Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder at risk for bullying

WUSTL autism expert Shattuck mentored new study

A new study suggests an estimated 46.3 percent of adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were the victims of bullying, according to a report published this week in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.


The study originated at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and is part of a pioneering program of research on adolescents and adults with autism led by Paul T. Shattuck, PhD, assistant professor. Lead author Paul Sterzing, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Social Welfare of the University of California, Berkeley, completed this study while he was a student at the Brown School.

“Ever more children are being diagnosed with autism,” Shattuck says. “Yet we know so little about what life looks like for teens and young adults with autism. The evidence base is very poorly developed.

“This is one of several studies from our project here at Washington University that is breaking new ground by using national-level data to provide answers to this pressing national-level problem.”

Bullying involves negative actions toward a peer and is characterized by a power imbalance — physical, social or cognitive — between the victim and the perpetrator. Until now, relatively little research has examined bullying involvement among adolescents with an ASD.

The study used nationally representative survey data to identify the prevalence of bullying involvement, compare prevalence rates of bullying involvement with adolescents with developmental disabilities that overlap with the core deficits of an ASD, and identify the social-ecological correlates of bullying involvement.

The prevalence of bullying involvement for adolescents with an ASD was 46.3 percent for victimization and was “substantially higher” than the national prevalence estimates for the general adolescent population (10.6 percent).

The rates of perpetration of bullying (14.8 percent) and victimization/perpetration (8.9 percent, i.e. those who perpetrate and are victimized), were about equivalent to national estimates found among typically developing adolescents, according to the study results.

“Spending more time in a general education setting — as opposed to a segregated special education classroom — was associated with a higher rate of being bullied,” Shattuck says. “Schools need to work harder at the successful integration of students with disabilities.

“However, much of the burden for being proactive typically falls on parents. They need to band together and demand plans and policies for fostering the positive inclusion of students with disabilities, training of staff and teachers on bullying prevention, and more general interventions with all students to promote a healthy, violence-free school climate,” Shattuck says.

This study was supported by funding to Shattuck from Autism Speaks, the Organization for Autism Research and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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