Study examines how youth with autism view bullying experiences

Stock photo of teen boy feeling intimidated

Research has shown that individuals with autism experience higher rates of peer victimization than the general population. However, little is known about the personal experiences, perceptions, and lingering effects of bullying on the individual with autism.

A new study*, conducted by a former VKC trainee, has captured these personal experiences and has revealed that commonly used bullying assessments may not be effective at capturing the wide ranging experiences of peer victimization.

Headshot of Marisa Fisher, Ph.D.

Marisa Fisher, Ph.D.

Marisa Fisher, Ph.D., a former trainee with the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and current assistant professor at Michigan State University, has focused much of her work on safety concerns among individuals with disabilities. Her latest project, a collaboration with VKC investigator Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D. (Pediatrics and Special Education), began in an attempt to better understand what acts youth with autism describe as bullying, their perceptions of why they are targets, and how they reacted to and internalized the experiences.

“There are huge gaps in our knowledge about the victimization experiences of these youth,” said Fisher. “Most of the previous research has been based on parent and teacher reports and in close-ended questionnaires with predetermined categories of bullying. Because internalized victimization can lead to depression, anxiety, other mental health issues, it is important that we find out how to better measure and address the perceptions of victimization so it may lessen the negative impact on their mental health and future relationships.”

Fisher worked with data collected through a larger study of Taylor’s examining the development of youth with autism as they left high school. Taylor knew of Fisher’s interests and, realizing that as part of the autism diagnostic measures they were collecting data on whether the youth had been bullied by their peers, contacted Fisher to jumpstart the collaboration.

Fisher and Taylor examined data collected on 30 transition-age (17-19 years) youth with autism spectrum disorders and found that 22 of the 30 reported instances of teasing or bullying. In terms of the types of victimization, the youth described experiences that fell into four themes: verbal (name calling, teasing), physical (repeated poking, having their shoes tied together), relational (purposely ignored, being stared at in a strange way), and unspecified (victims did not want to talk about it).

When asked why they thought they were targets of bullying, the youth gave varied reasons. Some believed it was their own personal attributes that were to blame. Some youth reported they believe that they are easy targets, are obviously different, or are “not exactly approachable.” Others said that the other students just don’t like them, or hate them, or took responsibility by saying “It’s hard to keep friends.”

Many youth reacted to the situation by trying to ignore the bullying, and many also said that was not always possible. Many youth took action after the bullying by reporting the incident to a teacher or parent, and others took action by attempting to modify their own behaviors so as not to attract more attention. Perhaps most troubling is that many let the behaviors of bullies affect their future relationships and trust in others.

“The bullying experiences captured differ from those typically measured on self-report questionnaires,” said Fisher. “For example, several youth (20%) described instances of physical bullying such as being repeatedly poked or having their shoes tied together. When typical victimization questionnaires are used, physical bullying is categorized as being hit, kicked, or punched. Thus, many instances of physical bullying may remain unreported, and untreated.”

Fisher says bullying questionnaires may need to be modified to specifically address the unique experiences of youth with autism spectrum disorders. While typically developing youth may be able to abstractly relate their bullying experiences to examples provided on questionnaires, abstract thought and generalization may be more challenging for youth with autism.

“Bullying prevention programs should also be individualized for students with autism,” said Fisher. “That the students minimize the seriousness of the bullying and allow it to affect their willingness to explore future friendships is disconcerting. Future research should examine the link between the immediate and future impact of bullying, so that prevention programs can address these concerns and help the students to build and maintain positive social support networks.”

“The findings from this paper have become central to my thinking about future research,” said Taylor. “Youth with autism experience many difficulties as they transition to adulthood. Not only are they bullied at alarming rates, but also often have challenges in areas such as maintaining social relationships and connecting with employment. I am very interested in going beyond just describing these potential challenges, to really understanding their implications for the quality of life and mental health of these youth.”

*Fisher, M.H., Taylor, J.L. (2016). Let’s talk about it: Peer victimization experiences as reported by adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Autism,20(4):402-11.

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications.

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