Why Autistic Kids Make Easy Targets for School Bullies

Bullying can lead to depression, low grades, behavioral problems and even physical illness because of the stress it causes — and kids with autism may be suffering the brunt of the harm

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A new study finds that children with autism spectrum disorders are bullied far more often than their typically developing peers — nearly five times as often — but parents of autistic kids think the rate is even higher than that.

In the study, about 46% of autistic children in middle and high school told their parents they were victimized at school within the previous year, compared with just over 10% of children in the general population. Calling it a “profound public health problem,” lead author Paul Sterzing of Washington University in St. Louis told the New York Times that the “rate of bullying and victimization among these adolescents is alarmingly high.”

Many people with autism have trouble recognizing social cues, which makes them awkward around others. They also often engage in repetitive behaviors and tend to be hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, all of which makes kids with the disorder ripe targets for bullies who home in on difference and enjoy aggravating their victims. About a third of autism cases are severely disabling — those affected may suffer from low IQ and be unable to talk — but most autistic people have average or high intelligence and many can function well, if their social and sensory issues are appropriately addressed.

(MORE: Autism: Why Some Children ‘Bloom’ and Overcome Their Disabilities)

That may help explain why the highest functioning children in the current study were at greatest risk of being bullied. While their social awkwardness was more obvious because they actually interacted more with mainstream peers, this made their actual disability less visible, likely making their condition harder for their peers to understand.

Children with autism who could speak well, for example, were three times more likely to be bullied than those whose conversational ability was limited or absent. Further, those who were mainly educated in mainstream classrooms were almost three times more likely to be bullied than those who spent most of their time in special education.

The research, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, involved survey data from 920 parents of autistic children, who were asked about their children’s experience of bullying.

(MORE: Older Fathers Linked to Children’s Autism and Schizophrenia Risk)

About 15% of autistic children were reported to be bullies themselves — roughly the same rate as in the general teen population — and 9% were both bullies and victims. Bullying, which can take the form of teasing, exclusion, humiliation or physical assault, can lead to depression and other mental health problems, along with poor grades and even physical illness in victims because of the severe stress it causes.

Parents of autistic children think that the true rates of victimization are far higher than what the study found, and that the rates of perpetrating bullying are lower, precisely because autism disorders are characterized by an inability to read subtle social cues and by difficulty with communication. In order to report being bullied, you need to understand when you’re being targeted, for example; in contrast, you also need to understand and effectively deploy harassing social information in order to be a bully — things that autistic children generally cannot do.

“The only thing I can figure out is that maybe the parents are misinterpreting their children’s clumsy attempts [to socialize],” says Eileen Riley-Hall, a high-school teacher with an autistic daughter and author of Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts, regarding the rate of bullies among autistic kids in the new study. “I think of bullying as systematic manipulation. But [autistic children] are so candid, they’re typically not capable of that kind of forethought and malice.”

Impaired language skills and inability to read social cues also mean that many autistic children are bullied without ever realizing it or being able to report it. Riley-Hall recalled an incident involving her daughter in elementary school. “Little boys were getting her to say dirty words and laughing at her. She thought this was a good thing and that they were being friendly, but they were really making fun of her,” she says, describing how another girl, who knew it was wrong, told the teacher. But until the classmate reported it, Riley-Hall had no idea that her daughter was being bullied.

(MORE: How Pets Can Help Autistic Children Learn to Share and Comfort Others)

With recent national focus on the toll of school bullying, including bullying-related suicide, many school districts are updating their anti-bullying policies and states are giving the issue renewed legislative attention. Research finds that the best anti-bullying programs are comprehensive, involving the entire school and not just individual students. Programs that work well tend to encourage a warm school environment in which diversity is celebrated; they also rely on adults at the school, from the principal to the lunch ladies, to set a tone that clearly indicates that bullying isn’t acceptable. Studies find that students in schools that create such a welcoming atmosphere not only perform better academically, but also have lower rates of behavior problems like alcohol and drug use.

But despite efforts to encourage inclusion, acceptance of students with disabilities remains low overall. “There’s still a sense that they are not as fully human as other people,” says Riley-Hall.

Another factor that often leads to exclusion and derision is fear. “We have many generations who have had no personal experience with people with special needs, and they fear them,” Riley-Hall notes. “They pass that ignorance on to their children.”

As the study’s authors conclude: “Inclusive classrooms need to increase the social integration of adolescents [with autism] into protective peer groups while also enhancing the empathy and social skills of typically developing students towards their peers with [autism] and other developmental disabilities.”

Indeed, although autistic people are often claimed to lack empathy, their problems usually relate to an inability to understand the minds of others— not an actual lack of care when they know someone is suffering. Meanwhile, people without autism aren’t supposed to be impaired in understanding others’ pain, so what’s our excuse?

MORE: What Genius and Autism Have in Common

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

64 comments
jad1023
jad1023

When people made fun of in high school I wanted to punch them in their face.

jad1023
jad1023

I think people made fun of me in school because of my autism.

Babyface
Babyface

As most people with autism are extremely strong both pysically and mentally they would actually be top of the chain in the wild. If in a pack they would protect and defend the weak and would share and make sure no one was left without food, in a pack all tho the selfish and mean would be feared eventually the pack would turn on them and the selfish would be pushed out and left without. In the world autistic people would rule because there fair, no the difference between right and wrong, don't judge. So I am not worried that society is falling apart. If people find them selfs living in the wild I know who I would want running the pack, and it would not be selfish bully that dosent care if I starve it would be the autistic person that would protect and stay loyal to all in the pack and keep things the way they should be.. Besides in the wild they would also not be considered as rude because we wouldn't talk as much or care about clothes and money. We wouldn't give a crap about social rules apart from the ones I mentioned above, the decent person would come out on top for a change. It's funny to think how much better our planet would be if run by autistic people :) x

cowardlyfenglinge
cowardlyfenglinge

@Babyface  You say that autistic people would form packs. It's funny because autism causes people to forget faces, which makes its hard to form relationships. It's funny because autistic people are biased, like the average Joe. Wait did I say average Joe? Sorry, autism is a defect, its an inferiority so they are below the average Joe. It's funny because autistic people are really rude and butt into other people's business since they don't recognize social cues. It's funny because most autistic people are just composites of what their protector has taught them, and the reality is that most of these protectors tell their defective one that they are just different. Reality? You live in a civilization that doesn't care if you're loyal or selfish. And in the wild, of course you "wouldn't talk as much or care about clothes and money". It's the wild. And I don't know if its your autism or not, but its no excuse to act like a arrogant b!tch and assume that all autistic people are nice and decent. It's like saying that every narcissist is a evil.

Talendria
Talendria

Kids only get bullied for one reason:  many adults feel it's acceptable for kids to impose a social hierarchy.  That's why most analysis of bullying focuses on the victims rather than the perpetrators.  There's a sense that the victim brought it on himself by being different.  Bullying will stop when parents and educators realize there is no justification for social aggression.

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thamaton
thamaton

the good news is that with early intervention, therapies such as ABA, the benefits of a gluten amp; casein free diet, and ongoing, appropriate educational supports, students with autism can make dramatic, sometimes even complete recoveries. the bad news for you, guy with the imaginary school teacher girlfriend, is that you'll always be a douchebag and there are no truly effective interventions for that.

 

Anna Laird
Anna Laird

As a kid with Asperger's, I can say that many, many kids with autism have a strong sense of justice/right and wrong.  It upsets us when we see others being treated badly or not following reasonable rules.  Unfortunately, these situations are all too common in schools today.  While kids like me are the most likely to empathize with others and intervene to try to stop others from being bullied or bullying, this different behavior is what makes us common targets for bullies.  

I went from kindergarten through the end of 10th grade without any teachers realizing I showed autistic traits because I performed well on all my standardized tests.  I was told that I should "know better" than to be disorganized and that I was "just going through a normal phase of teenage life" when I was being picked on.  From preschool up to this very day, because of my unusually kind, tolerant and just behavior, bullies have picked on me.  It's been bad enough that I was suicidal for a while.  My freshman year of high school, a popular male jock who hated me put my name on a "joke" hitlist, that's how easy a target I was.

The problem isn't the kids with autism.  It's the parents of the kids who bully autistic children, it's the lack 0f recognition of autistic traits, it's the lack of instruction for teachers who may not know how to deal with students who are in various places on the autism spectrum.

Lin Wessels
Lin Wessels

Reading some of the appalling and insensitive comments here, it seems pretty apparent to me that problem most likely lies in parents ho bully teaching by example their own children to bully.  Sad state of affairs indeed.  

Robin Borrelli Nemeth
Robin Borrelli Nemeth

When I was a substitute math teacher, I watched as the boy with the french sounding name was abused not just by his classmates but by the teachers as well. He changed his name to one that sounded more American, and then was tormented for changing his name. Most of the people I know with Aspergers are quiet people; hardly loud and annoying. A lot of them probably want to engage socially, but I have to say this-- when they witness the behavior of the average 'neurotypical' (NT) student, it's got to be damned discouraging. And I think that then what they would like is merely to be left alone, as much as possible while still attempting to perform some useful function in our society in order to survive. But that is not allowed. What NTs do for sport is torment those who are different. And those on the spectrum are said to have the social deficits. Go figure.

D. S. Walker
D. S. Walker

The problem with special-needs bullying is everyone wants to blame the victim. My daughter had a clique turn on her when she defended a child who had told these girls that she had ADHD. My daughter had recently been diagnosed with Asperger's at the time. They defaced my daughter's graded artwork twice with a male body part, and they turned the entire class against her so her year was hell. 

We got her away from them the next year and she was doing well until 4 years later when she overheard the Queenbee telling someone else that she thought my daughter was stupid and did not understand how she could have gotten top scholar and highest language grade. Then, the same girl my daughter protected kept telling her, that same year, that the Queenbee and friends are so nice. An intolerant English teacher was the final straw for my daughter, and we withdrew her from school and started virtual schooling. 

However, first we allowed our daughter to tell the dean of the high school how they had failed her. She had the dean in tears, but it was too late. The school has only really started addressing bullying since we left. Anyone who assumes a child on the spectrum does not have empathy and neurotypical children do really needs to be educated. As to all of you who just want to sue the schools, all that does is keep your child struck in the negatives for however many years it takes to get a decision. It still does not educate the schools or the bullies. Just look at the outcome of the Phoebe Prince story; only one girl showed any remorse. The rest acted like they were the victims. 

Brandy Lewis
Brandy Lewis

My son was driven by ambulance to the hospital in Jackson Mississippi after being beaten by a peer at school last Friday.  They wanted to Life Flight him, but weather didn't permit. The kid who assaulted him knocked him unconscious after the pep rally because he called him a name for verbally abusing him. Today, the principal notified me that my son was 'suspended' from school for 3 days for calling the boy a name. The boy who knocked him unconscious also got the same punishment, 3 days suspension. My son, who has Aspergers, is now scared to return to school -- so I'm in the process of signing him up for online school, so he can finish out his Senior year and graduate. There should NEVER be a situation where a child fears for his safety at school -- but that is the case at East Webster High School in Mathiston Mississippi.

Maurinemeleck
Maurinemeleck

The world abounds with ignoranc3 and ignorant people.  The more  ignorant they are, the less willing they are to listen to anyone else's opposing views.   I wouldn't waste time with this ignorant dude.  Remember, ignorance is bliss and he apparently prefers it that way.  I'm only sorry for the ill children that someday may run into him.

amdachel
amdachel

 "Lead author Paul Sterzing of Washington University in St. Louis told the New York Times that the “rate of bullying and victimization among these adolescents is alarmingly high.” 

Every couple of years the rate has worsened, now to the point where one in every 88 children, one in every 54 boys now has an autism diagnosis.  No officials has ever said the numbers are "alarmingly high."

Telling us that autistic kids are victims of bullying is hardly news. Stories are out everyday about autistic children being abused in schools by teachers and aides also. There is a national outcry right now for cameras in the classrooms to protect these kids. This is just one aspect of what autism is doing to our children.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

amdachel
amdachel

  Here is yet another study that fails to address anything of significance about autism. Officially, there's no known cause or cure. There's nothing a mainstream doctor can tell a new mom so that her new baby who is born healthy doesn't also end up on the autism spectrum. Every other week it seems, there's a new study linking autism to something new. Older dads, older moms, having siblings too close together, and living too close to a freeway--to name a few.

Every couple of years the rate worsens to the point where one in every 88 children, one in every 54 boys now has an autism diagnosis--yet to health officials, autism is never a crisis.

Here’s another study that does nothing of significance about autism. Officially, there's no known cause or cure. There's nothing a mainstream doctor can tell a new mom so that her new baby who is born healthy doesn't also end up on the autism spectrum. Every other week it seems, there's a new study linking autism to something new. Older dads, older moms, having siblings too close together, and living too close to a freeway--to name a few have been the subjects in a number of studies.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

autmomx3
autmomx3

Despite the fact that you are incredibly insensitive... I see your point - although I don't agree.  The problem is not the kids with autism though.  The problem is a lack of support in a public education setting.  We as a country are severely lacking the proper supports for children who learn differently - does your girlfriend have paras in her classroom to assist the kids with autism, do they get their sensory needs met?  Has she had proper training with teaching kids with Autism?  It isn't just up to her to educate these children and if she isn't supported, then she needs to speak up.  I also want to point out that it isn't just autism - more and more kids have ADHD, sensory processing disorder, medical conditions, etc. that can and do disrupt a "perfect educational setting".  Guess what though - that is the real world.  If typical children cannot function in a world with kids that are different, then they need that training just as much as kids with special needs need to learn to cope in the real world.  It is a two way street and like it or not, we aren't in the age any more where we stick all the people with disabilities in institutions - or do what Hitler did and just exterminate them.

I, myself, am a mother of three children.  ALL with autism with my youngest also with cerebral palsy.  It isn't a badge or anything, it is a simple fact.  I work day and night to get these kids to be functioning members of society that will one day have a job, pay taxes and hopefully live independently.  We as parents of children with special needs are FULLY aware of what it costs to raise our kids and that we won't be around forever to take care of them.  We have to live with that EVERY DAY of our lives.  We do what we can to prepare them.  Some kids with autism will be able to do it, some won't.  It is our civic duty as humans though, to help and support each other.  And NO, I don't live in a fantasy world, my world is significantly different then yours.  What do you think we do - pop out these kids and hand them over to the schools saying - "good luck".  We work incredibly hard - more then humanly possible and my children work way harder then I do.  They are in full time therapy, plus school, just to try to fit in.  My 6 year old does 60-70 hour weeks... could you do that?  They have to work for EVERYTHING and although they might seem "annoying as hell", they aren't going anywhere.  Most of the time - especially with seeing comments like yours - I think it is the world that needs to change.

autmomx3
autmomx3

Despite the fact that you are incredibly insensitive... I see your point - although I don't agree.  The problem is not the kids with autism though.  The problem is a lack of support in a public education setting.  We as a country are severely lacking the proper supports for children who learn differently - does your girlfriend have paras in her classroom to assist the kids with autism, do they get their sensory needs met?  Has she had proper training with teaching kids with Autism?  It isn't just up to her to educate these children and if she isn't supported, then she needs to speak up.  I also want to point out that it isn't just autism - more and more kids have ADHD, sensory processing disorder, medical conditions, etc. that can and do disrupt a "perfect educational setting".  Guess what though - that is the real world.  If typical children cannot function in a world with kids that are different, then they need that training just as much as kids with special needs need to learn to cope in the real world.  It is a two way street and like it or not, we aren't in the age any more where we stick all the people with disabilities in institutions - or do what Hitler did and just exterminate them.

I, myself, am a mother of three children.  ALL with autism with my youngest also with cerebral palsy.  It isn't a badge or anything, it is a simple fact.  I work day and night to get these kids to be functioning members of society that will one day have a job, pay taxes and hopefully live independently.  We as parents of children with special needs are FULLY aware of what it costs to raise our kids and that we won't be around forever to take care of them.  We have to live with that EVERY DAY of our lives.  We do what we can to prepare them.  Some kids with autism will be able to do it, some won't.  It is our civic duty as humans though, to help and support each other.  And NO, I don't live in a fantasy world, my world is significantly different then yours.  What do you think we do - pop out these kids and hand them over to the schools saying - "good luck".  We work incredibly hard - more then humanly possible and my children work way harder then I do.  They are in full time therapy, plus school, just to try to fit in.  My 6 year old does 60-70 hour weeks... could you do that?  They have to work for EVERYTHING and although they might seem "annoying as hell", they aren't going anywhere.  Most of the time - especially with seeing comments like yours - I think it is the world that needs to change.

amdachel
amdachel

TO TIME: The commenter who said, "Did anyone stop to consider that autistic kids get bullied more because they are annoying as hell?"

If your girlfriend is a high school teacher and find autistic students "annoying as hell"---I think she needs to find a new career. Every week we're reading about children with autism being abused by teachers, aides and bus drivers. Many of these kids are non-verbal and easily victimized.

We need teachers who are compassionate and dedicated to helping children.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Lane1
Lane1

I had the misfortune of going through public school with an autism spectrum disorder.

Most teachers simply thought I was strange and seemed puzzled that I was regularly being pulled out of class to attend a Gifted and Talented Education program (because of my standardized test scores). Not at any point was the possibility that I might be autistic brought up by anyone, including my own parents. I actually had no idea what was wrong with me until after starting college.

From personal experience, the single biggest issue that needs to be addressed is awareness. If high-functioning autistic children are going to sit in classrooms with normal students, there needs to be a general awareness of what autism is and who is autistic. Autistic children should know about their condition, know that it is nothing to be embarrassed about, and be taught how to play to their strengths.

Danyz
Danyz

I think that ultimately, the bullying problem will be brought to an end by the judicial system. When parents who have finally had enough file multiple lawsuits against the schools, administration will at long last come out of its coma and begin enforcing codes of conduct on campus.  

ranger99
ranger99

Did anyone stop to consider that autistic kids get bullied more because they are annoying as hell? 

My girlfriend is a High School teacher and she has many, many autistic kids in her classes and they are almost without exception the most belligerent and disruptive students in the class.

The fact that they don't fully understand their actions is little comfort to the other kids whose education is disrupted due to their outbursts and constant inappropriate behavior.

These kids should be in special education classes away from the general student population where their special needs can be met without degrading the learning environment of others.

sac12389
sac12389

I'll never forget when in 8th grade an autistic boy in the class, an asshole and I were put into a group to do a project and this hot shot 14 year old guy felt the need to tease the autistic kid, who was unaware why this guy was laughing at everything he said. I told the kid to pick on someone with his own cognitive ability and that seemed to shut him up.