Last October, in Brain Sense, I wrote about a project of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), headquartered at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, to conduct a national survey on the impact of bullying on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Since then, nearly 1,200 parents of children with ASD have completed the survey.
Now, the survey's results have been reported. The findings reveal that a staggering 63 percent of children with ASD have been bullied at some point in their lives. These children, who are sometimes intentionally "triggered" into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by peers, are bullied three times more frequently than their siblings who do not have ASD.
Other significant findings of the complete report, IAN Research Report: Bullying, include the following:
Where and When Bullying Occurs
• While bullying occurs at every grade level, between 5th and 8th grades appears to be the worst, with 42 to 49 percent of children with ASD in those grades currently bullied.
• Children with ASD attending regular public schools are bullied at a rate of nearly 50 percent more than children in private school or special education settings.
• 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).
Potential Risk Factors
• While parents reported that 39 percent of children with ASD were bullied in the month prior to the survey, only 12 percent of their typically developing siblings, ages 6 to 15, were bullied in the same timeframe, indicating children with ASD are bullied at a rate more than three times higher than their unaffected siblings.
• Across ASD diagnoses, 61 percent of children with Asperger's syndrome experienced bullying, a rate nearly double that of children with other diagnoses on the autism spectrum. This may be due in part to different school placement across the groups.
• Behaviors and traits associated with becoming a target of bullying include clumsiness, poor hygiene, rigid rule keeping, talking obsessively about a favorite topic, frequent meltdowns, and inflexibility.
• Of those children who want to interact with others, but have a hard time making friends, 57 percent are bullied, compared to only 25 percent of children who prefer to play alone and 34 percent of children who will play, but only if approached.
Experience as Bullies and "Bully-Victims"
While children with ASD are frequently victims, they may also behave as bullies, or at least be viewed as a bully:
• 46 percent of children with ASD have been a victim of bullying only, while 17 percent of children with ASD have been a bully-victim, defined as a child who has been bullied and also bullied others.
• 52 percent of parents indicated that peers taunted their child to intentionally trigger a meltdown or aggressive outburst.
Researchers believe that the deficits in social understanding common in children with ASD may lead to bullying behavior by the child that is different than that displayed by typically developing children. For example, an honest but socially unacceptable remark such as, "You're fat," by the child with ASD may be viewed by others as purposely cruel when it is not. Likewise, a child with ASD who is accidentally bumped into might misinterpret the contact as intentional and lash out in a way that looks like bullying.
"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," says Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project. "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.
"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,"Law says. "The issue is complex, and we plan to carefully analyze the data and publish peer-reviewed findings that will serve to advance policy and care for individuals with ASD."
The Bullying and School Experiences of Children with ASD Survey was developed by the IAN Project's autism experts in partnership with Benjamin Zablotsky, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, the deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention and an expert on bullying.
For More Information:
Dr. Connie Anderson, community scientific liaison of the IAN Project, describes the potential impact of this survey here.
To mark IAN's fifth anniversary, Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project, answers questions about IAN's accomplishments and what's to come over the next 5-years here.