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Children with Autism Vulnerable to School Bullies

autism spectrum disorders, school bullying

Bullying in school is a major problem and children with disabilities are often targets. The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) notes that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are bully targets three times more often than their unaffected siblings.

Bullying is defined as an “aggressive behavior or intentional harm-doing which is carried out repeatedly and over-time in an interpersonal relationship characterized by an imbalance of power.” Victims rarely do anything to provoke the behavior, and bullying is a form of abuse.

Dr. Paul Law, the director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and colleagues surveyed nearly 1,200 parents of children with an ASD. Parents were asked if their child had ever been bullied, if they had been bullied within the past month, or if their child had been involved in bullying another. The survey also included what type of schools the children attended, what behaviors their child displayed, and whether the child had any co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety or ADHD.

Overall, 63% of children with autism had been bullied at some point in their lives. Across the spectrum, the children experiencing bullying more often had Asperger’s syndrome – nearly double the rate of other diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The authors note that it would take a more detailed analysis to determine the reason why, but it may be because children with Asperger’s are more often in typical public school classrooms. Their normal to high IQs and difficulty with social settings make them the “perfect target.”

"Children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome have a myriad of challenges confronting them in the schools they attend,” write the authors. “Many will never have the opportunity to express their talents because they are misunderstood, and often they are denied services because they are articulate, do well academically, and appear too bright. In actuality, many children with Asperger syndrome have significant social deficits, severe sensory sensitivities, and are teased, isolated, and socially excluded by their peers."

Most of the bullying occurred between 5th and 8th grade. This is consistent with National Center for Education Statistics which find that most bullying takes place in middle school. That survey found that 6th graders were most likely to be bullied and that they were most likely to be targets of physical bullying and sustain injury. In the IAN survey, 8th graders appeared to be the target age-group for bullies.

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Public schools had the majority of bully victims with 43% of those children with an ASD attending. In regular private schools, 28% of children were bullied and in special education private schools, only 18% were targets. This makes sense, say the authors, because the smaller and more sheltered the setting, the less frequently bullying occurs.

Behaviors and traits that are associated with an increased likelihood of being bullied include clumsiness, poor hygiene, inflexibility or rigidity, continuing to talk about a favorite topic even when others are bored or annoyed, and frequent meltdowns. Sadly, one group frequently bullied were those who wanted to interact with other children, but had a hard time making friends.

“Children with ASD are already vulnerable. 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," said Dr. Law.

The types of bullying most often reported include being teased, picked on or made fun of (73 percent); being ignored or left out of things on purpose (51 percent); being called bad names (47 percent); and being pushed, shoved, hit, slapped or kicked (nearly 30 percent).

Children with autism may also be perceived as bullies themselves. 20% of parents reported that their autistic child had bullied another. But most of these were “Bully-Victim” – they were bullied and bullied others in return. These children insult their tormentors or otherwise try to fight back in a way that makes the situation worse. An autistic child may also misinterpret signals from peers as being intentional, but are not – such as being bumped into in the hall.

"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," said Dr. Law. "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."

Source: Interactive Autism Network, A Project of the Kennedy Krieger Institute

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In my daughter's High School, she experienced another form of bullying. With each new school year, a few of the incoming students within her special education environment figured out that certain words bothered her, such as broccoli - she HATES broccoli. They also figured out that certain sounds bothered her just as much, such as immitating a cat's meow - which she believed, for whatever reason, that they should not be doing. Those students would intentionally say words or make particular sounds to get her to react. As a result, she had frequent meltdowns ranging from mild to severe. Her last year was the worst. She was sent home frequently, suspended and placed on home school temporarily. They even wanted me to remove her from her local school and have me transport her to another school within the county where there was an Autism classroom. Of course, I refused. The school administrators couldn't understand why SHE couldn't control HER actions. They refused to believe that she was being provoked. I finally decided it was not in her best interest to continue her education in a school system that refused to educate it's special educators and administration about Autism Spectrum Disorders. I had her to graduate even though she could have attended school for another year.