Autistic pupils face far more bullying
While the problem of school bullying has received national attention, with many states passing anti-bullying legislation and school districts adopting anti-bullying programs, a troubling new pattern has emerged among victims. Research published Monday in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine shows that children with autism spectrum disorders, who typically have difficulty in communicating and forming relationships, are far more likely to be bullied than their nonautistic peers.
“I would call it a profound public health problem,” said Paul R. Sterzing, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the school of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. “The rate of bullying and victimization among these adolescents is alarmingly high.”
The children at greatest risk, it turns out, appear to be those who also hold the most promise for leading an independent life. The researchers found that the risk of being bullied was greatest for high-functioning children who end up not in special education programs but in mainstream classes; here their quirks and unusual mannerisms stand out and they are more exposed to bullies.
Many parents of children with autism already are well aware that their children are taunted and tormented at school, but the new study suggests the problem is pervasive. Sterzing’s data, collected from a nationally representative sample of 920 middle- and high-school students with an autism disorder, show that 46 percent have been bullied. By comparison, in the general adolescent population, an estimated 10.6 percent of children have been bullied.
Sterzing’s study also showed that children were at highest risk for bullying if they also had a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Notably, children with ADHD also were more likely to display aggressive behavior themselves; however, the rate of bullying perpetrated by children with autism was 14.8 percent, similar to the rate estimated for the general population.
The findings are based on data collected in 2001 from a larger 10-year study of more than 11,000 special education students. Parents of autistic children and school administrators were asked to report on bullying that occurred in the previous year.
Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders often are socially awkward and have difficulty communicating and recognizing social cues. Another hallmark of the disorder is a strict adherence to rituals and habits.
One mother of a high-functioning autistic teenager in Los Angeles, who asked that her name not be published to protect her son’s privacy, recalled that he was routinely bullied by a group of middle-school classmates.
“They knew that a little thing would throw him off his regimen,” she said. “If you stole his book or stole his homework, to him it would literally be a disaster. … He didn’t have the skills to cope with that.”