Bullying in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

How would you feel if your method of communication,
social interaction, or behavior was viewed by others as extremely different? What if
it made you significantly more likely to face bullying on a day to day basis? In a recent
study on social challenges faced by those with Aspergers, 65% of students reported being
victimized by peers in the last year. 47% had been hit by peers or siblings, 50% had
been scared by peers and 9% were attacked by gangs. For students with Autism Spectrum
Disorder, experiences with Bullying and Peer victimization are severe challenges. These
statistics are corroborated by the lived experience. When Ben, a young adult with autism, was asked
to recount some of his experiences with bullying, he inquired as to whether or not there was
time in the interview, saying that “the list is extensive.” Bullying within and
directed at the ASD population creates serious, long-term psychological, social, and academic
effects for victims. However, recent research suggests that increasing autism awareness
and facilitating meaningful peer interactions between autistic and neurotypical individuals
can reduce bullying and improve students’ overall academic and social experiences. This
presents a contrast to the behavior modification approach of many historically implemented
prevention strategies that focus exclusively on the autistic students.
Bullying behavior can defined by the following three criteria. First, an act of bullying
is a perpetrating behavior by an individual who holds and/or tries to maintain dominant
position over others. Second, bullying requires clear intent to cause mental and/or physical
suffering to another. Third, bullying is a dynamic, complex social interaction. One study,
conducted by Hwang et. al. surveyed 22,382 South Korean children ages 7-12 regarding
their experiences with bullying working under these same three criteria. The participants
were divided into categories based on presence or absence of ASD and each administered a
160-item survey to assess comorbid developmental psychopathology and bullying experiences.
As shown in the graph, the study found that those with ASD were 3.1 times more likely
than non-ASD participants to have some involvement with bullying either as the perpetrator of
bullying or the victim. However, when the researchers controlled for underlying comorbid
psychopathologies, they found that while participants with ASD were still 20% more likely to be
victims of bullying than peers with typical development, they were actually 60% less likely
to be perpetrators of bullying. Aside from bullying simply being morally objectionable,
there are clear long-term consequences for those involved. Students involved in bullying
often face adverse social and educational consequences, and involvement can jeopardize
academic success and overall mental health. In a study published in 2016, Adams and colleagues
focused on the outcomes of bullying in mainstream school systems, an environment in which autistic
students are particularly at risk. Analysis of self-report data gathered from young boys
with ASD and their parents showed that verbal victimization, being ignored, and being provoked
were all significantly associated with social problems and disobedience in a school setting.
Further consequences of victimization included poor school work, a lack of a sense of enjoyment
and belonging in school, and even feeling unsafe in school. These results were unsurprising
– a previous study published in 2011 by Cappadocia and colleagues also used self-report data
to show that those within the ASD population who experienced high levels of victimization
also experienced elevated levels of insecurity and anxiousness, more hyperactivity, and greater
propensity for self-harm than those who experienced low or no victimization, results far more
serious than in-the-moment embarrassment in an instance of bullying. Poor behavior and
poor performance in school may simply be due to a sense of isolation and a fear of attending
at all, or even to more serious mental health problems – all attributable at least in part
to involvement in bullying. To counteract bullying among autistic children,
successful potential strategies have included increasing awareness, promoting healthy peer
interactions, and fostering positive discussions regarding autism. Bradley et. al implemented
a peer-mentoring program with such strategies in five UK secondary schools which proved
to be beneficial for both autistic and non-autistic students. A large part of the program focused
on increasing empathy between student populations but it also used a fluid mentor-mentee relationship
to maximize inclusion of autistic students. Bradley et al. surveyed students with semi-structured
interviews and questionnaires both before and after the program had occurred. At the
end of the study, both autistic and non-autistic students showed an overall increase in academic
self-esteem by 25.79%, social self-esteem by 21.45%, and social satisfaction by 37.72%
accompanied by a sharp decline in bullying of over 86.68%. Another technique to reduce
bullying includes encouraging prosocial behavior interactions. Staub et. all split 8 high school
peer tutors into 4 pairs of 2, where only one member of each pair received social interaction
training that focused on disability awareness and developing techniques to enhance communication
between themselves and disabled peers. The training increased social behavior from autistic
students, like eye contact, and increased the frequency of social interaction initiations,
as seen on the graph with dark blue representing peer tutors who received training and light
blue representing controlled peer tutors without training. This prosocial methodology seems
promising for promoting positive social interactions between autistic and non-autistic students. Clearly, bullying is a significant issue for those in the ASD population. Fortunately, research shows that bullying and its negative consequences can be reduced through thoughtfully delivered interventions that increase empathy and awareness between
those with and without disabilities. While such programs serve as a great starting point,
there is still much to be done. With further exploration into bullying against
the ASD population, we see that bullying may not always come from peers. In an interview,
Ben, a young adult with autism, shared that he has “been bullied by students and teachers
alike.” Such perspectives show that bullying is not limited to schools, but rather it can
come from authority figures, teachers, or even occur between parents. In addition to
implementing programs to prevent currently studied forms of bullying, research must be
expanded to gauge bullying perpetrated by those other than children. By doing so, we
can continue to improve upon the social interactions and understanding between autistic and neurotypical
populations and subsequently reduce the negative effects of bullying.

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