Strategies for supporting kids living with autism can be useful in any type of youth setting

Building awareness about autism provides the foundation for creating safe and affirming settings for young people.

One in 88 children has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and studies have shown a growing prevalence of these conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The autism spectrum – often simply referred to as autism – encompasses a range of developmental disabilities caused by a problem with the brain, and research is still unclear about what causes these issues.

What is clear is that many people across communities are interested in learning more about autism, so they can strengthen their ability to support young people who live with the condition. People such as educators and other school staff, youth workers and volunteers in youth-serving organizations, health care providers and young people themselves are recognizing that they all have a role to play in creating settings that are welcoming, affirming and safe for kids with autism. This is particularly important since studies have shown that young people with disabilities are at higher risk of bullying than their nondisabled peers. Not only do many kids with autism experience trauma responses, increased anxiety and misperceptions when bullying occurs, they may also be at higher risk of being targeted simply because of their differences.

While there’s usually nothing about people with autism that sets them apart from others in terms of how they look, people on the autism spectrum can have differences that can affect how they learn, interact and communicate with others. For example, a person with autism may have trouble understanding social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, which can lead to difficulty interpreting what other people are thinking or feeling. Autism Speaks, an organization that focuses on building autism awareness and funding research, emphasizes the importance of recognizing that each individual on the autism spectrum is unique. Many have exceptional abilities in visual, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities, while others have a significant disability and may need support to live independently.

As part of their efforts to help people understand issues related to autism, Autism Speaks created a School Community Tool Kit about the specific needs of students with autism, including connections to issues of bullying. The kit includes tools and strategies designed for use by specific members of the school community, such as classmates, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and lunch and recess aides. Many of these strategies could be adapted for use within other youth settings, such as 4-H groups, Scouts, afterschool programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, Campfire USA and faith-based youth groups. The Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (Pacer) Center is another source of resources for supporting kids who have autism and other disabilities, and one of their projects is their National Bullying Prevention Center.

As the Autism Speaks tool kit emphasizes, it’s important for anyone who wants to provide autism awareness and education within a setting that includes kids with autism to communicate with the kids’ parents and caregivers ahead of time. Some families may be comfortable with having groups explore these issues on behalf of their children, and may be willing to be active participants in educational efforts. Other families may be less comfortable and it’s important to honor their feedback.

If you’d like to learn about connections between bullying and kids with autism, you may want to take part in an upcoming Michigan State University Extension webinar titled Trauma Reactions of Bullying: Voices from Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This webinar is part of the MSU Extension Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which also includes a comprehensive curriculum designed to help young people and adults work in partnership to create environments that are physically and emotionally safe.