I’ve recently discussed the susceptibility of youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to be cyberbullied, outlining a number of reasons that contribute to such victimization. When it comes to suggestions as to how we can help these kids, a few things stand out in my mind.
First, it is really important to try to understand exactly what is wrong – why the child is being bullied, and how it makes him or her feel. We also need to realize that what may seem normal to us – in terms of social interaction – is not normal to ASD kids. We have to venture into their definition of “normalcy” to fully empathize with how they are struggling. The traditional ways that we help non-AS youth may not bear much fruit when working with ASD youth, just like it is useless to implement multicolored lights on an instrument panel when the operator is color-blind. As you perhaps know, they receive social signals but cannot decode their meaning with any beneficial level of reliability. They have what could be considered subjective blindness, and it is not a fault of theirs – it is simply how they are.
Personally speaking, I have found that ASD youth tend not to ask for help, not because they prefer isolation or independence, but because it does not naturally occur to them that another person will have a different perspective, different experience/knowledge, and thus might find a different or better solution. Encourage them to tell you how they are feeling, even though they may not respond. If they can’t answer directly, perhaps they will share their thoughts on how the same instance of cyberbullying might make another person feel. That might clue you in to the emotions they are wrestling with.
When you are trying to share advice or suggestions of prevention and response, repeat your message often for reinforcement and heavily use logical explanations. It may be wise to create and use simple flowcharts to depict human behavior. These can show actions, the way in which the actions affect others, and the way in which others’ responses then affect the subject, to aid their decision-making processes. For example, “if I do X, it will cause effect Y on other people, which will cause them to respond to me with Z”.
Finally, when working with cyberbullying targets who have ASD, it may be useful to jointly analyze stories, characters, plots and motivation in fiction, to point out tropes and story cues, and to figure out why characters act as they do. Also, try using comic books or comic strips – which often convey some of the story through characters’ emotion-laden expressions, but in simplified “cartooned” art that is easier to comprehend. Comic strips with humor that relate to real life situations are especially good; they teach typical motivations, reading faces, understanding humor, decision-making, and coping/response mechanisms all at once.
Let us know of your successes and failures. We are especially interested in this population of vulnerable youth, and want to all we can to help.