Children diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, encounter various types of challenges in school. This may be due to communication and also to relationships with other children.

A growing body of evidence indicates that children with autism are more likely to be bullied.

We just published a study that observed that autism is the leading risk factor for exposure to bullying among all neurodevelopmental disorders.

And in a Canadian survey, 77% of children with autism said they had been bullied.

The risk is also significantly higher in children with other types of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s syndrome, and intellectual disability, compared to non-neurodiverse children.

Read more: Are there more children with autism today than before?

Risk factors and harms of bullying

Although the reasons for a higher risk of being bullied in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities are complex, one potential reason is impaired communication skills. These can lead to rejection by peers and difficulty forming friendships.

The impulsive behaviors often associated with neurodevelopmental disorders can also lead to integration difficulties, thus increasing the risk of social exclusion and subsequent bullying, whether as victim or perpetrator.

Bullying can lead to long-term psychological and physiological symptoms.

Exposure to bullying can lead not only to long-term psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety, but also to physiological symptoms.

Data from the Australian Children’s Longitudinal Study indicate that bullying experience may be associated with a four times higher risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts in adolescents aged 14-15.

What our study found

Our new study found that children with autism are more likely to be bullied in secondary schools than in primary schools (a trend opposite to children without autism). It is possible that in high schools the differences due to autism are more pronounced and noticeable.

Read more: What causes autism? What we know, don’t know and suspect

Our results also suggest that children on the autism spectrum who not need special health care are at greater risk of being bullied than autistic children with special health care needs. This implies that the need for support for high-functioning autistic children may be underestimated.

Autistic children living in areas with low socioeconomic resources were also more likely to be bullied than other autistic children. This highlights the importance of more mental health supports and more attention to social care needs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What can schools do?

Currently, most evidence-based anti-bullying programs are offered through the school’s universal behavior management system. This means that everyone receives the same standard information about bullying and no individual characteristics related to victims or bullies are discussed.

In Australia, the Bully Zero bullying education program is delivered through a combination of online and face-to-face workshops. It aims to provide information about bullying, including the different types, its impact, and resilience (or emotional intelligence). Bullying No Way provides professional resources for bullying prevention by educating students, families, and school staff.

Blackboard that says
Bullying programs do not address the underlying risk factors.

Although these programs provide useful advice on coping strategies, few address the risk factors underlying bullying.

Read more: It’s been 25 years since we redefined autism – here’s what we’ve learned

In light of our new findings, we believe that neurodiversity and inclusivity should be incorporated into school anti-bullying programs. Additionally, there are other things schools should do to reduce the risk of children with autism being bullied:

  • children in schools should learn that neurodiversity is a difference, not a disability

  • children should be encouraged to use appropriate language that aligns with neurodiversity. For example, use respectful language such as “person on the autism spectrum” instead of “autistic person”

  • teach students about empathy in the context of neurodiversity. These include understanding how an autistic child may react to stress differently than other children and avoiding portraying an autistic person’s interests as “restricted”.

  • hold bullying prevention workshops in secondary schools, as older children with autism are more likely to be bullied than younger children with autism

  • schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas should ensure they have anti-bullying programs with a particular focus on neurodiversity.

Understanding neurodevelopmental disorders can improve inclusivity and reduce stigma, which is essential for creating anti-bullying environments.

And the identified risk modifiers can tell us which groups (children on the autism spectrum who are older, with better function, and living in poorer neighborhoods) should be prioritized for specific supports.