Last week’s case of a 16-year-old Maryland boy with autism who was sexually assaulted and bullied by two teenage girls brings back to the spotlight the problems autistic teens may face from bullying. Although many teenagers are bullied, studies have shown that students with disabilities such as autism are much more prone to bullying than their non-disabled peers.
The 16-year-old boy in Maryland was assaulted with a knife on numerous occasions, forced to perform sex acts, dragged around by his hair, and kicked in the groin by two teenage girls who he knew and considered to be his friends, according to his mother.
The girls, aged 17 and 15, also intimidated him into several times going out onto thin ice on a pond to retrieve a ball. When the boy fell through several times, the girls refused to help him out of the icy water. The suspects recorded several of the incidents on their cell phones between December and February.
The girl are charged with first- and second-degree assault. The 17-year-old is being tried as an adult. Both were also charged with false imprisonment and soliciting a subject in the production of child pornography. More charges may be filed.
A 2012 study on bullying, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that 46 percent of autistic teenagers had reported being bullied to their parents. Another study from the Interactive Autism Network showed that 63 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders had been bullied at some time in their lives.
Paul R. Sterzing, from the University of California, Berkeley and the 2012 study’s lead author, called bullying a “profound public health problem.”
Many people with autism have difficulty recognizing societal cues, which makes them uncomfortable around others. They may be hypersensitive to surrounding stimuli, or engage in repetitive behaviors. All of these characteristics tend to make autistic teens more prone to bullying, even though most people with autism have average or high intelligence and can function well.
The highest functioning autistic children in the study were actually at greatest risk of being bullied, apparently because they interacted with peers in more conventional situations, and because their disabilities were not as visible, leading to less understanding by their classmates.
Sterzing said that he would argue that current interventions used to prevent bullying are ineffective, and added that the problem may increase as the number of children being diagnosed with autism increases. Approximately one in 88 children in the U.S. now has a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder.
About 15 percent of children with autism were reported to be bullies themselves, about the same rate as is found in the general teen population. About 9 percent were both bullies and victims. Bullying may take the form of exclusion, humiliation, teasing, or, as in the case of the Maryland teen, physical assault.
Bullying has been found to lead to depression and other mental health problems, as well as poor grades and even physical illness due to the severe stress it causes. The problem may be even worse in children with autism, who already have to struggle in school more than other kids.
The study’s authors concluded that children with autism are indeed more prone to bullying. They say with the increasing social integration of autistic teenagers into conventional classrooms, protective peer groups are needed. They say that schools need to help develop the empathy and social skill levels of students toward their developmentally disabled classmates.
By Beth A. Balen