Article at a Glance

  • Around 46% of children with autism reported being bullied within the previous year.
  • Some of the characteristics of autism can make these children easy targets.
  • By increasing understanding and empathy in our children we can help protect those with special needs.

Anti-bullying programs have been credited with a recent decrease in bullying, but a new study shines some light on a particularly vulnerable group—children with autism.

The study found that middle and high school students with autism spectrum disorders were bullied almost five times as often as their peers who do not have autism. Around 46% of children with autism reported being bullied within the previous year. But their parents think the rate is actually even higher.

Autism disorders are characterized by an inability to read social cues and difficulty communicating. Children with autism are often unable to understand that they are being bullied or unable to report it. Many parents have to rely on the reports of teachers or other students to know that their child is being bullied.

These characteristics also make autistic children easy targets for bullies. Their inability to read social cues, repetitive behaviors, and hypersensitivity to stimuli make them socially awkward and easy to aggravate.

However, it was the children who are higher functioning and in mainstream classrooms who were the most likely to be targeted. It would seem that their disorder stood out more when interacting with classmates and expectations for social skills would have been higher.

Even with efforts to foster inclusion, there is still a lot of ignorance in regards to students with disabilities. And we have a tendency to fear what we don’t understand. The study recommended increasing social integration and developing programs to help children understand and relate to children with autism and other disorders.

As parents, this study is a strong reminder of the importance of fostering empathy in our children. When was the last time we sat down and talked to our children about the importance of protecting the vulnerable and standing up for others? Because when it comes to protecting children with special needs, so often it is our children who are the first line of defense. Bullying comes at too high of a cost to ignore.

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