The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the United States is one in 110. This is up from the previous estimate of one in 150. Now that more children are being affected by autism, researchers are taking the time to look into how having autism can affect a child throughout his lifespan. One topic of concern among parents is autism and childhood bullying.
In August 2009, a study by Eeske van Roekel, Ron H.J. Scholte, and Robert Didden was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders assessing not only the prevalence of bullying among the autism population but the autistic child’s perception of the bullying act. Children on the spectrum who had more difficulty with the Theory of Mind concept frequently misinterpreted bullying situations more often than their peers with a better grasp of Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind
One of the core deficits of children on the autism spectrum, at all levels of functioning, is in the realm of Theory of Mind (ToM). According to a study published in the April 2007 issue of Revista de Neurologia and translated into English, “The theory of mind originated from a concept found in the pioneer works of Premack and Woodruf and refers to the ability to understand and predict the behaviour of other people, their knowledge, intentions, emotions and beliefs.”
Autism and Bullying
While all children on the autism spectrum have some level of difficulty with Theory of Mind, those that have the most difficulty with this concept often misinterpret bullying acts as being non-bullying in nature. According to the study by Van Roekel, et al, a child with autism’s concept of ToM is one of the main characteristics used in the perception of bullying.
A second important characteristic is the level of victimization. Individuals who are the victim of childhood bullying on a more frequent basis use their previous experiences to determine whether a situation is indeed bullying. These individuals may also be hyper sensitive to acts that may not be bullying.
Teachers and Bullying
While individuals on the autism spectrum may have a more difficult time determining if a situation is an example of bullying, the teachers involved in the study did not face this same difficulty.
Although the study showed an increase in childhood bullying among those on the autism spectrum, the teachers reported a higher rate of bullying than the students did themselves. Children and adolescents on the autism spectrum as well as their typically developing peers are reporting a lower rate of bullying than their teachers.
While children on the autism spectrum are victims of bullying acts more frequently than their typical peers, the fact that teachers reported a higher incidence rate overall leads one to question the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in schools.
If the students themselves don’t see the level of bullying behavior that is actively occurring then these programs need to be changed in order to help students understand what acts are considered bullying and which aren’t. In the end, children on the autism spectrum will only benefit from the modified anti-bullying programs.
Tirapu-Ustarroz, J., et. al. (2007) What is theory of mind? Revista de Neurologia.
Van Roekel, E., et. al. (2009). Bullying Among Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Prevalence and Perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
This article was originally published on Suite101.com.