Lots of kids get bullied. But kids with autism are especially vulnerable.
A new survey by the Interactive Autism Network found that nearly two-thirds of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point. And it found that these kids are three times as likely as typical kids to have been bullied in the past month.
The survey of parents of more than 1,100 children with autism found that bullies often pick on kids like Abby Mahoney, who is 13 and has Asperger's syndrome.
Abby, who lives near Baltimore, describes herself as "cool, different" and "a big geek." When she gets interested in something like Star Wars, she says, she gets really passionate about it.
"I've memorized nearly everything about Star Wars there is to know," Abby says, adding that she used to go to school dressed like Princess Leia. And when she got to school, she was sometimes so hyper that she literally bounced off the classroom walls, she says.
All of that made her an easy target for one boy.
"Every time I'd walk by, he'd call: "Police, police, take her back to the insane asylum,' " Abby says. "The other kids would run in and say, 'We're the police.' And then they'd chase me."
It didn't help that Abby responded by fending off her pursuers with an imaginary lightsaber.
For a long time, Abby didn't tell her teachers about the bullying. When she did, things got worse. And when she finally stood up to the kids tormenting her, she says, it didn't go well.
"I seem to remember telling the boys, 'You're mean to me,' or something like that," Abby says. "They ran after me, and that ringleader, he threw a chessboard at my head."
It missed. But Abby's mom, Patricia Mahoney, says she realized something had to change.
Abby's problems at school started long before the bullying, Mahoney says. Her daughter desperately wanted friends, she says, but her unusual behavior and interests made them hard to find.
"I remember she would go up to 5-year-olds on the playground and say, 'You want to play Celts and Romans?' " Mahoney says. "And so she spent most of recess playing under a bush."
As Abby got older, her differences stood out more. And when the bullying started, Abby didn't seem to get what was going on in the minds of her tormentors, Mahoney says.
"She wouldn't consider them off-limits to try to interact with because she just wanted friends," Mahoney says. Mahoney wondered, "Why are you going to hang out with kids who have been so cruel to you?"
Eventually, she pulled her daughter out of school and quit her job so she could educate Abby at home for the next two years.
"Home schooling was really great," Mahoney says, because Abby is so bright and interested in learning. But Mahoney realized her daughter also needed to learn how to interact with other kids.
So now Abby is in a school for kids with autism. And it's working. Abby has made friends and has been chosen to star in the school's production of the musical Annie.
The survey by the Interactive Autism Network turned up lots of stories like Abby's, says Connie Anderson, community scientific liaison with the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. And the results show why kids like Abby, who want to make friends, are so vulnerable to bullying.
"The aloof children were less likely to be bullied than the children who desperately wanted to interact," Anderson says.
Unfortunately, a few bad experiences can leave these children with lasting scars, she says.
"Bullying can undo all our efforts. I think that's the most devastating thing about it," Anderson says. "Children on the spectrum can be anxious anyway. This can just put them over the top and undo all the good that everyone's trying to do."
Children with autism would have fewer problems if every school had a policy on bullying and enforced it, Anderson says.
In the meantime, she says, parents should know that if their child has an individualized education program (IEP), it can include measures to prevent bullying.
For more information, Anderson recommends websites hosted by Autism Speaks and The Bully Project.
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