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Study Suggests Bullying Among Vulnerable Populations Greater than Suspected


Bullying is a threat to all children’s physical and emotional safety. Unfortunately, there are some student populations that appear to be more at risk for being targets. A new study from the University of California, Berkley suggest that close to half of all teenagers on the autism spectrum are bullied at school – much higher than what was previously estimated.

Paul R. Sterzing PhD MSSW and colleagues analyzed the records of 920 parents who completed surveys about their experience with bullying. Bullying is defined as negative actions toward a peer, characterized by a power imbalance – physical, social or cognitive – between the victim and the perpetrator.

Just over 46% stated that their autistic teen was the victim of a school bully which is substantially higher than the national prevalence estimate for the general adolescent population (10.6%). Sterzing says that because the data is from surveys completed in 2001, it is possible that bullying is even a greater problem today as the rate of autism has increased over the past decade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April that the rate of autism in children has increased 78% since 2002. Whereas in that year 1 in 150 children had an autism spectrum disorder, today it is estimated that the number is closer to 1 in 88 children. Behaviors and traits that are associated with a greater likelihood of being bullied include having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and lower social skills.

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Other students who are vulnerable to bullying include those who are perceived as “different” (ie: overweight, wear glasses, or who have special needs, such as those with food allergies), are less popular or have fewer friends, or have low self-esteem.

Kids and teens who are bullied tend to be more depressed, lonely and anxious, and do worse in school than those who are not victims. The students physical health could also be endangered. Children with autism already may struggle more in school with feeling isolated, and the victimization only makes things extra difficult.

Although autistic kids in general education classes were more likely to be bullied, Sterzing says that having separate special education classes is not the answer. Schools just haven’t been doing a good job of preventing bullying among vulnerable populations. "I would argue that the bullying interventions that we're using now, if not tailored, are ineffective," he said.

"Future interventions should incorporate content that addresses the core deficits of adolescents with an ASD, which limits their verbal ability to report bullying incidents," Dr. Sterzing concludes. "Schools should incorporate strategies that address conversational difficulties and the unique challenges of those with comorbid conditions."

Schools and parents can learn more about preventing bullying by visiting stopbullying.gov, a website managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services. There is also a new kids section which offers games, videos and tips on how students can be more involved to stop bullying at their school.

Journal Reference:
Paul R. Sterzing, PhD, MSSW; et al. Bullying Involvement and Autism Spectrum DisordersPrevalence and Correlates of Bullying Involvement Among Adolescents With an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online September 03, 2012. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.790