Children with autism can easily become targets for bullies. Sandra Scott looks at the warning signs and tells teachers how they can help
Anyone can be bullied. You don't have to be small or wear glasses. But some people are more likely to be picked on. Studies suggest the highest predictor is not obvious physical defects or psychological weakness, but disorders characterised by social impairment and speech impediments. Affected children have difficulty making friends and being accepted by their unaffected peers.
Difficulties with language and social relationships are major symptoms of autism, and repeated studies have shown that autistic children are more likely to be bullied. In 2006, the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that 41 per cent of children with autism had been bullied, but for those at the higher end of the ability range, with Asperger's syndrome and high functioning autism, it was 59 per cent. These children are of average or above average intelligence and do well academically, but have poor social skills.
A recent study by Professor Digby Tantam and others at Sheffield University found that only half (53 per cent) of autistic pupils sat with friends in lessons, against 81 per cent of others, and that one in three autistic pupils spent their break in classrooms or the school library, compared with only 4 per cent of others.
Children who cannot express themselves well, or who have difficulty in understanding others, are also at higher risk of bullying. A recent Nuffield study by Gina Conti-Ramsden, professor of child language and learning at Manchester University, found that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) were more than 20 per cent more likely than others to be bullied.
Children with SLI show no physical signs of being different, have normal intellectual ability and enjoy socialising - but their mistakes and misunderstandings make them appear "weird" to others, who can ostracise or even attack them. How can teachers help? Research suggests they should keep things simple: focus on interventions that help pupils make friends and fit in. A buddy or befriending system, a friendship bench or lunchtime clubs can take some of the stress away from break times, says the NAS. Organised playground activities with small groups of children give them social interaction, and also mean they know what is expected of them.
It could also be helpful to teach a lesson on autism or language impairment. If handled sensitively, it doesn't have to single the child out: one option is to start talking about how we help people with a sense impairment, such as blind people, moving on to talk about what it is like to have problems with a "social sense".
Having friends is a good protection. Popularity means power: the bully has it and the victim does not. Socially impaired victims are vulnerable to the relative power of the more socially adept bully, not the loner of popular myth, but always surrounded by a group of friends.
Once bullying has begun, these children's inherent difficulties perpetuate it: "Showing sadness, fear or social withdrawal invites aggression from the bully and a vicious cycle is begun," says Ann Ruth Turkel. Being unpopular with their peers also means they have few allies and are therefore less likely to get any "bystander" assistance to halt bullying once it is in progress.
Their communication problems make things worse. It hampers their ability to report their distress and seek help. They are also at higher risk of repeated bullying, so teachers need to intervene early on their behalf. Professor Tantam says: "Intervening before children with autism are repeatedly bullied could have a significant impact on their experience of socialising and formal education"
Dr Sandra Scott is a forensic psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley hospitals trust and adviser to television shows I'm a Celebrity and Hell's Kitchen.
1. B is for Bullied (2006), available on the National Autistic Society website www.autism.org.ukbullying
2. J. Wainscot et al, Relationship with Peers and the use of the School Environment of Mainstream Secondary School Pupils with Asperger Syndrome (High-Functioning Autism): A case-control study. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy (2008) 8:1, 25-38
3. E.L. Knox, G.M. Conti-Ramsden, Bullying in Young People with a History of Specific Language Impairment, Educational and Child Psychology (2007) 24:4, 130-141
4. W. Craig and D. Pepler, Understanding Bullying: From research to practice. Canadian Psychology (2007) 48:2, 86-93
5. Ann Ruth Turkel, Sugar and Spice and Puppy Dogs' Tails: The psychodynamics of bullying, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry (2007) 35:2, 243-258.