The need for an anti-bullying culture in ALL schools to protect children vulnerable (read: marginalised) to bullying.

All the students from our college were assembled in the common room during the annual peer awards ceremony. The awards were meant to be humourous, usually with a ‘drunk and disorderly’ theme. I didn’t understand many of the awards (not being familiar with their lingo) so I didn’t find them funny. My friend Kathryn and I stood next to each other, hoping that the ceremony wouldn’t go for much longer so we could return to a less intimidating environment.

Then I heard the award announced for ‘Runner up: Poor Social Skills’ and my name called out. I did what I was supposed to do; I went up and collected my ‘certificate’, when all I really wanted to do was rip it up in front of them. I was very aware of my poor social skills (even though I had not received a diagnosis for it) and I thought it was cruel of them to give me an award for it, after all I had tried to be sociable during the year. I guess that is why I received the ‘runner up’ award.

Next there was the announcement ‘Winner: Poor Social Skills’ and Kathryn’s name was called out. By that stage, I was shaking with fury as I glared around the room but I was speechless. They thought they were smart and funny, exposing the ‘odd couple’. How could humiliating us be helpful to the cause of trying to improve our social skills? How could that improve Kathryn’s confidence? It was a cruel joke.

Some people laughed at us, but others were less supportive of it. There were several ‘boos’ from around the room. Kathryn leant against a wall and cried but I was too angry to comfort her, another student came over and hugged her. Nobody approached me; I looked like I was going to explode. It would have been the first time that anyone from the college saw me get angry. Usually, I was too afraid and trying too hard to be nice to people, to be angry.

I knew that the peer leaders were ‘in the wrong’ to create and present such an insulting award like that but no-one ever apologized for it or even discussed it with me afterwards. It didn’t occur to me to complain to the college, I never knew how to deal with situations like that back then. The whole event was conveniently swept under the carpet and reinforced as an acceptable ‘norm’.

Several weeks later, I received a Dean’s Honours List award for Science at the University of Melbourne. It helped to take the sting away.

Autistic children experience twice the frequency of bullying behaviour than their peers2. Bullying by definition is a proactive, goal directed form of aggression whereby a victim is repeatedly targeted by the bully and there is a power imbalance in favour of the bully1. The ‘poor social skills’ award was a once off event so it didn’t count as bullying but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t harmful though.

I was luckier (in hindsight more privileged: I was white, straight, cis gender, attractive, thin, middle-classed, academically intelligent, raised by supportive family who loved me etc.) than many autistic people because I had never been bullied. Although, my difficulties interpreting social situations meant that I may not have recognised certain more covert types of bullying.

Kloosterman et al. (2013)3 established that the rates of bullying behaviour were similar between autistic and non-autistic children (i.e. they are no more likely to be a bully) and confirmed the higher rates of victimization due to bullying among autistic children compared to their peers. When the rates of victimization due to bullying in Australia are about 27% or more of school children4;5, it means that most autistic children will be bullied in school and that does not include other types of victimization.

From an early age, I had witnessed the verbal cruelty of other children and had often befriended the kids that were teased and bullied because I felt sorry for them. By my second year of high school, I saw several episodes of physical bullying of others and I developed an intense fear of my peers.

My solution to avoiding bullying was to stay as far away from my peers as I could but when that wasn’t possible to try and befriend others who I perceived would be grateful for company; other isolated children. At least then we wouldn’t be alone and more vulnerable to our peers.

Victims of school bullying experience increased health problems, poorer emotional adjustment and poorer school adjustment6 and the mental health outcomes of school bullying may also persist into later childhood7 and adulthood8. There is also a much increased risk of self harm9 and suicide attempts among children who are victims or bullies regardless of the frequency of bullying events10. Approximately half of all bullies are also victimized and they have poorer overall health and adjustment than both the ‘bully only’ and the ‘victim only’ categories6;11.

Autistic children who are bullied at school are 11 times more likely to experience internalizing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression than non-bullied autistic children12. In addition, there is an unfortunate cycle where children with autism-related social communication difficulties are increasingly isolated due to their social communication difficulties and that isolation further reduces their opportunities to improve their social communication13. At the same time peers interactions with autistic children and their later awareness of autism are also negatively affected by that cycle [Figure 1. Humphrey & Symes (2011)]13.

Clearly, bullying is something to be taken seriously.

The role of peers in bullying is crucial due to their influence on the rates of bullying, impact on the victim and on cessation of bullying episodes. Peers are present during most bullying episodes14;15. About a third of the peers present actively participate in the bullying behaviour and passive bystanding (watching but doing nothing about it) has also been shown to be positively reinforcing for bullying behaviour16;17;18.

Encouragingly, peers sometimes intervene to defend the victim (about 11% of the time) and when they do intervene they are usually successful in ceasing the bullying episode15;16.

The rates of bullying in schools are affected by children’s empathy and anti bullying attitudes1;19;20, the anti bullying attitudes and bullying behaviours of the classroom that they are in and the perceived expectations of significant others in their lives such as mothers (only among girls), Principals and especially peers (but interestingly not the expectations of other teachers)21;22;23.

Unfortunately, children are less likely to look at peers favourably when they are bullied24 (‘blame the victim’ mentality). However, victims of bullying are viewed more positively by other peers and have better health outcomes if they are defended by a peer24.

The involvement of peers in bullying has changed the focus from the bully and victim to include peers. It is now understood that bullying is a social phenomenon that requires a wider approach to effect change such as whole-school anti-bullying programs.

‘A whole-school approach, sometimes called a Health Promoting Schools model, recognizes that all aspects of the school community can promote (or reduce) students’ health and wellbeing, and that students’ learning and their health are inextricably linked….

The essential elements of the Health Promoting Schools approach include:

  • Healthy school policies
  • The schools’ physical environment
  • The schools’ social environment
  • Individual health skills and action competencies (through formal teaching and learning)
  • Community and family links
  • Health services25

There is no easy solution to bullying, but bullying is not inevitable. Different countries have shown different rates of bullying, which has led authors to conclude that bullying is not a natural phenomenon and cultural factors do affect the rate of bullying in schools6.

Although, generally the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs has generally been shown to be varied and limited26;27, whole-school anti-bullying programs specifically have recently shown more promise in their effectiveness28.

According to Smith et al. (2004) ‘The whole-school approach is predicated on the assumption that bullying is a systemic problem, and, by implication, an intervention must be directed at the entire school context and not just at individual bullies and victims. One advantage of the whole-school approach is that it avoids the potentially problematic stigmatization of either bullies or victims26.’

The ‘gold standard’ of whole school anti-bullying programs so far, is the KiVa anti-bullying program. The KiVa anti-bullying program was designed for national use in schools in Finland29. In fact, almost two-thirds of all Finnish comprehensive schools have registered for the program29.

The KiVa anti-bullying program was exceptionally well implemented and evaluated. It showed significantly reduced rates of victimization29;30 and improved psychosocial outcomes30 compared to control schools.

The KiVa anti-bullying program is unique to other less successful whole school anti-bullying programs in three main areas. Firstly, instead of offering just “guiding principles” or “philosophies” to school staff, it provides them with definitive resources and materials including a wide range of specific activities to be carried out with students29. Second, KiVa uses powerful media including the internet and computer games for teaching and applying knowledge and skills learned29. Thirdly, KiVa provides specific ways to enhance empathy, self-efficacy, and efforts to support the victimized peers and ensures that private anti-bullying attitudes, which represent the majority of attitudes, are made clear to all students to show that anti-bullying attitudes among peers are the ‘norm’29.

It is worthy of note that KiVa is not a short-term project and will be part of the schools continuous anti-bullying work29.

Teachers and students are constantly leaving and entering schools at the beginning of each school year and it seems ridiculous to expect any program to be effective in the long-term when it is only adopted in the short-term and yet often programs have funding for only one application in any particular school such as the AMAZE Supporting Differences Program, which was conducted once in my sons’ school once before and can never be run there again in the future.

The only evidence-based anti-bullying program that I could find in Australia that compared to the KiVa anti-bullying program is ‘Friendly Schools Plus’. I researched the evidence supporting the program and presented it, first to the Principal and then to the school council at the school my sons’ attend. There are many barriers to adoption of programs such as these (some of them attitudinal) and unfortunately the program has not yet been adopted by our school. I remain hopeful for the future however.

In addition to whole –school anti-bullying programs, I believe that educating peers with regard to the understanding and celebration of differences including autism is likely to encourage students to defend students vulnerable to bullying if a good anti-bullying culture is established in the school.

Researchers have observed that children make exceptions to their anti-bullying attitudes for specific children31. For example, it is not unusual for a child to think “I don’t like bullying but that child deserved it”. This may be because they disapprove of aspects of the victim and they disregard their general attitude toward bullying to make exceptions in some cases. I believe that this is a reasonable assumption in the case of autistic children because their behaviour is often misunderstood and therefore disapproved of.

One other thing that concerns me is when advice about managing bullying focuses heavily on the bullied child to develop skills to counter or deter bullying. I understand the usefulness of teaching such skills to the child but in the case of a autistic victim it becomes more complex as there is usually a significant social imbalance in power between the bully and the victim, and the child finds learning and generalizing such socially-based skills challenging by nature of autism. As it happens, the evidence does not even support such a victim-centred strategy in children generally as being useful27.

Given that it is the core characteristics of difficulties in social communication that makes a child with autism more vulnerable to bullying12;32 some researchers (and me) have also recommended that people should avoid putting the onus on the child to change12;32 and instead focus on educating peers to respect and accept children who are different12.

Individual advice on what to do if your child is bullied is beyond the scope of this post. However, I have copied a link to an article below that reflects how I would aim to react to my own boys being bullied, which I think is well worth a read.

FYI: As stated before, bullying should always be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the wording in the link (below) and the introduction to the article by the network that posted it was not ideal. The article itself is not reflective of the introduction so please don’t let that deter you from reading it.


  1. Reijntjes, A. Vermande, M. Olthof, T. Goossens, F.A. van de Schoot, R. Aleva, L. van der Meulen, M. Costs and benefits of bullying in the context of the peer group: A three wave longitudinal analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s10802-013-9759-3
  2. Humphrey, N and Symes, W. Perceptions of social support and experience of bullying among pupils with autism spectrum disorders in mainstream secondary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education 2010; 25(1):77-91
  3. Kloosterman, P.H. Kelley, E.A. Craig, W.M. Parker, J.D.A. Javier, C. Types and experiences of bullying in adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 2013; 7:824-832
  4. Cross, D. Shaw, T. Hearn, L. Epstein, M. Monks, H. Lester, L. Thomas, L. 2009 Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS). Child Health Promotion Research Centre, Edith Cowan University, Perth.
  5. Hemphill, S.A. Kotevski, A. Herrenkohl, T.I. Bond, L. Jung Kim, M. Toumbourou, J.W. Catalano, R.F. Longitudinal consequences of adolescent bullying perpetration and victimisation: A study of students in Victoria, Australia. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2011; 21: 107-116
  6. Nansel, T.R. Craig, W. Overpeck, M.D. Saluja, G. Ruan, J. and the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Bullying Analyses Working Group. Cross-national consistency in the relationship between bullying behaviors and psychosocial adjustment. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 2004; 158(8):730-736
  7. Brunstein Klomek, A. Kleinman, M. Altschuler, E. Marrocco, F. Amakawa, L. Gould, M.S. Suicidal adolescents’ experiences with bullying perpetration and victimization during high school as risk factors for later depression and suicidality. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53: S37-S42
  8. Allison, S. Roeger, L. Reinfeld-Kirkman, N. Does school bullying affect adult health? Population survey of health-related quality of life and past victimization. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2009; 43:1163-1170
  9. Fisher, H.L. Moffitt, T.E. Houts, R.M. Belsky, D.W. Arseneault, L. Caspi, A. Bullying victimisation and risk of self harm in early adolescence: Longitudinal cohort study. BMJ 2012; 344-352
  10. Gower, A.L. & Borowsky, I.W. Associations between frequency of bullying involvement and adjustment in adolescence. Academic Pediatrics 2013; 13(3):214-221
  11. Haynie, D.L. Nansel, T. Eitel, P. Davis Crump, A. Saylor, K. Yu, K. Simons-Morton, B. Bullies, victims, and bully/victims: Distinct groups of at-risk youth. The Journal of Early Adolescence 2001; 21:29-49
  12. Cappadocia, C. M. Weiss, J.A. Pepler, D. Bullying experiences among children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2012; 42:266-277
  13. Humphrey, N and Symes, W. Peer interaction patterns among adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) in mainstream school settings. Autism 2011; 15(4):397-419
  14. Craig, W.M. Pepler, D. Atlas, R. Observations of bullying in the playground and in the classroom. School Psychology International 2000; 21: 22-36
  15. Hawkins, L.D. Pepler, D.J. Craig, W.M. Naturalistic observations of peer Interventions in bullying. Social Development 2001; 10(4):512-527
  16. Craig, W.M and Pepler, D.J. Observations of bullying and victimization in the school yard. Canadian Journal of School Psychology 1997; 13(2):41-60
  17. O’Connell, P. Pepler, D. Craig, W. Peer involvement in bullying: Insights and challenges for intervention. Journal of Adolescence 1999; 22:437-452
  18. Salmivalli, C. Voeten, M. Poskiparta, E. Bystanders matter: Associations between reinforcing, defending, and the frequency of bullying behavior in classrooms. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 2011; 40(5):668-676
  19. Scholte, R. Sentse, M. Granic, I. Do actions speak louder than words? Classroom attitudes and behavior in relation to bullying in early adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 2010; 39(6):789-799
  20. van Goethem, A.A.J. Scholte, R.H.J. Wiers, R.W. Explicit- and implicit bullying attitudes in relation to bullying behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2010; 38:829-842
  21. Rigby, K and Johnson, B. Expressed readiness of australian schoolchildren to act as bystanders in support of children who are being bullied. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology 2006; 26(3):425-440
  22. Pozzoli, T and Gini, G. Active Defending and Passive Bystanding Behavior in Bullying: The Role of Personal Characteristics and Perceived Peer Pressure. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2010; 38:815-827
  23. Pozzoli, T. Gini, G. Vieno, A. The role of individual correlates and class norms in defending and passive bystanding behavior in bullying: A multilevel analysis. Child Development 2012; 83(6):1917-1931
  24. Sainio, M. Veenstra, R. Huitsing, G. Salmivalli, C. Victims and their defenders: A dyadic approach. International Journal of Behavioral Development 2010: 1-8 DOI: 10.1177/0165025410378068
  25. Cross, D. Thompson, S. Erceg, E. Evidence for practice: Whole-school strategies to enhance students’ social skills and reduce bullying in schools. Australia, Hawker Brownlow Education, 2013
  26. Smith, J.D. Schneider, B.H. Smith, P.K. Ananiadou, K. The effectiveness of whole-school antibullying programs: A synthesis of evaluation research. School Psychology Review 2004; 33(4):547-560
  27. Rigby, K. What can schools do about cases of bullying? Pastoral Care in Education 2011; 29(4):273-285
  28. Ttofi, M.M and Farrington, D.P. Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology 2011; 7:27-56
  29. Karna, A. Voeten, M. Little, T.D. Poskiparta, E. Kaljonen, A. Salmivalli, C. A large-scale evaluation of the KiVa antibullying program: Grades 4-6. Child Development 2011; 82(1): 311-330
  30. Williford, A. Boulton, A. Noland, B. Little, T.D. Karna, A. Salmivalli, C. Effects of the KiVa anti-bullying program on adolescents’ depression, anxiety, and perception of peers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2012; 40: 289-300
  31. Salmivalli, C. Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior 2010; 15:112-120
  32. Sofronoff, K. Dark, E. Stone, V. Social vulnerability and bullying in children with asperger syndrome. Autism 2011; 15(3):355-372