Why Autistic Children Are Bullied More -- and Bully in Return

By Alice G. Walton

Living life with autism?Living life with autism?Despite the growing awareness, bullying is still common in schools these days. Some kids are bullied and some bully others. But, as a new study finds, kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have an even harder time with bullying, being many times more likely than their neurotypical siblings to have experienced it in their lifetimes. Even more disturbing, autistic kids may be intentionally triggered into having meltdowns by bullies who know how to push the right buttons.

The new study, from Kennedy Krieger's Interactive Autism Network, surveyed families with autistic and non-autistic siblings from all over the country, asking about their experience with bullying in the past and present.

The Good It Also Brought Me: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Autism

Almost two-thirds of autistic children had been bullied at some point in their lives, and they were three times more likely than neurotypical kids to be bullied in the past three months. This was even true for home-schooled autistic children, who were sometimes educated at home precisely because of the bullying issue. "After a horrible year in 3rd grade," said one mother, "where he was clinically diagnosed as depressed (he has always been anxious), I pulled my son out of public school and am homeschooling him this year. He is doing much, much better without the constant name calling and being singled out for his 'weird' behaviors!"

The three most common types of bullying were verbal, or, in other words, psychological in nature: "being teased, picked on, or made fun of" (73%); "being ignored or left out of things on purpose" (51%), and "being called bad names" (47%). But almost a third of autistic children also experienced physical bullying - being shoved, pushed, slapped, hit, or kicked.

Living Life With Autism: Has Anything Really Changed?

Even more disturbing was the fact that over half of the autistic children surveyed had experienced intentional triggering of meltdowns or had been "provoked into fighting back." One mother said, "Often kids try to upset her because they find it funny when she gets upset and cries. She is overly emotional, and they seem to get a kick out of this."

Bullying was most pronounced in regular public schools (43%), but better in special education public schools (30%), and lowest in regular private schools and special education private schools (28% and 18%, respectively).

Oddly, when the team broke down bullying as a function of the different types of autism (Asperger syndrome, autism, and "other ASD"), they found that children with Asperger syndrome were actually the most bullied group. Since Asperger is a higher functioning form of autism, this is peculiar. The researchers aren't sure why this is true, but one hypothesis is that it's because people with Asperger are often highly intelligent but can still have considerable social deficits, which makes them, in effect, the "perfect target."

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How does your family cope with bullying?How does your family cope with bullying? Children with autism are also more likely to bully others: About 20% of kids with autism bullied (vs. only 8% of neurotypical children). According to the report, many of these kids may actually be both bully and victim, which is somewhat more common in children with developmental or emotional problems. Children with ASD who bully may do it unintentionally. "My son doesn't realize he is bullying," said one parent. "He is trying to get other kids to pay attention to him so he does it by grabbing their ball away from them or getting 'in their face' when they say to stop." Another parent said, "Our boy… may take an object from another child or scream when unhappy but any purposeful cruelty, he would never do."

And for autistic children who are being bullied and bully in return, they may not have the social skills to avoid or to get themselves out of the situation. According to the report, "Unlike victims who are more passive, bully-victims insult their tormentors or otherwise try to fight back in a way that only makes the situation worse."

Living Life With Autism II: Perspectives

Finally, a critical issue that the report brings up is whether bullying may cause people with autism to develop more mental health problems as a result. Some studies have suggested that any child who is bullied has a greater risk for everything from headaches and stomachaches to anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Parents, caregivers and schools work hard to help kids with autism gain social skills and emotional tools, and the idea that bullying could negate this work is disheartening. "Bullying can undo all our efforts," Connie Anderson, of the Interactive Autism Network, told NPR. "I think that's the most devastating thing about it. Children on the spectrum can be anxious anyway. This can just put them over the top and undo all the good that everyone's trying to do."

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