014. (Neon Tommy/Jiawei Wang)
Thibodeaux family joined the Autism Speaks Walk to raise the awareness of the prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fernanda is in the wheelchair, Saturday, April 26, 2014. (Neon Tommy/Jiawei Wang)
Mervil Thibodeaux did not know what to do the day his 15-year-old stepdaughter Fernanda came home with bite marks on her arms. Moreover, she could not explain to her family what happened at school because she has autism spectrum disorder. 

Fernanda goes to a public junior high school for specialized classes. She was bullied many times at school before, but her family does not know all the details because of Fernanda's difficulties communicating trauma.

“The school has cameras. But it may happen on the bus where there are no cameras,” said Thibodeaux. “So we have to make sure the aides are with her outside of school so that won’t happen again.” 

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to develop social relationships and is often accompanied by learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Diagnoses of autism are soaring compared to the last decade. In March, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the ratio of children with autism is one to 68. 

A study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in 2012 found that autistic children are four times more likely to be the victims of bullying than neuro-typical children. The study also supports the idea that children with autism are particularly vulnerable to rejection from their peer group. 

Researchers also found that communication abilities, social spheres and income have a significant correlation to bullying among children with autism.

Ron Avid Astor, a professor at University of Southern California School of Social Work and an expert in school violence and bullying across cultures, said bullying occurs when the peer groups do not understand the behavior of autistic children, and the disease itself, so educating and informing non-disabled children about the disease can improve the situation. 

Autistic kids are very isolated, not only because of mental disorder, but also out of social rejection and bullying. The isolation also prevents other children from understanding that it is a disability that makes autistic children behave differently, according to Astor. 

Astor said that on TV shows, the things people laugh at sometimes are very similar to the behavior of autistic kids. For example, in “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper has some characteristics of children with autism, such as an extreme adherence to habit, typical social problems and a disconnect from others.  

“That’s what makes him such a comical TV character for people to laugh at,” said Astor.

Much of the behaviors we laugh at on TV show are syndromes of autism spectrum disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like what we see on TV, when autistic kids are in a public school setting, non-disabled children who do not understand their behavior will believe it to be weird, and that is where teasing and bullying comes from. 

So it is important to include ways to welcome autistic children and use specific ways to teach non-disabled kids how to include autistic children in social events like lunch activities and birthday parties. Most autistic children need outsiders to actively include them, in order to escape their isolation. 

One program in Los Angeles called “Circle of Friends” is designed for kids who have special needs and helps establish friendships between students with disabilities. Circle of Friends pairs people with disabilites, like autism and Down syndrome, with non-disabled peers through inclusive participation on school campuses and communities. 

“They actively work and get kids to understand and educate non-disabled kids to understand physical, psychological and emotional disabilities so that they become part of the normal peer group,” said Astor. “And it’s also very touching and emotional to see that too.”

To improve the situation, Astor said it is more about the school and peer groups that integrate autistic children so that they are part of the culture of the school. It would be very helpful for communities and campuses to duplicate the Circle of Friends program to spread understanding and acceptance of differences, according to Astor.

Family members of autistic children face challenges on a daily basis. The Thibodeaux family works with school teachers and aides to make sure bullying incidents never happen again. The family is a big supporter of Autism Speaks Walk, in which thousands of concerned parents and autistic children advocate for the awareness of autism and walk in circles around the Pasadena Rose Bowl stadium in April.

Many children with autism are very trusting and innocent, and they behave differently in social situations, according to Lina Rodas, a nurse who works with autistic children at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. She came to the Rose Bowl Autism Speaks Walk with 40 other family members and autistic children from the hospital.  

She said family members of autistic children are most concerned about social rejection and bullying issue.

“Right now I’m working with a kid who is 15-years-old. One time during lunch, he went to sit next to a normal kid and tried to initiate a conversation, but the other kid just suddenly stood up and left,” Rodas said.

He also has social anxiety disorder because of his rejection by peer groups. Rodas said it is even difficult for him to adapt to new classroom settings. He would be anxious and have panic attacks when entering a new environment. 

Others with impaired social skills may not even realize when they are being rejected.

Angelica Jimenez wore the t-shirt with her daughter’s photo on it, Saturday, April 26, 2014. (Neon Tommy/Jiawei Wang)
Angelica Jimenez wore the t-shirt with her daughter’s photo on it, Saturday, April 26, 2014. (Neon Tommy/Jiawei Wang)
Angelica Jimenez, the mother of a 9-year-old autistic child, said her daughter Daniela sees other people at school as her friends, even though they are embarrassed by the girl and frequently reject her.

“There’s always one girl at school who’s very popular. When she has parties and stuff, she never invites Daniela and tells her ‘I forgot her invitation in the mail’ or ‘I forgot to bring it.’ But in fact she is embarrassed by her, so she doesn’t want to be associated with her,” Jimenez said. “But my daughter doesn’t see it that way. She thinks she is her best friend and makes excuses for her.”  

Jimenez is very proud when talking about her daughter. “She’s very smart at schoolwork, but she has social problems,” said Jimenez. The proud mother and about 10 other family members were wearing t-shirts with Daniela’s smiling face on it.  

Lynne Larson, a retired middle schoolteacher who participated in the walk, said she had experiences with autistic children in her class. 

“The reason kids get bullied is because their peers don’t understand the disorder and there is no program to inform normal kids about the disorder. So they just think autistic children are weird and start to tease them,” Larson said. 

Not all autistic kids have the same experience of getting rejected and bullied. Connie Gomez, a grandmother of an 8-year-old child with autism, said her grandson has “buddies” to protect him.

“When he played baseball, he was slower than the other kids, and then there’s one little boy that picked on him, and his buddy watched out for him and asked the other kid to stop,” said Gomez. “He’s a loved child.”

Gomez is very optimistic about her grandson’s disorder. She also has an autistic sister who lives happily in her sixties. Gomez is three years older than her sister and said she started taking care of her sister when she was young. They also have a mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. Gomez said the only way to deal with the problem is to be positive and help family members with disabilities in any way possible. 

The stories of autistic children getting bullied are, sadly, not uncommon. Because children with autism have limited communication skills, many fail to even notify their parents they have been bullied like Fernanda. 

Fernanda’s stepsister, who is three years younger than Fernanda, often takes walks and plays games with her and helps with her eating and tries to make her feel that somebody is there for her.

“I worry about her getting bullied at school. I’ve been bullied myself before, so I think my sister is a much easier target,” said Fernanda’s stepsister, Sasha Thibodeaux. “I love her. She is part of my family. I feel bad that I couldn’t talk to her. But when I hug and kiss her, she understands me.”

When the family reached the end of the walk, family members and kids from the Children’s Hospital cheered Fernanda’s name like she was a returning hero. 


Reach staff reporter Jiawei Wang here. Follow her on Twitter.



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