Anxiety and bullying studies reveal startling findings

Parents are over-reporting anxiety in their children with autism, while bullying of children with autism at school is going unreported until it escalates, according to studies currently underway at Bond University’s Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Preliminary findings of the first study indicate that parents and care givers often mistake repetitive behaviours such as rocking and hand flapping as an indication that their children are experiencing high levels of anxiety.

Self-reports from the children themselves suggest that these repetitive behaviours often occur as a response to anxiety and are used as a way of calming down.

The second study found that while children with autism can quote the ‘text-book’ definition of bullying, many cannot recognise low-level bullying like name calling and exclusion tactics, until the bullying has escalated.

The studies are being conducted by Professor Vicki Bitsika, Director of the Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Bond University. Professor Bitsika will present her preliminary findings when she keynotes at a two day symposium at the University on August 30 and 31.

Professor Bitsika said identifying anxiety in children and adolescents with autism was one of the great research challenges.

“Professionals and parents continue to refer to anxiety as a significant factor in managing challenging behaviours in the children and adolescents they care for, yet there are few reliable methods for identifying anxiety-based behaviours and differentiating these from the core symptoms of autism,” she said.

“We hope that by profiling what anxiety looks like in sub-groups of children on the autism spectrum we can develop methods for professionals and carers to reliably identify escalations in anxiety and tailor interventions and treatments accordingly.

“With the bullying study, we are hoping to develop a toolkit that schools can use to help children with autism to better recognise and report bullying before it escalates and causes them substantial distress.

“With one recent Australian report suggesting that 62 percent of children with autism experienced one or more bullying incidents per week, such a toolkit will help children develop resilience and cope better with bullying before it becomes a major issue,” Professor Bitsika said.

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