Studies exploring bullying in special education populations have reported higher rates of peer victimization among students with special needs. Although children with disabilities have been found to be at an increased risk of bullying, there are limited studies investigating predictors or “risk factors” of bullying involvement in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Identifying children with ASD who are at greatest risk of involvement in bullying has important implications for clinicians, teachers, and parents who are interested in preventing bullying and promoting effective coping strategies among children who are bullied.
A study published in the journal Autism examined child and school characteristics that may place children with ASD at risk of being involved in bullying. Participants were 1221 parents of children aged 6-15 years with a current diagnosis of ASD selected from a national web-based registry. Parents completed a survey dedicated to the school and bullying experiences of their child, and analyses conducted to identify child and school risk factors for involvement as victim, bully, or bully–victim. Additional analyses examined the risk of bullying involvement based on the amount of time spent in general education classrooms.
The researchers hypothesized that higher functioning children with ASD would be at increased risk of victimization, as would children who spent more time in an inclusive educational setting. It was also hypothesized that children who present with more comorbid (co-occurring) psychiatric conditions (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), learning disorders, intellectual disability) and a high number of autistic traits would be at additional risk.
The results indicated that overall, 63% of children with ASD had been victimized in their lifetime, and 38% had been victimized in the past month. In addition, 19.9% had bullied others in their lifetime, with 9.3% bullying others in the past month. Of these, 63% were bully–victims, that is, they had been both victim and perpetrator in the past month. Children diagnosed with high functioning ASD, attending a public school or a school with a general education population, were at the greatest risk of being victimized in the past month. Children with comorbid conditions and a high level of autistic traits were the most likely to be victims, bullies, and bully–victims. Lastly, children in full inclusion classrooms were more likely to be victimized than those who spend the majority of their time in special education settings.
Conclusion and Implications
The findings from the current study confirm that children across the autism spectrum are at increased risk of being bullied when compared to their typically developing peers, with children who are the highest functioning, and the most involved in general education schools and classrooms, being at the greatest risk. Several previously identified predictors of bullying behaviors among a general education population were also observed in this study, including the presence of co-occurring psychiatric conditions and difficulty making friends. The researchers note that although children with special needs in inclusion settings have been shown to benefit from increased interactions with typically developing children, it appears that they are still at risk of being isolated within the classroom and subsequently being bullied. Thus, children who spend a great deal of time in less protected, general education settings with typical peers may be at greatest risk of being bullied. The study also provides evidence that children with the greatest impairments are being protected by spending all or most of their time in special education settings
The decision of whether or not to include students with ASD continues to be a subject of debate among principals, teachers, parents, and often students themselves. Inclusion with typically developing peers is important for a child with ASD as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient. When children with ASD are included, it is imperative that schools ensure that they receive the supports they need to thrive at school while also protecting them from bullying. Moreover, the development and implementation of school bullying policies and inclusion programs must take into account the special vulnerability of this group of children, which can include staff and teachers being trained in identifying children who may be at additional risk of victimization. Clinicians and school-based mental health professionals (e.g., school psychologists) should also familiarize themselves with the risk factors and psychological symptoms commonly associated with bullying involvement. For example, symptom severity should be assessed and comorbid problems identified whenever significant behavioral issues (e.g., inattention, mood instability, anxiety, sleep disturbance, aggression) become evident. Finally, future research studies should focus on developing appropriate supports for children with ASD placed in inclusive settings.
Risk factors for bullying among children with autism spectrum disorders. Benjamin Zablotsky, Catherine P Bradshaw, Connie M Anderson and Paul Law. Autism published online 30 July 2013. DOI: 10.1177/1362361313477920
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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