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    Cyberbullying: What it is and How to Prevent it for Students with Autism

    Topics: Autism & Emotions, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Elementary (4-12), Teen (13-17)

    In the digital age, there are many opportunities for online bullying to occur, especially for children with autism

    boy-looking-upset-and-withdrawnCyberbullying is a type of bullying that happens repeatedly and intentionally through electronic platforms (Carrington et al., 2017). While bullying is quite common in schools, cyberbullying is a unique threat and has only increased as our world has become more technologically advanced. Bullying disproportionately affects children with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers: children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than children without disabilities. For students with autism, evidence suggests that bullying is far more prevalent as compared to their typically developing peers (Carrington et al., 2017). Children with autism communicate differently and sometimes find it difficult to initiate and maintain social relationships and understand emotions and social cues, thus making them vulnerable to bullies (National Autism Association: Bullying, n.d.).

    As schools continue to pivot between remote, face-to-face, or a hybrid option, one thing will remain true: technology will continue to be used in the classroom. Thus, cyberbullying is still very possible, and parents, teachers, administrators, and even students must know the signs and work to stop it from occurring. Check out the tips below to find out how you, as a parent, teacher, or administrator, can figure out if your child or student is being cyberbullied, and what you can do to stop it.

    Spotting the Signs of Cyberbullying 

    It can sometimes be difficult to know how your child is doing relationally in school, and many children, especially children with autism, are unlikely to tell you if they are being bullied. However, there are some specific signs that may indicate that your child with autism is being cyberbullied, not just during remote learning, but also as we slowly transition back to face-to-face. If your child is being cyberbullied, you may notice the following: 

    • Your child becomes upset, sad, angry, or depressed after using their technological device.

    Take note of your child’s emotions after they finish their online schoolwork or after using a technological device in their free time. Any distress may be a clear sign that your child may have been cyberbullied.

    • Your child loses interest in their iPad, phone, computer, or schoolwork. 

    Many children in today’s age, especially children with autism, find their iPad, computers, and phones very engaging. Thus, if your child suddenly loses interest, this may be a sign that your child is afraid of their technological device, which could be due to cyberbullying. 

    • Your child may seem anxious or display low self-esteem.

    Cyberbullying can lead to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. So, if you see any changes in your child’s behaviors or if they say comments that sound like negative self-talk, consider that as a sign that your child is being cyberbullied. 

    • Your child may seem abnormally withdrawn. 

    Signs of withdrawal may be the result of feelings of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. You may notice that your child with autism does not want to play with a friend, or that they do not want to be around anyone. 

    • Your child is secretive about what they do on the computer (i.e. switching screens if you walk past or shutting off the monitor suddenly).

    This is a huge sign that something is happening on their computer or technological device that is not supposed to be occurring. If you notice that your child is secretive about what they do on the computer, immediately intervene, and try to get at the root of what is happening. 

    Stopping Cyberbullying

    As referenced above, cyberbullying can lead to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. If you know that your child or student with autism is being bullied online, there are many things you want to keep in mind as you attempt to stop the bullying from occurring. 

    • Stay calm while asking questions. 

    mother-consoling-upset-daughterYour anger and frustration are valid, but will not be helpful to your child or student with autism. It may only elevate their feelings of frustration or make them feel confused. When you are asking your child questions about the cyberbullying incident, be sure to ask them no more than two or three questions at a time to avoid overwhelming or confusing feelings.

    • Utilize role-playing. 

    Role-playing can help your child with autism understand what happened to them, and how to respond if it happens again. For children with autism, role-playing can be especially helpful to learn and discern various emotions and how to respond appropriately. 

    • Learn how to monitor your child’s online activities.

    For young kids especially, it is always good practice to exert more control over your child’s activities on their technological devices and on the Internet. This will allow you to monitor their interactions and provide them with support in using their technological tools successfully and in a healthy way. 

    • Connect with your school’s social workers.

    Social workers typically receive extensive training on how to support students when they are being bullied, and they can be great resources as you seek to address cyberbullying and prevent it from occurring. School social workers can also be invaluable in creating a network of teachers, administrators, and parents to help your child with autism feel connected and valued. 

    While these signs for noticing cyberbullying and tips for stopping it are important, it is also important to acknowledge that cyberbullying can be prevented if schools or other virtual learning environments create positive cultures that reflect tolerance and respect. In these settings, adults are proactive about ensuring that their school and classroom environments, whether physical or virtual, are inclusive and welcoming, and that they are not places for bullying of any kind. 



    National Autism Association: Bullying. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2020, from http://www.autismsafety.org/bullying.php

    Suzanne Carrington, Marilyn Campbell, Beth Saggers, Jill Ashburner, Fiona Vicig, Julie Dillon Wallace & Yoon-Suk Hwang (2017) Recommendations of school students with autism spectrum disorder and their parents in regard to bullying and cyberbullying prevention and intervention, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 21:10, 1045-1064, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2017.1331381

    Madeline Burroughs

    Written by Madeline Burroughs

    Madeline Burroughs is a Specially Designed Instructional Coach at two high schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, GA. In this role, she works to coach special education teachers in providing systematic, specially designed instruction that effectively targets students’ strengths and needs. Madeline received her Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2019, and hopes to continue to serve as an advocate for all students with disabilities throughout her career.