Growing up as the oldest of three children, I assumed the responsibility of the supporter and role model. My siblings and I were all very close in age, so my brother and sister were able to learn from my mistakes and capitalize on fun activities they watched me do. I loved my mentorship role and still find myself holding on to it each day. However, because we were so close in age, territorial habits also sprouted, and I was particularly guarded with my sister, the middle child, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Bullying was a consistent challenge that she faced, and I witnessed firsthand some of the pain she endured. Bullying children with autism can lead to huge struggles in their lives, which further complicates the challenges they already face.
Struggles My Autistic Sister Faced, As a Result of Bullying
- Bullying affected her academics: As if her academic environment didn’t already present various obstacles, bullying hindered my sister’s ability to learn. She had no interest in even going to school in fear of the agitation and pressure she would face from others throughout the day. While I couldn’t wait to kiss my parents goodbye and head to school, she often reverted into her room, hoping no one would notice if she didn’t come out.
- Bullying affected her speech development: My sister had a difficult time with communication, as most children with autism do; it was hard for her to convey what she wanted or how she felt. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could result in a peer making fun of her, so she shied away from speaking up completely. Furthermore, her frustration with not being fully understood caused her to seclude herself further into her own bubble.
- Bullying affected her self-identification: We all look for things to identify with throughout life. I was super athletic and competitive, so both my brother and sister also wanted to get into sports because they saw it as a norm. However, my sister wasn’t able to perform the way my brother or I did which was especially difficult for her at times. Kids on a sports team can be cruel when one isn’t “good” at something and she was often the victim of nasty jokes or even exclusion. Being afraid to try to new things made it difficult for her to figure out what she liked.
- Bullying affected her relationship with me: One of the hardest realizations I have today is feeling how my sister felt growing up in our family. Bullying children with autism reinforces their insecurities and differences. In my sister’s case, this seeped into our family dynamic. She felt like she was always on the losing end of a competition–she would never be the best in school, never find an activity that she was good at, never have strong friendships. While my brother and I were accomplishing these things, she felt left behind. Consequently, there were times in our childhood that I remember her pushing me away, rejecting my input. She felt like she couldn’t relate to me and I couldn’t relate to her.
The trend of shutting down and seclusion were a common theme in all of her struggles growing up, which is especially nerve-racking for parents of a child with autism. Feeling accepted can be hard for any maturing child, but for a child with a disability, it can be especially arduous. So how can we, as families, help?
Tips from Sibling to Parent
- Keep questions open ended, in any scenario: Have your child feel comfortable with letting his/her thoughts be heard. I have to remind myself this even today: if I don’t keep ideas open ended, my sister will simply answer yes or no, then be done with conversation. She doesn’t do this to be rude, but her thought process doesn’t come in the same flow as others.
- Create a noncompetitive home environment: Everyone in my family loved sports, so I know my sister had a hard time relating to us growing up. Looking back, I wish I could have done more to make her feel more at ease.
- Monitor online use: With the exploding digital age, most children have their eyes honed in on a screen whether it be a computer, tablet or phone. Cyberbullying wasn’t something that I grew up with, but it has become a huge issue for children today. Since cyberbullying isn’t visible to a third party (a bystander), it can be even more destructive to children with autism. Their inability to communicate what might be happening online can push them into their secluded bubble.
- Sometimes it’s easier understood when it comes from a sibling: Although I mentioned there were times my sister didn’t feel like she could relate to me, she still definitely listened to everything I had to say. Sometimes my sister would even listen to my advice over my mom’s when it was essentially the same. There is a special trust with siblings, so if you are having hard time communicating with your child, lean on the support of the rest of your family members.
Today, my sister has accomplished so much that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. She found a passion in cosmetology and beauty treatment, and is now a hairstylist. She is living on her own in a major city that she can navigate around better than I can! Bullying made a huge, unforgettable impact on her life, and while I can’t erase some of those terrible memories for her, I have watched her persevere and turn in to one of the most fantastic people I know.
About Evelyn Baker
Evelyn Baker is a freelance blogger and autism awareness advocate.