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Children With Autism More Likely to be Bullied

The early results from a new survey find that 63 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point in their lives, three times as much as their brothers and sisters who don't have the disorders.

The Interactive Autism Network's survey also found that children with autism—many of whom have deficits in social development—are often intentionally "triggered" into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by ill-intentioned peers.

IAN's community scientific liaison, Dr. Connie Anderson, who worked on the survey of about 1,200 children, said the organization delved into the issue because it was a topic of conversation but hadn't been studied in depth.

"It's never OK for my son to hit, but what happens is kids pick at him until he pops, and often times his target is the teacher," one parent told IAN. "His stress builds up as the kids mess with him, then, if the teacher reprimands him, he turns into a Tasmanian devil, scratching, pulling clothing and hair and trying to bite the teacher."

In a discussion about the results, Dr. Anderson said the survey revealed other details—and more questions to explore—about how bullying affects students with ASD.

"Children with Asperger's syndrome are the most vulnerable, and we hope to find out why. Is this because they are usually in general education settings, display traits that entice bullying (like clumsiness or talking on and on about a favorite topic), or some combination of factors?" she said.

One hypothesis: It's because more children with Asperger's are in typical classrooms in regular public schools—which the study found are settings associated with more bullying than other school settings. But that will require more study, Dr. Anderson said.

In addition, the survey found that children with autism who were homeschooled were bullied at the same rate as students enrolled in school. Homeschooling appeared to be an attempt at putting an end to bullying for some families.

One mother said her son, homeschooled ever since being diagnosed with depression in 3rd grade, "is doing much, much better without the constant name calling and being singled out for his 'weird' behaviors!" (Bullying, or the potential for bullying, isn't grounds to warrant a student being transferred to another school, a federal judge has ruled.)

Other studies have found that in general, children with disabilities are bullied more than other students.

The survey also found that one group frequently bullied was children with autism spectrum disorder who wanted to interact with other children but were having difficulty making friends. Of them, 57 percent were bullied, compared to 25 percent of children who prefer to play alone and 34 percent of kids who will play, but only if approached. One bright spot: Children who had learned to make friends successfully were bullied at a lower rate: 34 percent.

As far as kids triggering aggression or meltdowns? Parents were asked if another child, who knows what bothers or upsets the child with ASD, had ever used that knowledge to trigger a meltdown or aggressive outburst on purpose. Fifty-two percent of parents said "yes."

IAN is preparing several scientific papers that address bullying and children with ASD. But in the meantime, the group said, there's clearly a need to increase awareness, influence school policies, and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying, whether a child is a bully, victim, or bully-victim.

"Cruelest of all is the fact that bullying may further impair the ability of a child with ASD, who is already socially disabled, to engage with the social world," the network said.

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