Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Bullying Rampant Against Teens with Autism

September 06, 2012







A new national study of teens found that nearly half of those affected by autism experience bullying. This rate is more than three times higher than that for other students. The paper, published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, was supported in part by an Autism Speaks research grant.

The investigators used surveys completed by 920 parents and school administrators to track bullying among 13 to 16 year olds. Over one year, 46.3 percent of those with autism experienced bullying. This compared to 10.6 percent for students overall. Of particular note, the teens who attended more general education classes also suffered more bullying than those who spent more time in special education classes.

“There’s this idea that moving into a mainstream classroom may have positive benefits for youth with special needs,” says lead researcher Paul Sterzing, Ph.D., formerly of Washington University, St. Louis. “But our study found that being in the general education classroom increased the odds of being bullied.”

Parents of children with autism have long reported bullying problems. A number of small studies have supported these reports. However, no previous studies had looked at the problem on a national level.

Children with autism who are already struggling with communication skills may find it difficult to talk about bullying, the researchers note. As such, their findings may underestimate the problem.

The researchers also found that many youth had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in addition to autism. They conclude that teens with both disorders may be particularly vulnerable to victimization and bullying others. 

“The results of this study underscore the urgent need for better support for young people with autism as they navigate their social environments,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “We need to raise awareness of the situation and develop programs that provide effective support for teens with autism.”

Potential interventions could include national programs that focus on identifying bullying cases and better integrating young people with autism into the classroom, Dr. Sterzing suggests. He and his colleagues also call on school staff to work with all students to increase empathy and understanding of those with special needs.

Dr. Sterzing encourages parents to talk with their children daily about their classroom experiences. He also advises parents to reach out to teachers and school counselors, especially if their child has communication difficulties.

Autism Speaks provides a number of resources to help families and schools combat bullying. Please see our Combatting Bullying page, which includes the Special Needs Anti-Bullying Toolkit created through a partnership with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, PACER’s National Bullying Center and Ability Path. In addition, our newly launched School Community Tool Kit Version 2.0 contains information about bullying in the section titled “The School Community.”

Autism Speaks is currently funding a variety of research projects that seek to help improve quality of life of those with autism by enhancing social skills. You can explore these and other funded research using our website’s Grant Search. Please also see Promoting Teen Social Skills and Social Skills for Teenagers for examples of exemplary programs supported by Autism Speaks.

 Reported by Autism Speaks Science Writer Rachel Nuwer