Student Well-Being

Autism Issues Complicate Anti-Bullying Task

By Christina A. Samuels — May 06, 2014 7 min read
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A widely publicized case of two Maryland teenagers charged with assault for bullying a classmate with autism—a classmate who later strongly defended them—illustrates the complexities that schools face with youth whose disabilities are based in social interactions.

Autism spectrum disorder, characterized by social impairment and communication difficulties, leaves some youths less able to recognize teasing or bullying when it occurs, said Ellen F. Murray, a clinical manager at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Alexandria, Va.

“They may not even understand teasing if it’s happening right in front of them, much less if it’s behind their back,” said Ms. Murray. “A lot of our kids would definitely not pick up on those social cues and understand the perspective of another student.”

With those challenges in mind, experts say that one way for schools to address bullying of students with autism is to take a step back and examine the entire school environment. And, while social-skills training is commonly a part of the individualized education program, or IEP, for students with autism, such instruction should not be limited just to them, experts say.

Fostering Connections

Schools are using a variety of approaches and individual programs to improve social interactions between students with developmental disabilities such as autism and their typically developing peers.

Peer Adovcacy
The Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights Center, or PACER, based in Bloomington, Minn., has several bullying-prevention resources for schools, including a toolkit to help start a peer-advocacy program. Such programs use the power of peer influence, and students can often spot problem behavior before adults do.

Positive Behavioral Supports
This schoolwide intervention framework supported by the U.S. Department of Education, offers schools a way to organize and monitor behavioral expectations for students and adults.

Second Step
This program, used in more than 30,000 schools and aimed at students ages 4 to 14, includes in-school lessons on empathy, emotion management, and problem-solving. It also includes lessons for all students in how to recognize, respond to, and report bullying.

Remaking Success
Currently being studied in several schools, this program enlists paraprofessionals who often “shadow” students with disabilities as active coaches on the playground, bringing children together and creating opportunities for joint play. The program has shown some success in expanding the social networks of students.

SOURCES: The National Bullying Prevention Center;; Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health

“All of us could benefit from good social-skills and communication instruction,” said Chad A. Rose, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, who has expertise in the problem of bullying involving students with disabilities. Punishing bullies alone does not end up teaching them the skills they need to replace their negative behaviors with more positive ones, he said.

Research Sheds Light

Bullying is a fact of life for many students with autism, though it rarely goes as far as the incidents in Maryland, which police started investigating in March. According to police, a 16-year-old boy with autism was captured in cellphone videos being kicked in the groin, dragged by his hair, and coerced onto a frozen lake where he fell through the ice several times, among other dangerous incidents. He told a reporter that he wanted to resume his relationship with the classmates, one of whom he called his girlfriend.

“I don’t feel like they exploited me,” he told The Washington Post in an April 20 article. “If I do hang out with [my girlfriend again], I’m going to ask her not to videotape anything.”

The incidents took place outside the teenagers’ school, Chopticon High School in Morganza, Md. One of the teenagers accused in the case was sentenced to up to six years in a juvenile facility for second-degree assault and displaying an obscene photograph of the boy who was bullied; the other student is facing charges as an adult, including first-degree assault and false imprisonment.

The results of a 2013 survey of more than 1,000 families of children with autism spectrum disorders, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, reported that 38 percent of the families had children who reported being bullied in the past month. Twenty-eight percent said they were bullied frequently. The study also found that about 9 percent of children with autism were perpetrators of bullying, with about 5 percent described as “frequent” perpetrators. Close to 70 percent of victims with autism who are bullied reported having experienced emotional trauma as a result of their treatment.

Those rates are higher than what had been noted in a 2001 study on American youths in general, the authors noted. In that report, about 30 percent of all children reported “moderate or frequent” involvement in bullying, either as a victim or as a perpetrator.

Another study, published in 2012 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, showed that 46 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder have been bullied, compared with about 11 percent of the general population of adolescents. (The different prevalence rates for bullying are linked to different definitions of the term used by various researchers.)

The students with autism found to be most at risk of being bullied were those who had more classes in general education, some form of conversational ability, and interacted with friends at least once a week. That study concluded that school-based bullying interventions must target students’ conversational ability and social skills and must also address the fact that students are often victimized when they’re in general education settings. Schools should encourage “social integration into protective peer groups” and increase the empathy and social skills of the general student population, the researchers recommended.

That type of social integration is the impetus behind a program called Remaking Recess, which has been pilot-tested at four elementary schools in Los Angeles that have students with autism fully included in the general education setting. That program enlists paraprofessionals and other adults in the school to provide active coaching on the playground that encourages interaction between typically developing students and those with autism. The paraprofessionals were taught to initiate games and age-appropriate activities and also how to fade into the background once the children started playing with one another. The goal is to teach skills in the child’s natural environment.

The program “really helped me to understand that challenge, and it’s elegant in its simplicity,” said Bradley Rumble, the principal of the 820-student Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles, whose campus used Remaking Recess during the 2013 summer school session. An evaluation of Remaking Recess that was published in March in Behavior Therapy indicated the program had some success in expanding the social networks of students with disabilities, said Connie Kasari, a professor of psychology and human development at the University of California, Los Angeles. She’s also a member of UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. The creators of Remaking Recess have expanded the study to additional schools in Los Angeles, as well as Philadelphia and Rochester N.Y.

“It’s usually paraprofessionals who are on the playground, but they don’t actually think of the playground as a place for intervention,” Ms. Kasari said. “The biggest problem for [students with autism] is understanding the ‘hidden’ curriculum and knowing how to interact in the classroom and outside of the classroom. How kids get along on the playground does affect how they’re perceived in the classroom by their teachers. And, especially for children with ASD, but probably for all kids, just feeling more connected to your school helps you feel better about yourself.”

Those types of interventions can work if they’re embedded in a systematic framework for addressing a school’s climate, said Catherine P. Bradshaw, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, based in Baltimore. One-shot approaches—such as a school rally or asking students to sign pledges promising not to engage in bullying—"have relatively little impact unless they are connected with something else in a school.” And home-grown activities, like those that are created by students for their peers, often turn out to be quite influential, she said.

Getting Adults Involved

Such activities should be coupled with training for the adults in a school, many of whom overestimate how effectively they react to bullying, Ms. Bradshaw said. While studies show that the overwhelming majority of adults say they stop bullying when they see it happening, about half of middle and high school students report in studies that adults have seen bullying and done nothing. Adults are also believed to sometimes make the problem worse, according to students, said Ms. Bradshaw.

But just asking students about their perceptions of bullying can have a positive effect, she added. “Kids like to see that their opinions matter. And these are numbers that can be moved.”

Mr. Rose, at the University of Missouri, said bullying is a complex series of behaviors, and that the ways to address it will also be complex. One important factor, he believes, is to teach bullies different ways to behave, rather than counting on swift punishment as the only way to respond.

Schoolwide Approach

“I think we’re missing the boat when we’re doing that,” Mr. Rose said. Those who engage in bullying will “go through life, and until they learn a new skill that will serve the same or a similar function to the bullying, they will continue to do those behaviors.”

He supports schoolwide approaches that spell out clear behavior expectations and schoolwide monitoring, such as the models of positive behavioral supports adopted by many schools. But it can take schools sometimes more than a year to institute a strong and consistent framework for student behavior.

“We have to start changing the climate of schools,” Mr. Rose said, “and when we change the climate of schools, it takes time.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Autism Issues Complicate Educators’ Anti-Bullying Efforts

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