Research Discussion with Interactive Autism Network (IAN) Community Scientific Liaison Dr. Connie Anderson

March 26, 2012
Topic: First-ever national survey to examine the impact of bullying on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)

Interactive Autism Network (IAN)The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) -- www.ianproject.org -- the nation's largest online autism research project headquartered at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, reported preliminary results of the first national survey to examine the impact of bullying on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The results show that 63 percent of children with ASD have been bullied at some point in their lives. These children, who are sometimes intentionally "triggered" into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by peers, are bullied three times more frequently than their siblings who do not have ASD.

In the following question and answer session, Dr. Connie Anderson, community scientific liaison of the IAN project, discusses the findings and what they mean for families and professionals. For more information on this research, please visit the press release.

Why did you conduct the IAN bullying survey?

Similar to our survey on elopement and wandering, people were talking about this topic all the time and becoming increasingly upset and worried about the impact that bullying has on children with ASD. We heard from many families about the impact of bullying and the terrible consequences -- parents deciding to homeschool children, children suffering through bullying and becoming more withdrawn and anxious -- the list goes on and on.

Yet, prior to our survey, there was limited evidence showing the true impact of the situation on the autism community. Although people believed that children with ASD were bullied more, limited evidence existed to prove this true. We were also interested in the previous literature on "bully-victims," children who are bullied, but also bully others. We decided to conduct a survey to find out if children with ASD were bullied more, and if they were, what made them more vulnerable. The survey findings empower parents, giving them the evidence they need to show that their children are vulnerable and need protection.

How do your findings build upon, or run counter to, prior research from your team or others in the field?

In large part, our survey confirms and provides more support for what smaller studies have found, but from a larger sample. We plan to publish peer-reviewed scientific papers that delve deeper into different aspects of our findings. For example, looking at our snapshot and simple analysis, 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?

In your opinion, what are the most interesting highlights of the survey findings?

One of the major highlights is that we were able to compare children with ASD to their typically developing siblings to show that children with ASD are bullied at a rate more than three times higher. This finding allows us to make the statement that this population is especially vulnerable, which is so important when parents go into the principal's office to advocate for change.

Our "bully-victim" findings are very important, as well. We heard about this anecdotally and wanted to get a handle on how often this happens. What are children with ASD doing when they "bully"? How often are these children, who are sometimes prone to meltdowns or outbursts, triggered on purpose by peers? To our surprise, 20 percent of parents admitted their child had bullied another child, which is a tough thing to admit for many parents. Most of these (17 percent) had also been victims of bullying, so were officially "bully-victims."

We also have some preliminary information about risk factors. These findings are important because those working with the children can prioritize improving behaviors we know make a child a target, such as clumsiness, poor hygiene and rigid rule keeping.

Taken all together, our survey findings serve as crucial evidence for parents and teachers trying to deal with bullying of children with ASD in the school setting. When a parent walks into the school and her child's case is viewed as "just one case," it is hard to advocate for change. When there is evidence that a whole group of children are especially vulnerable, it is easier. Basically, if we want these children to be in the same classrooms as their peers and benefit from inclusion, we have to make sure they are safe in these environments.

What will this mean for parents and teachers? For policymakers?

Our hope is that this report will empower them. I've heard from many parents who try to intervene, but often they hear some version of "well, nobody saw it" or "it's his word against the other kid's" and action may not be taken. Children with ASD struggle with so many issues, so just to go to school and try to benefit from therapies and interventions is challenging. Bullying makes it extremely difficult for these children to benefit from anything. We want parents and policymakers to utilize these survey findings as evidence and advocate for more protection upfront for these children.

How will this impact future research? The school/classroom environment?

Our goal is to drive research that deepens our findings. For example:

  • Look across more age groups, specifically older children.
  • Focus more on different types of bullies vs. "bully-victims" in terms of their traits.
  • Conduct longitudinal studies to measure the impact of bullying on children with ASD over time, examining more of the cause and effect regarding mental health issues -- is it anxious children who are bullied, or do bullied children become anxious?
  • Study interventions to identify those that effectively address bullying. What policies work? What are differences between effective and ineffective interventions?

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Our hope is that these findings will have a real world impact on schools, advocates, and parents so that protection of children with ASD becomes a priority. We want children with ASD to benefit from education, therapies, and socialization in whatever setting they are being educated and treated; we do not want to see their mental health and self-esteem eroded by bullying.