One group of young people is far more likely to be bullied at school, potentially causing long-term psychological damage.
A new study has identified autism as the top risk factor for bullying among all neurodevelopmental disorders, presenting opportunities for schools to develop better intervention programs.
One of the report’s authors was University of New South Wales Professor and Chair of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Valsamma Eapen.
She explained behaviours exhibited by people with autism made them vulnerable to being picked on, particularly at high school, where differences can be more pronounced.
The study also found those who were higher functioning were often more at risk.
Autism is the top risk factor for bullying among all neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome and intellectual disability.
“Those who have more obvious challenges and special care needs seem to be getting less targeted,” Professor Eapen explained.
“They probably have more support and also you can see it, obviously, and you wouldn’t want to offend someone like that.
“But when it is less pronounced, that seems to attract a lot of maybe being laughed at or if they have very specific interests, that might come under fire as well.”
One example was 15-year-old autistic student Sara, who experienced bullying after starting at high school, where she no longer had her primary school friends to support and protect her.
Sara reported to the school counsellor she wanted to make friends but did not know how, despite her strengths as a caring, imaginative and funny person.
Attempts to initiate interactions with others were misinterpreted and contributed to Sara’s isolation.
While some of the other students tried to include her, others found entertainment by calling Sara names or making noises when she walked by, causing Sara to scream or shout, prompting even more bullying.
Failed attempts to interact with others can lead to isolation and even more bullying.
For many people on the autism spectrum, it may not be obvious from the outside, but they can have difficulty relating or making friends.
“If you look at them you wouldn’t know, but in terms of their social interactions, the way they don’t get humour or sarcasm, they are much more concrete in their thinking and in their articulation,” Professor Eapen said.
“Those are very subtle, so people may not even recognise, but they can seem odd or different and that attracts a bit more of targeted bullying.
“Exclusion, ostracising, scapegoating – all of that happens and then you are kind of not considered as somebody who would stand up for themselves or have got good company who would come to rescue you or protect you.”
The study found rates of autism-related bullying increased in high school compared to primary school – the opposite trend from non-autistic children.
Autism-related bullying increases in high school compared to primary school, where it’s the opposite trend for non-autistic children.
Strategies created to help Sara included helping her identify bullying behaviour through role plays and written examples, and giving her a trusted teacher she could report bullying to.
She was also given the option of going to a safe space in the library where she could spend time on a computer. Other students who showed an interest in engaging with Sara became “buddies” who would check in with her at lunch and recess.
“If they don’t have the support, so nobody’s asking or engaging with them you, wouldn’t even know it was occuring,” Professor Eapen said.
Professor Eapen added some bullying programs being run in schools focus on the bullying behaviour and not the reasons behind it.
“It’s about making those programs much more broader; about accepting differences, inclusivity, neurodiversity as a thing,” she explained.
“Teaching it’s a difference rather than an impairment and they’ve got other abilities.”