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"The rate of bullying victimization among adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder is alarmingly high, indicating a profound public health problem in the United States," said lead researcher Paul Sterzing, an assistant professor at the School of Social Welfare of the University of California, Berkeley.
Bullying among children and adolescents is common, and it's often the most vulnerable children who become targets, the researchers added.
One expert wasn't surprised by the finding.
"This study confirms what we know," said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami and associate director of the school's Mailman Center for Child Development. "It's clear that kids with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of bullying," he said. "We need to figure out better ways to prevent this -- for all children."
For the study, Sterzing's team used information from 920 parents of adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder. Data came from a long-term national U.S. study of adolescents receiving special education services in grades 7 through 12 in December 2000. It also included 13- to 16-year olds in ungraded programs.
The bullies among these teens (15 percent) and those who had histories of being both both bully and victim (9 percent) were about the same as the national average for non-autistic children, the researchers noted.
Some of the most common factors of the victims of bullying included having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), poor social skills and taking more general education classes, the team found.
"Bullying victimization may increase as their child spends more time in a general education classroom," Sterzing said. He believes that parents should "discuss with teachers and school staff what measures will be taken to ensure the successful inclusion of their child in the classroom setting and subsequent peer groups."
Also, anti-bullying interventions need to be tailored to meet the needs of this population, Sterzing said.
"Schools are aware of it but there aren't many good ways to deal with it," Brosco added. "We don't really know how to prevent bullying. We are still at the stage of 'it's a bad thing we really have to do something about it.'"
Another expert agreed that too much bullying goes unreported.
"When kids have special vulnerabilities, rather than being protected, often times they're preyed upon," added Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "Autistic kids are victimized more than typical kids."
"They are vulnerable because they are stigmatized and picked on more regularly. So parents need to be on the lookout," he said.
Parents also have to be aware that their child can be both a victim and a bully, Fornari said. "Often parents aren't aware of the negative behaviors their kids are involved with, because they can't imagine it," he said.
Schools can also help by educating teachers and with programs to prevent bullying, by having "a zero tolerance for bullying," he added.
"There is no magic answer," Fornari said. "But everyone needs to be mindful that bullying is a prevalent problem -- much more prevalent than we realize."
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