My Autistic Son’s Bully

The dreaded worry of every parent–the bully. Sending my son off to school, I worry that my child will fall into the grasp of a mean kid.

For my son, life is different. He has high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.

He’s an easy target.

My life is full of sensory overload, anger issues and my child’s inability to understand social cues. (Social cues are the way people look and act that tells the world around them what they’re feeling.)

Playing The Right Game

autistic son bully how to stop

The biggest issues that we faced, and still do, remain connected to the social game. That’s always the big problem for high-functioning ASD kids. Missed social cues lead to misunderstandings between peers. From elementary school onward, my autistic son always felt misunderstood and alone.

Then the bullying kicked in around third grade. But it was never one bully, and it never looked the same. The bully could be ginormous monsters, from the group of boys that kept pushing Jackie down to the ground. Or, the bully could be a slithering snake as a friend encouraged him to say a bad word.

In any form, the impact on an autistic child being bullied is the same. I remember so many days of picking up an angry boy from school and so many nights of hearing him sob into his pillow, and there was nothing I could do. It seemed as if we were living in a “bully alley” that ripped through the neighborhood daily. My belief that most kids are innately good disappeared.

The Bully In His Head

It was middle school by the time I realized who the worst bully was. No, it wasn’t the kid sitting next to him, or the group of kids around him, but the bully that was living in his head.

It happened on a Thursday afternoon. Obsessed with exposing the peer bullying, I planned to snatch up the evidence and help the world understand they could NOT treat my son this way.

I started at school. Jackie complained that the kids in his after-school program were mean to him. I decided to make a visit to the science classroom, peek in, maybe volunteer to help.

What I saw was the discovery that my son’s reality was not the real world, but the truth of an ASD mind’s interpretation. For the first time, I met one of Jackie’s bullies, his phantom bully–the dude living in his mind.

Approaching the science room, I heard a commotion. It was palpable, a small enclosed space filled with twenty kids, all hyped up after a long day of school. There I saw my overstimulated son rushing around with his partner’s cell phone held high above his head.

It was a catch-me-if-you-can game to him, but by the twisted look on his partner’s face, I could tell it wasn’t funny.

As I stood there, Jackie went sprinting past me and out into the hallway, his partner chasing after him. I could hear yells of, give it back, Jackie and it isn’t funny coming from down the hall. I stopped Jackie and asked him why.

Why would he take another kid’s stuff and act as if everything was fine as if it were a fun game that everyone loved?


Fun or None?

autistic son bully

The answer was simple. My autistic son couldn’t see the frustration on his friend’s face or hear it in his voice.

My autistic son’s bully was his brain.

He missed all the social cues that the game had stopped being funny. In that room, Jackie was annoying, and an instigator and his behavior had led to some of his peer drama.

It wasn’t his fault, and I knew that he had little control over it, but I also knew that I had been looking at things all wrong.

There had been real bullies in Jackie’s life, kids that made fun of him or were physically abusive. But now there was a new bully, a phantom bully, the kid he became through his perceptions of situations. But those perceptions that were not the whole truth.

A New Bully To Fight

autistic son bully awareness

I had spent so much of my energy fighting against real bullies I didn’t even think about the ones in his head. Autism and high-functioning ASD is a lot of black and white thinking. To Jackie, kids like you or they hate you, and a game is fun when you’re winning or horrible if you’re losing.

My autistic son misses the in-between zone, the place where you can go too far with something. He doesn’t see the gray area between fun and irritating.

Jackie is in high school now. There is a middle road that I take. My autistic son’s bully needs constant attention.

The social game is getting more and more difficult to play, and there are still bullying issues that come up. Now, I take a step back, not rushing to conclusions.

I’m glad that I met the phantom bully. The bully in my son’s head can be much harder to deal with than an honest to goodness real mean kid. Through discussions and practice, our understanding of Jackie’s ASD grows.

And we both learn how to deal with the bully in his head.

my autistic son's bully

  • Would the other parent say the bully wasn’t in your son’s head, it was your son himself? Grabbing something fragile and expensive that belongs to someone else and running around with it over your head taunting them is more than just a” missed social cue.” It is downright cruel. Imagine if someone did that to your child? He might not be able to pick up on subtle cues but he should know when he is being cruel at someone else’s expense. He knows why it is fun at least and so does the bully. I guess that is what the other children are there. I imagine that might have been why he got “pushed down” and faced other social consequences.

  • Thank you for sharing. My friend’s daughter was always bullied in school. From first grade until the 4th grade, there were always complaints in the guidance office about her. Some of the statements here are the same for her, like kids in school find her annoying, etc. I want to share this article with my friend but I am a little skeptic because she might take it against me. I have been advising her to have her daughter checked but she and her husband shrug off my suggestion.

    • Thanks for you input, Veronica. I can’t imagine being in this position. There’s a great book called Simplicity Parenting your friend might want to check out.

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