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.
Great post Sameer. I am tweeting this several times over the next couple of days. Very useful info.
Today, my son, Brandon is 36 years old. It was nearly impossible to keep him safe from being physically bullied. I almost lost my mind while trying to accomplish this task. We didn't experience the Cyberbullying, because it didn't exist when Brandon was little over 30 years ago. I volunteered in Brandon's classroom and that did help. I write all about this in my new book, Raising Brandon. Brandon has Asperger's, untreatable epilepsy, and severe learning disorders. The professionals who worked with Brandon said he would never be able to live alone. They were wrong! Brandon has been living alone for the past 12 years, enjoying his independence. The information on how we accomplished this goal is also covered in Raising Brandon. My son is still bullied to this day, but he just seems to be able to handle it better since he has experienced it all his life. People pick on those who can't defend themselves. Brandon appears different and that is how it all begins.
Well done Sameer… you have captured the essence of the challenges regarding decoding social cues and given succinct and sound suggestions on how to help.
It's especially important to consider how the person with Asperger's feels and views the situation. Inherent in Asperger's Syndrome is their near inability to take the perspective of others. Thus, ever so important for us to do so as we offer help and guidance. They are indeed very concrete and logical thinkers. I too have found comic books, anime, movies, and video games as teachable tools in analyzing dynamics, interactions, and consequences.
Another valuable approach is to tell a story of your own, especially citing the actions and how this made you feel. The person with Asperger's has the same depth of feelings as other people. However, they lack the verbal skills to adequately and accurately express these feelings. There are many creative ways to elicit what they are feeling as well as teach them appropriate boundaries for social behaviors.
All of this takes time, patience, repetition and an established basis of trust.
Thank you for all you are doing. Those with Asperger's, autism spectrum disorders, and anyone with social thinking deficits are at great risk for cyberbullying. They are often technically saavy enjoying the entire cyberworld, but at risk because of what they don't know about social dynamics and the hidden curriculum and agendas.
I once had to investigate a report of harassment on a college campus. Upon meeting with the student/victim he self reported that he had AS, which I knew little about. When I saw the stress he was facing and how edgy it made him feel I didn't need to know more. I explained simply to him that he had to do one thing for me, let me see his email. He did. I learned who the offender was. Found the offender and gave him "religion". I then went back to our victim and explained that he did the correct thing, I had corrected the behavior of the offender and no further cyberbullying should occur….. but not so fast there Sherlock! Our victim was still affected, my explanation did nothing to remove his fear. So, I kept it simple. I told him to think of me as his big brother, I am older and bigger than he is, and if anything should happen to him he was to call me or email me and I would take care of it.
Well that was the solution and we got over that incident, he graduated and today he is working as the engineer he was training to be.
Hello, I am Patrick Mendoza, I have AS, I'm from the philippines, and i am a victim of cyberbullying. The effects were severe. My personality was almost destroyed, I lost my self confidence, and to this day, i am still depressed at myself.
Your post is interesting Sameer but please understand that not all people with Asperger’s Syndrome like being called “Aspies”. I have AS and find the term offensive and discriminatory.
I am somewhat fortunate whereby the internet did not exist when I was at school. Infact the age of computing was still in its youth. I became a part of the computer culture and learned how to program and create websites years before social network sites existed.
This obviously gives me an advantage over cyberbullies as I am able to defend myself quite easily online and make the cyberbully (troll) feel that they are becoming the target instead.
I just watched the BBC panorama relating to cyberbulling and saw that again the BBC are quite happy to target people with AS. There was no need to mention that one of the bullies had AS. Personally I cannot stand people who swear or use any form of profanity as it just shows a total lack of intelligence in that they have difficulty expressing themselves without needing to resort to vulgar language. I am sure that the majority of AS folk feel the same as I do.
In regards to “cyberbullying”. First you make it worse by giving it a name. Don’t label it as its not worthy of a label. Those who are doing it are obviously effected by something in their lives where they vent their anger towards others in an anonymous fashion (basically, the biggest form of cowardise possible).
Did you see the two people on the Panorama show who were found to have been engaged in cyberbullying? Would you say that either of those two people have a satisfactory life, with a decent job and good education? I can tell you immediately that they do not and vent the anger at the failure of their own lives at people who are vunerable. Cowards they may be but the underlying cause is that the bullies themselves were probably bullied and are still being bullied just in different ways (society, welfare, relationships, etc).