There’s no surprise when it’s said that bullying is a major problem among the school-aged children of the US. However, the very unfortunate part is that according to a new national survey completed in 2012, bullying is an increasingly big problem for kids with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, along with John Hopkins University, conducted a study of 1,200 parents with kids on the autism spectrum, and they found that 63% of the children had experienced bullying. The research also concluded that these kids were three times more likely to experience bullying than their siblings who did not have autism.
While any child that experiences bullying will have significant emotional distress, children with autism often experience “meltdowns” or aggressive outbursts when they’re distressed. The worst part is, the survey found that some of these children were being intentionally tormented for such reactionary outbursts.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Interactive Autism Network (IAN) is the largest online autism research initiative, and the one who lead the survey.
Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement, “These survey results show the urgent need to increase awareness, influence school policies and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying. We hope that this research will aid efforts to combat bullying by helping parents, policymakers and educators understand the extent of this problem in the autism community and be prepared to intervene.”
There were other interesting findings that were also reported by the survey, such as 61% of children with Asperger’s are currently experiencing bullying, a rate that is almost double what other kids with other autism diagnosis experience. Also, kids with autism who attend public school are 50% more likely to be bullied in school than those children to go to private schools or attend other special educational settings.
While bullying can happen at any grade level, children with autism seem to experience the worse of it between the fifth and eighth grades. Children with autism at those grade levels are said to be bullied between 42-49%.
One key finding was that children who have autism may also become bullies themselves. 20% of parents who partook in the survey said their autistic child had bullied others. However, most were “bully-victims,” meaning they themselves had experienced bullying at one point, the researchers noted.
“Unlike victims who are more passive, bully-victims insult their tormentors or otherwise try to fight back in a way that only makes the situation worse,” researchers wrote.
So what is the cause for such high numbers of bullying victims amongst the autism community?
According to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, children with Asperger’s may be more susceptible to bullying because they’re often placed in regular classrooms in schools. The Institute added that certain behavioral traits like clumsiness, poor hygiene, rigid rule-keeping, talking obsessively about a favorite topic, frequent meltdowns and inflexibility, often make children with autism more prone to becoming targets of bullying.
Parents were asked if another child – who is aware of what bothers or triggers their autistic child – had ever used that knowledge to purposefully trigger a meltdown or outburst. 53% of parents answered “yes.” In some cases, bullies have gotten a child to breakdown emotionally. “Often kids try to upset her because they find it funny when she gets upset and cries. She is overly emotional, and they seem to get a kick out of this,” one mother shared.
Bullying often peaks during the fifth through eighth grades because those are often “rule the school” years before children go off to other schools, like middle school or high school. Also, attempts to make friends may backfire. The study found that out of the children with autism who try to interact with others but find it difficult making friends, 57% are bullied, as compared to the only 25% of kids who prefer to play alone and 34% of children who will only play if approached.
“To experience teasing, taunts, ostracism or other forms of spite may make a child who was already struggling to cope become completely unable to function,” Dr. Law said. In the future, he hopes to conduct a similar study in a peer-reviewed journal in order to delve deeper into the research.
Associate professor at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College and director of research at the Children’s Institute in Rochester N.Y., Dr. Guillermo Montes, has published research on bullying among kids on the spectrum.
“While the social impairments of a child with autism may trigger bullying incidents, these symptoms never justify bullying or becoming a bully to others,” Montes told CBS News. Montes was not involved in the new study.
Montes believes many problems are tied to ineffective or outdated anti-bullying policies in schools.
Montes said, “We swing from institutional neglect – where policies are on the books but hardly enforced – to ‘zero tolerance’ approaches when a severe incident has occurred, and then back again. Neither approach actually teaches children how to behave properly and respect each others’ differences. Both the child with ASD and the normally developing peers need to learn how to handle each others’ differences and learn what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is.”
According to IAN, there is an “urgent need” to increase awareness and influence school policies, as well as provide families with effective tools and strategies for dealing with the problem of bullying.
NOTE: This article reflects a study done in 2012.
IAN’s study on bullying can be found here.
Anastasia is an American writer and journalist living in Dublin, Ireland. Her Twitter is @AnastasiaArell5.