Bullying and ASD
IAN Assistant Editor
Connie Anderson, Ph.D.
IAN Community Scientific Liaison
Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date First Published: August 25, 2010
Date Last Revised: November 2, 2011
Being the victim of a childhood bully can have a lasting impact, including depression and diminished socioeconomic status, into adulthood. 1,2,3 Many adults who were once victims of bullying vividly recall the feelings of intimidation, the sometimes-daily battering of self-esteem. Many also recall the hands-off attitude that used to be common among teachers, principals, and other adults. Fortunately, bullying, which was once considered a normal and unavoidable part of the schoolyard landscape, is now viewed as a much more serious matter.
The issue of bullying may be particularly worrisome for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In this article, we will explore how children with ASD are particularly at risk of becoming victims of bullying. We will also discuss how they may act out in a way that leads to their being identified as bullies. In either case, parents, teachers, and school staff need to know how to help them through the difficulties involved. What Is Bullying?
Bullying can take many forms. It can be verbal, involving threats or derogatory remarks. It can be physical or behavioral, as when a bully hits, pushes, steals a victim's lunch, or holds his nose every time the victim enters a room. It can also be relational, as when a child is deliberately excluded from social events, or vicious rumors about a child are intentionally spread. It can be conducted in traditional style, on playground, in classroom, and in cafeteria, or via text message and Facebook -- the new and insidious "cyber-bullying."
Virtually every child feels bullied at one time or another, but researchers define bullying as something more than incidental or passing acts of cruelty. Central to the research definition of bullying is that it occurs repeatedly. There also must be a power differential, a situation where the victim is perceived as less physically, psychologically, or socially powerful than the aggressor. 4,5,6 Bullying not only damages the victim's self-esteem, but also harms his ability to establish relationships within the peer group.
But bullying can be difficult to put into words. Of course, there are the obvious physical actions or verbal taunts. But what about when classmates get together and decide to boycott a victim's party? Or when a child "befriends" a child who doesn't quite fit in, as a form of social humiliation, smirking and looking around to make sure his friends are watching as his victim fawns all over him in utter gratitude? What about the onlookers? Are they watching, even laughing, because they are bullies, too? Are they perhaps fearful of being targeted, or are they expressing discomfort?
The consequences of allowing bullying to run its course during childhood can be devastating to the individual and the family, as well as to society. School shootings have heightened our awareness of the degree of damage that can result from bullying. Within months of the April 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education launched a study examining 37 school shootings and other violence specifically targeting schools. Among the study's findings: 71% of the attackers, including the two youths who attacked their classmates at Columbine, felt bullied, harassed, or otherwise threatened before the attack. 7 A number of other studies have shown a link between being bullied, or bullying, and suicide. 8,9 As society becomes increasingly aware of the consequences of bullying, schools are developing anti-bullying policies However, bullying often involves activities that remain below the school's radar. A certain degree of conflict can be expected in youth peer groups and, as researchers have noted, "Unless many attackers beat one victim (rare on school grounds), no school disciplinarian can reliably differentiate physical bullying from self-defense, friendly quarrels, and good-natured rough-housing -- none of which requires serious punishment. Since perception is crucial, an identical shove, insult, or brush-off can be inconsequential or devastating; bullies, victims, peers, and adults do not agree." 10 Children with ASD: A Special Case
Bullying and social exclusion are not unusual experiences, particularly for children with medical or developmental issues, 11,12 and it is clear that isolated children who lack social skills are at increased risk for bullying. 4,10,13 Given this, researchers are now asking whether children with ASD, with their characteristic social deficits, are especially vulnerable. 14,15 It is not hard for parents of children on the autism spectrum to imagine the scenarios: their child's inability to "read" the social signs that someone doesn't have her best interest at heart; the eagerness to please that can make him easy to manipulate; the tendency to say what he thinks without a full understanding of consequences. How can a child recognize a potential bully when he lacks the ability to see so many of the clues, the hard edge of mounting frustration or sarcasm in the tone of voice; the smug look of a popular girl asking him out on a date, on a dare; the "friend" who persuades him to unknowingly commit an offense that brings on discipline from the teacher?
"The inability of children with autism to stand up for themselves and the ease with which they can be reduced to tears of rage or frustration by others make them 'perfect victims,'" writes ASD researcher and writer, Patricia Howlin. She adds, "Often they are unclear if they are being bullied, or if what is happening in their own fault...." 16
Because their disability is less obvious, and because they are often placed in mainstream classrooms, children with high-functioning ASD may be at particular risk. In one New York study, parents completed questionnaires about how their children with Asperger syndrome fared with their peers in school. Some reported that their children were "egged on," with one child told to "run like a bull," only to be taunted that he was a freak when he complied; how another child's picture on the bulletin board had the eyes scratched out; how yet another child who had endured prolonged bullying expressed a desire to be "put in the street and run over." 17
A study of special needs children attending regular-education schools in The Netherlands showed that peers were more likely to recognize the imbalance of power and intervene when a classmate with Down syndrome or a physical impairment was targeted by bullies, but were more likely to reject students with behavior problems stemming from pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and/or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 18
In a recent U.S. study of more than 400 children, aged 4 to 17, with Asperger syndrome or nonverbal learning disorder (a disorder involving similar social challenges), mothers reported that 75% of the children had been hit or emotionally bullied by peers or siblings during the previous year. 12 Peer shunning, or exclusion from peer activities, also occurred at high rates: A third of the children had not been invited to a birthday party during the previous year, and many ate lunch alone or were the last picked for teams. Overall, these figures -- at least twice as high as the average prevalence of bullying and ostracism reported in national and international studies of the general population of children and adolescents 4,12,19 -- demonstrate the high degree of bullying and isolation many of these children experience.
High-functioning children also may be vulnerable because, despite stereotypes that characterize them as content to be alone, they often do long for friendship. In her book, Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying, Rebekah Heinrichs writes: "In some instances, they are likely to tolerate a higher level of abuse from their peers in exchange for attention or possible friendship. As one young man with AS stated, 'I'd rather be with kids who aren't nice to me than be alone, ignored, and invisible.'" 20 How Do You Know When Your Child is Being Bullied?
Many children who are bullied do not report it to parents or other adults. 21 In addition to this general tendency not to tell, children with ASD may be nonverbal, and so unable to communicate that they are being bullied, or they may have fluent language skills, but be unable to interpret the situation.
Not recognizing genuine bullying can make a child with ASD a likely ongoing victim. Asperger expert Tony Attwood asserts: "Children with Asperger Syndrome have several problems with regard to reporting being a target. They have impaired Theory of Mind abilities; that is, difficulty determining the thoughts and intentions of others in comparison to their peers. They may not intuitively know that the acts of other children are examples of bullying. They can sometimes consider that such behaviour is typical play and something that they have come to accept as yet another confusing behaviour of their peers." 22
To further complicate matters, children with ASD also may have trouble distinguishing bullying from good-natured teasing. When all parties are having fun, it's not bullying, a concept that may be difficult for a child with ASD to grasp. A child who overreacts and bursts into sobs or too easily assumes malicious intent and retaliates may soon be left out of the very "child's play" that might help her learn the skills that will help her fit in. A child who doesn't recognize that the same behavior that was funny only moments ago has turned irritating may prolong a behavior to the point where it provokes others.
There are some signs parents can look for to determine when it may be time to contact the school about potential bullying. Parents of a child with ASD who has become a target may notice that possessions have been lost or damaged, or that clothing has been torn, according to Attwood. They also may notice signs of physical injury, such as bruising, or signs of anxiety, such as stomach aches, problems sleeping, avoidance of school, or other behaviors that may be associated with bullying.
In addition, some children with ASD may respond with aggression when they are targeted by a bully. In the New York study, one parent described her son's eventual response to repeated tormenting from peers on his school bus: "One day, he ran after one of the girls, and then was kicked out of school. Nothing was done to the girl." 17 This brings us to our next topic: when a child with ASD is labeled as the bully or aggressor.
Continues (long): http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/articles/bullying