Neurodiverse individuals are much more likely to be bullied than those who are neurotypical. A recent survey revealed that 75% of autistic people have experienced bullying, and one in two have said they don’t feel safe in school. 

By Michelle Rebello, Dimensions

One in seven people in the UK are neurodiverse, this is over 15% of the population. It’s great to see that the benefits of neurodiversity are starting to be realised, especially when it comes to creativity, innovation and problem solving.

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As an autistic woman myself, and a mother to three children who have experienced bullying as a result of being ‘different’, I am passionate about championing neurodiversity and tackling bullying head on.

Encouraging young people to celebrate difference, prioritising education about ableist language and breaking down stereotypes of disabled people are key steps to stopping bullying in its tracks and preventing it from escalating into hate crime.

Let’s understand and celebrate diversity
I always felt like I was different to the other kids in school. I was a bit quirky and a total chatterbox. Sticking out in a class gives people an excuse to pick on you, so I was badly bullied. I am part Indian, so I used to get picked on for the colour of my skin too. It was a particularly awful time and I ended up moving schools.

Bullying in schools is often dismissed or minimised by unhelpful phrases such as ‘It could have been worse’, ‘You’ll get over it’ or ‘Sticks and stones’. I believe that if bullying is not taken seriously in schools, and unacceptable behaviour goes unchallenged, that bullies will carry these traits into their adult lives.

There are many things that our amazing teachers can, and in many cases already do, in order to help people with autism and/or learning disabilities in school to foster an environment in which they can learn.

For example, if a child with hypersensitivity finds school too loud, they can be given ear defenders, or even flexible hours to avoid the loud bell at the end of the day. These small adjustments do not require lots of funding and can significantly reduce the anxiety a neurodiverse child might experience.

My daughter has type 1 diabetes and therefore needs her mobile phone in class because she uses an app to measure her blood glucose and insulin levels. She is also allowed to eat sweets in the classroom if her sugar levels are dangerously low. Obviously, other children might think she is getting special treatment as they would never be allowed their phone or to eat in class. However, once they understood why this was needed it no longer seemed like a big deal.

It is important that the whole class is taught about why these small adjustments might be needed. If you think about it, it’s just the same as a child needing to wear glasses or a hearing aid. If there is a lack of understanding behind the reason a child has special adjustments, then this is when a negative atmosphere is created, and the child might become a target of bullying. I think exposure is the key to a better understanding of difference. For example, more autistic people and disabled people on television and in the workplace would help. Children are less likely to be singled out if their differences are simply understood as a part of the social mix.

Recognising ableist language
Teachers are so busy and it shouldn’t be down to them alone to create resources to teach children about difference and to prevent bullying. Parents, teachers and support workers all have a role to play in preventing ableist language.

At Dimensions, we have created free Key Stage 3 (KS3) teachers’ resources in partnership with the PSHE Association to aid teaching students about difference. Our resources provide simple classroom activities such as challenging stereotypes and challenging language or behaviour. We have also produced a ‘fact or myth’ exercise to help tackle some of the inaccuracies around autism and learning disabilities. These tools can help build the foundations for a bullying-free classroom. Educating the whole class can create a supportive atmosphere whereby children respect each other’s quirks and can even learn from them.

Together, we can stop bullying from turning into hate crime

The reality is, if left unaddressed, bullying can easily escalate into hate crime – it’s a fine line. According to charity, Leonard Cheshire, over 70% of people with a learning disability and/or autism have been a victim of a hate crime. Coupled with this, we need to encourage young people to celebrate neurodiversity and difference, I believe this will also help to reduce the amount of disability hate crime in the future. We need to stop hurtful behaviour in its tracks.

The anti-bullying work we do at Dimensions creates hope and positivity for the people we support. I believe the key to creating our ‘One Kind World’ lies in education and celebrating the differences between everyone. After all, our differences are what makes the world such a vibrant and interesting place.

About Dimensions
Dimensions is a charitable organisation that supports people with learning disabilities and autism to have a louder voice, choice and control in their lives through delivery of ambitious, effective, personalised support, often with people whose previous support has not been successful.

www.dimensions-uk.org