Expert Q&A: Dr. Ryan Adams shares tips and resources to end bullying

Dr. Ryan Adams, Ph.D.

Children and adolescents with autism are particularly vulnerable to bullying but preventing and stopping it when it happens can be a challenge. In response to this need, Dr. Ryan Adams, Ph.D., has pursued a decade-long career in research on autism and bullying and developed a web-based program that offers information and strategies to parents, teachers, peers and victims of bullying. 

In this Q&A, Dr. Adams discusses some of his key research findings and shares his bullying prevention guides for teens, parents and teachers. 

Dr. Adams is a developmental psychologist in the UC Department of Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a member site of the Autism Speaks-supported Autism Care Network. His research focuses on adolescents, peer victimization, bullying and depressive symptoms.  

What does research tell us about bullying and autism? 

When you look at the research, what’s interesting is the results are pretty consistent in terms of autism and bullying during adolescence. There are two big trends I see in the research. 

First, individuals with autism, even compared to individuals with other developmental disorders, experience higher rates of bullying—and at a more frequent pace. In my research with Dr. Somer Bishop and Dr. Julie Lounds Taylor, we found that 46% of individuals with autism were experiencing at least one form of peer victimization at least once a week and 35% were experiencing it every day. This is very high, especially when we compare it to the general population where typically 2-3% experience bullying once a week and 1-2% every day.  

Second, studies have shown that bullying is associated with several negative outcomes, including internalizing problems, anxiety, depression, suicide and other health issues. In our research, we also found that it’s related to poor performance at school, lower feelings of safety at school and feelings of not fitting in. These associations are nearly twice as strong in individuals with autism than the general population. Perhaps surprisingly, verbal bullying had the strongest association with these outcomes. 

Why are autistic people at highest risk of being bullied? 

Especially during adolescence, children are looking for people to conform, and adolescents with autism sometimes don’t conform to a typical script. The mere fact that they might behave differently is enough to put them at risk. 

What is your approach to bullying prevention in your Guides to End Bullying? 

We know a lot about how to address bullying, but I noticed it wasn’t getting into the hands of parents, teachers, peers and the individuals being victimized. Typically, comprehensive bullying interventions are implemented in schools, but individual families can’t access that—and the resources available to families are very limited or simplistic. What we tried to do is take a wide range of ideas and strategies and put them into a place where teens and families could easily access them.  

What came out of that is the Girls Guide to End Bullying and the Boys Guide to End Bullying. These are web-based programs aimed towards teens to help them recognize when bullying is happening and develop their own strategies for dealing with and preventing bullying. Each guide is divided by type of bullying (for example, verbal, physical, relational, etc.). They are then further divided into five sections, with real-life examples in each section:  

  • Recognizing bullying 
  • The consequences of bullying 
  • What to do and not do when you see bullying happen 
  • What to do and not do when bullying is happening to you 
  • Highlights and things to think about 

We also offer a parent manual that guides parents through difficult conversations with their children and the school, as well as a teacher manual and lesson plans

What are some examples of strategies you offer in the guides? 

We know the most effective way to stop bullying is giving the larger group of bystanders the tools they need to recognize when it’s happening and get involved. A lot of times, people get away with bullying by saying they were kidding, so we teach kids that doesn’t matter. Then, we give them different strategies to support the person being bullied. For example, the easiest thing to do if you witness bullying in school is not to laugh. Normally, the bully is only doing these things to gain social status, so not laughing takes away that reinforcement. 

For people who are victims of bullying, the most important thing is not to overreact. That’s a hard thing to do, especially for someone with autism, so we give them different strategies to help them. For example, we might recommend that they leave the situation or write down what they will say to the bully ahead of time. We also give them ideas of how to respond and redirect the bully. 

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