Most teens who get bullied, struggle to varying degrees to understand the nonverbal rules of any group. Something that comes naturally for their peers, is something that the ASD teen ends up learning the hard way. For the perspective of teens in this predicament, they periodically experience conflicts from peers for no reason. The harassment and occasional assaults seem to occur unexpectedly, leading to one of two predominant mindsets. The first being to withdraw from the world, because people are not to be trusted, and the second being that of a warrior mindset, to be prepared to fight any and everybody because the world is perceived in the teen’s mind as a hostile place. Of course, both ASD teens will fall somewhere in the spectrum between these two mindsets.

For ASD teens who experience bullying (and their parents), here are the reasons why the buying happens.

A Blindness to Social Hierarchies

The ASD Teen, struggles with picking up on nonverbal cues, this is problematic in social situations especially with young people. The ASD teen will fail to recognize cliques being informally established by his peers and subsequent informal hierarchies within these cliques. Oblivious to these rules and boundaries established by his peers he will run into conflicts when he casually interacts with informally recognized leaders without an acknowledgement of their leadership. Typically, this will happen when he casually speaks his truth to a peer, other peers know better than to instigate a conflict with. This peer is most likely an informal leader of a clique amongst the peer group, and he will most likely react to the teen’s nonchalant attitude as a challenge of his authority, and this is where the bullying begins.

A Lack Assertiveness During Conflicts

Most ASD teens who have a history of being bullied, have developed a traumatic response to conflicts. Most often these responses are to freeze, specifically to remain speechless and sometimes unable to move. This is because from the teen’s perspective the conflict is unprovoked and seems to come out of nowhere. This lack of assertiveness when being bullied often draws the attention of other would be bullies looking to advance in the informal hierarchy amongst the peer group. As a result, on a bad day, an ASD teen is likely to experience what he perceives as unprovoked attacks (often verbal) from multiple peers. Some teens will hold in their frustration until they get home, where they will feel safe enough to take it out on their parents and siblings. In rare cases, an ASD teen will develop an aggressive response to his perception of unprovoked attacks, and will often retaliate. This usually results in multiple suspensions during a calendar year for the teen. This is because, even though the teen did not instigate the conflict, he will often lack the social sophistication to thoroughly explain his side of the story to the school authorities. Further he will also lack the social currency and subsequent backing of peers to collaborate his side of the story, which leads to habitual scapegoating of the teen.

Perpetuating a Negative Cycle

Due to the ASD teen’s obliviousness to non-verbal social cues, he will often re-experience the same patterns of conflicts with different social groups. By high school, in the absence of intervention, the ASD teen has developed an understandable and irrational fear of social interactions. To protect himself, he will often withdraw himself from primary social events and limit himself to a handful of peers, who to varying degrees experience the same issues. If left unaddressed, the teen might never learn to navigate social situations successfully.

The good news is that ASD teens who find themselves habitually on the receiving end of bullying, can learn effective strategies to bring the bullying to an end and improve their ability to successfully socially interact with their peers and others.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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