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Almost half of kids with autism are bullied, study shows

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(CBS News) Almost half of adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder have been the victims of bullying, according to a new study.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a variety of different neurodevelopmental disorders that often cause social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health. Social interaction is especially difficult for people diagnosed with the disorder. About 1 out of 88 children by the age of 8 will have an ASD, with males four times more likely to have autism than females.

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"Many of the defining characteristics of autism are the ones that put them at greatest risk of bullying," Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and an expert on bullying at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times.

Bradshaw was not involved in the study, but said in her experience kids with an ASD have a hard time picking up on sarcasm and humor, which makes them easy targets.

While there have been spotlights on bullying, very few studies have focused on bullying of kids with ASD. A survey in March conducted by Kennedy Krieger Institute's Interactive Autism Network (IAN) of 1,200 parents showed that 63 percent of kids with autism had been bullied and they were three times more likely to be bullied than their siblings who did not have the disorder.

This study, published online in September 2012 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, surveyed 920 parents and discovered that 46.3 percent of adolescents with an ASD had been victimized by bullying. Compared to the national average of 10.6 percent of kids, the number was "substantially higher."

The rates were similar to the national average when it looked at autistic kids who were bullies (14.8 percent) and kids who were both experienced victimization and perpetration, meaning kids who both are bullied and bully (8.9 percent.)

Victims were more likely to be non-Hispanic ethnicity, have an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, have lower social skills, have some form of conversational ability and have more classes in general education. The perpetrators tended to be white, have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and hung out with friends at least once a week. Those who were both bullied and victimized typically were white non-Hispanic, had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and got together with friends at least once a week.

The researchers wrote that classrooms should increase social integration of adolescents with ASD and help students who don't have ASD understand, interact and empathize with kids who have ASD and other developmental disorders.

"Future interventions should incorporate content that addresses the core deficits of adolescents with an ASD, which limits their verbal ability to report bullying incidents," the authors commented. "Schools should incorporate strategies that address conversational difficulties and the unique challenges of those with comorbid conditions."

"This study confirms what we know," Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami and associate director of the school's Mailman Center for Child Development, said to HealthDay. "It's clear that kids with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of bullying," he said. "We need to figure out better ways to prevent this -- for all children."

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