ALMOST half of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder are bullied, according to US research, prompting calls in Australia for programs to raise awareness of this group’s vulnerability to bullying and for greater support in schools.
The study of 920 parents of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), published in last week’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that about 46% of adolescents with ASD were victims of bullying, which was substantially higher than the estimated 11% of the general adolescent population who were bullied. (1)
The researchers noted that the rates of perpetration (14.8%) and combined victimisation/perpetration (8.9%) were roughly the same in adolescents with ASD as in typically developing adolescents.
Psychologist Mr Anthony Warren, senior ASD consultant with Autism Spectrum Australia, said children with ASD who had been bullied at school were also at greater risk of developing mental health issues in later life.
He said the US research was consistent with a report released earlier this year by Autism Spectrum Australia, which found that 70% of the survey’s 300 adult respondents reported having been bullied at school, having had few or no friends, and/or having had a sense of not fitting in. The report also highlighted high levels of mental health issues (70%) among respondents. (2)
“Our study demonstrates that bullying increases social isolation and it exacerbates and, in some cases, may be the main trigger for, mental illness”, Mr Warren told MJA Insight.
He said the first step to prevention was to raise awareness that children with ASD were particularly vulnerable to bullying.
“Many kids who are bullied have been given strong messages that they should deal with it or ignore it”, Mr Warren said. “Children and young people with an ASD are easily manipulated by bullies partly because they tend to process information very literally. So they are more likely to be ‘set up’ and do what the bully asks or to believe what is said about them. Along with empathy and insight difficulties this only adds to peer social relating and isolation difficulties.”
In preliminary findings from a study into schoolchildren with ASD, Bond University researchers last month reported that children with ASD were less likely to recognise low-level bullying, such as name-calling and exclusion tactics, until the bullying had escalated. (3)
Mr Warren said school resources needed to be developed in conjunction with specialist services to enable schools to better identify and address the bullying of children with ASD.
“We need a much more concerted, whole-system approach”, he said. “The school years should be seen as the opportunity to intervene to prevent the mental health issues that are presenting at the end of the school when it’s really too late.”
The US researchers also found that students with ASD in general classes were more likely to be bullied than those in segregated classes, and it was important for children in general classes to be included in “protective peer groups”.
“The integration of students with and without disabilities into inclusive classroom settings has been conceptualized as a protective factor because of the greater likelihood of developing social skills through behavioral modelling, increasing acceptance and social participation, and reducing negative stereotypes”, the researchers wrote.
“However, if adolescents with a developmental disability are not fully integrated into peer groups, inclusion may increase social isolation and worsen rates of victimization.”
Mr Warren agreed that protective peer groups could help to insulate children with ASD from the harmful effects of bullying. “Bystander support for the person who is being bullied is really critical for better outcomes,” he said.