Bullying And Autism: Study Finds Almost Half Of Adolescents With An Autism Spectrum Disorder Have Been Victimized

All bullying is troubling -- no matter where, when or to whom it occurs.

But a new study published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests that teenagers with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) -- who “may be uniquely vulnerable to [bullying] given the social and relational problems that are hallmarks of their condition,” the authors write -- are targeted much more often than their peers who don’t have ASDs.

The study, which draws information from a decade-long examination of “adolescents receiving special education services” done on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, shows that 46.3% -- or nearly half -- of young men and women with ASDs are victims of bullying, while 14.8% engage in “perpetration” themselves. Another 8.9% fall into both categories simultaneously (“victimization/perpetration”).

The conclusions were based on interviews with more than 900 parents of children with ASDs; researchers also collected feedback from staff members at the students’ schools and from school principals. This is the first nationally representative study to look at victimization as well as perpetration in this population, the authors write.

While the figures for perpetration and “victimization/perpetration” hew closely to estimates for non-spectrum teens (13% and 6.8%, respectively), the victimization statistic for adolescents on the spectrum is far higher than the 10.6% estimate for teens without ASDs.

Students with ADHD as well as an ASD were victimized more often than their non-ADHD peers on the spectrum (55.6% vs. 41.4%), the researchers found. They were also more likely to be perpetrators of bullying (20.9% vs. 11.5%) and to experience the “victimization/perpetration” mix.

The statistics also reveal that the integration of teens with ASDs into general education classes (vs. special) is not always a solution to the bullying problem; in fact, it may exacerbate it. This conclusion “contradicts previous research," according to the authors. While previous studies have shown that kids with ASDs would benefit from learning and working with the general student population at school, this research found that students on the spectrum who had more than three quarters of their classes in general education were more likely to be victimized (but less likely to be bullies themselves) than other students. In fact, more than 70% of students with 76-100% of their classes in general education were found to be victims of bullying.

The researchers acknowledged that the study was likely limited by a broad definition of “bullying” and by parental underreporting.

Still, they call for improved anti-bullying programs that are more sensitive to the specific experiences of students with ASDs and ADHD. Speaking to the New York Times, the study’s lead author, Dr. Paul R. Sterzing, said the research documented “a profound public health problem.”

Caroline Miller, editorial director at the Child Mind Institute, wrote on The Child Mind blog that the research “wasn’t exactly a surprise” -- but held out hope that behaviors might already have changed in the more than ten years since the survey’s data were collected in 2000-1.

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