A study published this month in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine shows that children with autism are more than four times as likely to be the victims of bullying than their typically developing siblings. The statistics confirm what many parents already knew: Children with autism spectrum disorders are particularly vulnerable to rejection from their peer group.
It’s no surprise that they are victimized more. Kids with autism often struggle with social interactions and language, making it challenging for them to connect with others, even when they want to.
Bullies “are there to exert power or control or show off, so folks on the spectrum are really vulnerable targets,” said Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism. “They react. Sometimes they will say and do things because they don’t understand social cues very well, and that makes them an easy target.”
Paul Sterzing, an assistant professor at the UC-Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and one of the authors of the recent study, agrees that difficulties with social situations make these children particularly vulnerable to bullying.
“With any kid, if there are things that set them apart, those will increase the likelihood of them being targeted for bullying,” Sterzing said.
His study of 900 children ages 13 to 16 showed that although 10.6 percent of typically developing children report having been bullied, 46 percent of autistic kids the same age have been bullied. The numbers are highest for kids who spend most of their time in a general education classroom.
These findings echo a report from the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Interactive Autism Network this spring that showed that 63 percent of children ages 6 to 15 with an autism spectrum disorder have been bullied at some point. The numbers were highest for children in grades 5 through 8.
So what can parents and schools do to support these kids and prevent bullying? Experts point to a combination of teaching social skills to children with autism, and educating their typically developing peers about the disorder and teaching them compassion.
“Schools and teachers need to spend a great deal of time being sensitive to what kids with disabilities are going through and to help children better understand autistic children so they don’t perceive them as being so different and actually embrace and understand them as human beings,” said Paul Law, the director of the Interactive Autism Network. “Higher-functioning kids with a lack of social skills ... are typically targeted for inclusion, yet put in places where the school system doesn’t have the capacity to address all their issues.”
Sterzing agrees that if children are going to be placed in inclusion classrooms, there has to be support in place to combat bullying.
“People have talked about how being in a general education class was better for seeing and modeling behavior,” Sterzing said. “But while we’re including these youth in the classroom, are we finding ways to actively incorporate them into a peer group? Are there things being done to educate their classmates about what autism is, and helping them to build empathy and understanding?”
Parents, experts say, should monitor their child’s behavior for changes or signs of depression, and be in particularly close contact with the teacher, asking what is going on with the child not just academically, but socially.
“When children are being mainstreamed, there needs to be a stronger dialogue between parents, teachers and staff,” Sterzing said. “What are we doing to include them in our peer groups? We have a lot of work left to do in this area. We are just getting our hands around the fact of how pervasive this is.”