Sunday, February 1, 2015

Risk Factors for Bullying in Children with Autism

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. Identifying autistic children who are at greatest risk of involvement in bullying has important implications for school-based mental health professionals, teachers, and parents who are concerned with 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 autism at risk of being involved in bullying. Participants were 1221 parents of children aged 6-15 years with a current diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (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 children on the higher end of the autism spectrum 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) 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 autism 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. More capable autistic children, 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 (co-occurring) 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
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 those students 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 educational and social challenges are being protected by spending all or most of their time in special education settings.
The decision of whether or not to include autistic students 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 autism as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient. When autistic children 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. 

School-based mental health professionals (e.g., school psychologists, counselors, social workers) 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 be invested in developing appropriate supports for children with autism placed in inclusive settings.
[Source: 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, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).


DocMartin817 said...

Thanks for sharing - I downloaded the article from Sage Publishing. It is an area of increasing concern for all people with ASD and ID. The long term consequences can be extremely negative. And trauma should always be assessed when developing a behavior support plan, not just simplistic attention/avoidance functions that focus on the immediate environment only.

Connie Hammer said...

Yes - we must protect this vulnerable population and all others as well. What about a proactive approach? - prevention is a powerful weapon. Granted, teaching children on the autism spectrum to protect themselves from bullying is difficult due to the social challenges they often deal with but teaching ALL children about bystander behavior and how important it is for those observing bullying behavior to step in is the best bully prevention tactic there is available. Let's teach ALL children the right thing to do when they witness bullying behavior.

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