Survey finds 63% of children with autism bullied

Some kids are anxious because they're worry that a bully is waiting for them in the bathroom or after class. In the classroom, anxiety can look a lot like ADHD. iStockPhoto

(CBS News) It's no secret that bullying is a big problem in the U.S. among school-aged children. According to a new national survey, it's an especially big problem for children with autism and Asperger's syndrome.

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Researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University conducted a survey of 1,200 parents who had a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and found 63 percent of the kids had been bullied. The researchers also found these children were three times more likely to be bullied than their siblings who do not have autism.

While any child that's bullied can experience significant emotional distress, children with autism may experience "meltdowns" or aggressive outbursts when upset, and the survey found some of the children are being intentionally triggered into such episodes.

The survey was conducted by the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Interactive Autism Network (IAN) - the largest online autism research initiative

"These survey results show the urgent need to increase awareness, influence school policies and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying," Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement. "We hope that this research will aid efforts to combat bullying by helping parents, policymakers and educators understand the extent of this problem in the autism community and be prepared to intervene."

The survey reported other interesting findings. Sixty-one percent of children with Asperger's are currently being bullied, a rate that almost doubled that of children with other diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Children with autism who attended public schools were 50 percent more likely to be bullied than those in private schools or special education settings.

While bullying occurred at every grade level, it  appeared worse for children with autism between fifth and eighth grade. Forty-two to 49 percent of children with autism in those grades said they were bullied.

One noteworthy finding was children with autism may also become bullies themselves. Twenty percent of surveyed parents said their child with autism had bullied others. Most were "bully-victims," meaning they had also been bullied at some point, the researchers said.

"Unlike victims who are more passive, bully-victims insult their tormentors or otherwise try to fight back in a way that only makes the situation worse," they wrote.

What explains such high rates of bullying among the autism community?

According to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, children with Asperger's may be more prone to bullying because they're often placed in typical classrooms in regular schools. The Institute also said certain behavioral traits including clumsiness, poor hygiene, rigid rule-keeping, talking obsessively about a favorite topic, frequent meltdowns and inflexibility may make children with an autism spectrum disorder more prone to bullying.

Parents were asked if another child, who knows what bothers or upsets their child with an autism spectrum disorder, had ever used that knowledge to trigger a meltdown or aggressive outburst on purpose. Fifty-three percent of parents said "yes." In some cases, bullies got the child to fall apart emotionally. "Often kids try to upset her because they find it funny when she gets upset and cries. She is overly emotional, and they seem to get a kick out of this," one mother shared.

Bullying may peak in fifth and eighth grades because those are often "rule the school" years before children transition to other schools, like middle or high school. Also trying to make friends may backfire. Of children with autism who want to interact with others but have a hard time making friends, 57 percent are bullied, compared to only 25 percent of children who prefer to play alone and 34 percent of children who will play, but only if approached, the survey found.

"To experience teasing, taunts, ostracism or other forms of spite may make a child who was already struggling to cope become completely unable to function," Dr. Law said. He hopes to conduct a similar survey in a peer-reviewed journal to delve deeper into the findings.

Dr. Guillermo Montes, associate professor at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College and director of research at the Children's Institute in Rochester N.Y., has published research on bullying among children with autism.

"While the social impairments of a child with autism may trigger bullying incidents, these symptoms never justify bullying or becoming a bully to others," Montes told CBS News in an email. He was not involved in the new study.

Montes thinks a lot of the problems have to do with ineffective anti-bullying policies put in place by schools.

"We swing from institutional neglect - where policies are on the books but hardly enforced - to "zero tolerance" approaches when a severe incident has occurred, and then back again." Montes said. "Neither approach actually teaches children how to behave properly and respect each others' differences. Both the child with ASD and the normally developing peers need to learn how to handle each others' differences and learn what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is."

According to IAN, there is an "urgent need" to increase awareness, influence school polices, and provide families with effective strategies for dealing with bullying.

Approximately one out of 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC's newest report, which is about a 23 percent increase from previous estimates.

IAN's study on bullying can be found here.

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