Adolescents with autism are at a significantly higher risk of being bullied than adolescents without the disorder, according to new research led by a UC Berkeley associate professor.
In the 10-year nationwide study beginning in 2001, about 46 percent of adolescents aged 13 to 17 with autism were victims of bullying, compared to about 11 percent of the general adolescent population over the same time period. The research was published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine and was co-authored by UC Berkeley assistant professor of social welfare Paul Sterzing.
“This is an alarmingly large difference,” Sterzing said.
The study found that several factors contributed to the higher rate of victimization. Among those were trouble forming social relationships and developing communication skills — general characteristics of autism.
Lan Nguyen, a junior at UC Berkeley, said that in middle school she was constantly the victim of bullying because people misunderstood and took advantage of her autism.
“In middle school, I recall three people throwing a raisin on the ground, and they told me to eat the raisin,” Nguyen said. “I wasn’t able to voice my concerns — I wasn’t able to differentiate between someone who is my friend and someone who is a bully.”
The study found that the classes students took played a role in their vulnerability to bullying. Students with autism who attended 76 percent or more of their classes in general education were bullied at a higher rate than their counterparts in special education classes.
Researchers came to these findings based on data derived from interviews with school administrators and parents of children with autism from the 10-year study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education that began in 2001.
The research concluded that schools need to reconsider their bullying interventions in order to incorporate the needs of students with autism and disabilities.
“The major thing (we found) was that we need to examine are our inclusionary processes, how schools actively go about integrating students in the classroom, and then we need to think of ways to integrate them,” said Sterzing.
Nguyen said that schools should “have responsible, competent staff who are aware and creative to find ways a child with autism can learn in a safe environment.”
At UC Berkeley, the Disabled Students’ Program facilitates social integration for students with autism. Kevin Shields, the resident coordinator for the program, said high schools should teach students about disabilities to “make it normal.”
“Educating the families of students who don’t have autism is important for stopping bullying,” Nguyen said. “I believe that people act the way they are raised.”
The long-term effects of the bullying were not addressed in the research, but Shields said bullying at the university level takes on a different form.
“I think that it wasn’t so much direct bullying (at UC Berkeley) you see in high school but extreme misunderstandings,” Nguyen said. “I have had conversations that would leave me in tears, and people that wouldn’t understand my needs.”
Despite the bullying she faced as an adolescent, Nguyen does not see her disability as impeding her opportunities. She is currently studying integrative biology, graduating a year early and serving as the community co-chair for Autism Speaks U, an autism awareness group on campus.
“Autism does not have to be a tragedy or a hindrance or even a negative connotation,” Nguyen said. “The perceptions of autism and other disabilities can change for the better.”
Contact Sybil Lewis at [email protected].