Here’s Why Autistic Teens are a Prime Target for Bullies

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Bullies delight in belittling others and are driven by the sense of power and perceived social status they derive from demeaning those they target. It should come as no surprise that they might try to achieve a sense of social power and standing by targeting those they perceive as the weak, the disadvantaged, and the developmentally disabled.

It’s fairly well known that certain groups, especially minorities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered young persons and individuals with disabilities, are particularly at risk of bullying. But according to a survey of nearly 1,000 parents conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and recently published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, slightly under half of teenagers with disorders on the autistic spectrum have been bullied.

Bullying is a type of aggressive behavior that typically accompanies a real or perceived power imbalance and includes actions such as making threats, taunting, spreading malicious gossip, physically or verbally assaulting, ridiculing, and using social influence to entice others to ostracize the targeted person. Bullying occurs in a wide variety of situations, including at school and even in the workplace. Fortunately, awareness about this relatively common problem has been growing over the past several years. And many schools have instituted anti-bullying programs in line with government guidelines. Nonetheless, bullying is still an all too frequent occurrence.

Bullies like to build themselves up at someone else’s expense. And unlike what many used to believe (and some still do, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) they’re generally not really cowards underneath or necessarily compensating for underlying feelings of insecurity or low self-esteem. Rather, for the most part, they simply take delight in belittling others and are driven by the sense of power and perceived social status they derive from demeaning those they target. And they share the distaste for accepting social obligation and expending conscientious effort common to many disturbed characters. So, it should come as no surprise that they might try to achieve a sense of social power and standing by targeting those thtey perceive as the weak, the disadvantaged, and the developmentally disabled. Even the most pathetic of characters can fool themselves into looking good by contrast when they target those who — at least by some worldly standards — have undesirable characteristics and don’t measure up.

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Teens with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) are particularly vulnerable to bullying because they are likely to show socially awkward behavior and poor social interaction skills. And some autistic teens also have communication skills deficits that affect not only their ability to process the verbal assaults hurled at them but also to adequately report to authorities the nature of the behavior to which they have been subjected. There are many reasons that ASD children make good targets for bullies, and now, unfortunately, there is data suggesting that they are targeted much more frequently than anyone expected. And whereas bullying is an unfortunate ordeal for anyone to go through, its effects on those who are already struggling to adapt socially is understandably more serious. Those who are already struggling to adapt are likely to be even further arrested in their social development if they are routinely subjected to social trauma.

Bullying persists because our social climates tolerate it. And despite recent efforts to change the culture of schools and workplaces, it’s still a big problem. Bullies often solicit the complicity of others in their attacks. And as I pointed out in a prior post (see “Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters?”), that complicity can even come in the form of the passivity of bystanders who take no action to prevent or stop an assault. Bullies are also great at making those who would challenge them and stick up for the “undesirables” among us look just as undesirable by association. Still, bullies would lose a lot of incentive if they never found a captive audience or if they came to expect sure and swift sanction for their actions.

Although almost all schools have anti-bullying programs and policies that look absolutely great on paper, the reality is that a culture of tacit acceptance of this banal behavior still reigns on most campuses. Changing attitudes and social mores is a much more difficult task than simply writing or even enforcing a policy. It’s a matter of the heart, and empathy for those who are disadvantaged in one way or another, like youngsters with ASD. We’ll put an end to bullying when bullies can expect nothing but unflinching disapproval and intolerance of such behavior — not just from the authorities, but from their peers.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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