Asperger’s and Bullying: An Inclusive Educational Resource

The DVD resource Asperger's and Bullying: An Inclusive Educational Approach (Slee,P.T. Bottroff, V; Wotherspoon, A., & Martin, J. 2013) is available to purchase from Autism SA and Caper. Produced and Directed by Alison Wotherspoon (Ph.D).

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition affecting development. It refers to students with autism and Asperger syndrome. Whilst the characteristics of Asperger syndrome appear more subtle than those typical of autism, it does not mean that Asperger syndrome is a mild disorder. It is called a spectrum because children with autism cross the ability range.

One in 160 Australians has an ASD and it is more often seen in boys than girls.

Protection from bullying

Young people with Asperger Syndrome experience disproportionate levels of bullying in  mainstream school. A survey of 169 students (aged 5-17 years) identified with ASD in South Australia identified 62 per cent of the students reported they were bullied once a week or more often (Slee, P., personal communication, 2013). This compares with between approximately 27 per cent of other students (Cross, et al. 2009).

The costs of bullying are high in terms of relationships: victimisation is associated with depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor social self-concept. Victims of peer aggression suffer a variety of feelings of psychosocial distress. They feel more anxious, socially anxious, depressed, lonely and worse about themselves than non-victims (Hawker & Boulton, 2000, p. 453).

The South Australian research found that school bullying has a strong impact on the lives of students with ASD. It showed a significant relationship between bullying and

  • Unhappiness at school;
  • Feelings of unsafety at school;
  • Lower self-esteem and
  • Poorer coping skills

The findings demonstrated that school bullying has a significant impact on the lives of students diagnosed with an ASD.

It's important to ensure the no putdown rule operates in your classroom and behaviours are strongly guided by the value of inclusion of differences.

Visual prompts, tutorial support and curriculum designed around students' specific interests are some of the ways schools can support Asperger students. These should be negotiated with teachers, families and students so that individual needs are met.

How do we know if a child is autistic?

Children with autism have difficulties in three main areas:

  • Social skills such as understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, interacting with and responding to other people and making friends
  • Communication - such as delayed language development, difficulties initiating and sustaining conversations or using language in stereotyped and repetitive ways. Some children simply do not learn to talk.
  • Stereotyped and restricted patterns of behaviour. ASD children can have restricted play patterns. Some commentators put this down to a lack of imagination. (However, children with Asperger syndrome can demonstrate considerable imagination but within their own area of interest). ASD children can be also be very rigid and may have fixations on different objects, movements or topics.

A person with ASD might also show:

  • Unusual sensory interests
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Intellectual impairment or learning difficulties.

Are there different types of autism spectrum disorder?

There are different diagnoses within the autism spectrum, but, irrespective of which is given, individuals with an ASD will experience difficulties in many different social situations, such as school and work. Some commentators now just talk of 'autism'

  • Autism

The diagnosis of autistic disorder is given to individuals with impairments in social interaction and communication as well as restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours that are generally evident prior to three years of age.

  • Asperger syndrome

Individuals with Asperger syndrome have difficulties with social interaction and social communication and often demonstrate restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours. Individuals with Asperger disorder do not have a significant delay in early language acquisition and there is no significant delay in cognitive abilities or self help skills. Asperger is often detected later than autistic disorder as speech usually develops at the expected age.

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) (sometimes referred to as atypical autism)

The diagnosis of PDD-NOS or atypical autism is made when an individual has a marked social impairment but fails to meet full criteria for either autistic disorder or Asperger disorder. These individuals may also have communication impairments and/or restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours.

What causes autism spectrum disorder?

Currently, there is no single known cause for ASD. However, recent research has identified strong genetic links. ASD is not caused by an individual's upbringing or their social circumstances.

Is there a cure?

There is presently no known cure for ASD. However, early intervention, specialised education and structured support can help develop an individual's skills. Every individual with ASD will make progress, although each individual's progress will be different. Progress depends on a number of factors including the unique make up of the individual and the type and intensity of intervention. The effects of an ASD can often be minimised by early diagnosis and the right interventions. With the support of family, friends and service providers, individuals can achieve a good quality of life.

Autism spectrum disorder and the family

ASD inevitably affects all members of the family. Most individuals with ASD do show attachments to their parents, although there may be differences in the way this is demonstrated, e.g. how they show affection.

Autism spectrum disorder and the school

While some ASD children do well in the mainstream classroom, staff understanding and appropriate training are essential. Because some children are not diagnosed until 7-8 years, as seems to be the case of children with Asperger syndrome, there are special implications for Early Childhood workers and teachers and special education consultants. A South Australian report (2006) showed that the majority of students with Asperger Syndrome were enrolled in local schools. Their isolation, as well as their often-challenging behaviour, which leads to frequent exclusions, coupled with their propensity for depression, makes it imperative to address the needs of this group.

A report from the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders has recommended that they should have 'access to an appropriate educational service appropriate to his her/needs' (Position Paper, April 2010). In their view, services to ASD children are insufficiently responsive to the needs of the group. Special training should be given to teachers, so that they can more effectively address students' needs in communication, social skills, learning, sensory issues and behaviour. Family involvement should be central to the management of ASD students.

What can teachers do to support children diagnosed with Asperger syndrome?

Remember that students with Asperger syndrome are apt to be highly able, intelligent and technologically, mathematically or scientifically astute. They have the capacity to be significant contributors to society. It's valuable to the student that teachers can understand their difficulties and adjust to their needs: this will affect their potential to achieve educationally.

In addition

ASD students benefit from:

  • Consistent and predictable approaches because they need to be familiar with the environment and other people's actions. Posting rules, schedules, rewards and routines can be very helpful. Breaking down tasks into 'chunks' is valuable too.
  • Mitigating change: change often makes ASD students anxious: if change is inevitable, explain what is going to happen, why it is inevitable and what its effects will be on them.
  • Being supported to make and keep friendships. 'It is widely recognised that social and relational learning for students with Asperger syndrome is equally as important as academic achievement' (MAC: SWD, 2006, p11). Social skills training can be effective, but if it's misapplied can lead to teasing and bullying.
  • Being provided with a quiet place or being allowed to leave early from class may be options to consider. Some Asperger students are hypersensitive to noise or other stimuli and these small benefits can help them cope with high noise and other stimuli of school classrooms and corridors.
  • Alternative structured activities for break times as an alternative to free play can reduce the opportunities for bullying to occur. Small group activities can also provide these students with an opportunity to interact socially.
  • Make sure the whole school community knows it's everyone's responsibility to accept and support this group of students.

Finally…

It is vital that the vision enshrined in the National Safe Schools Framework for physical and emotional safety for all students in Australian schools attends to the particular needs of young people diagnosed with ASD to ensure that there life and learning at school is free from the physically harmful, socially isolating and psychologically damaging effects of bullying.

A whole school approach is needed to address this issue. In the words of students surveyed in this research, there is a need to educate the school community about children with disabilities/special needs/more about individuality, so that others understand.

When you understand something about the diagnosis, you will understand something about the management and you are less likely to mismanage. (Shearer and McColl, 2003)

References

  • Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders Education and Autism Spectrum Disorders in Australia: The provision of appropriate educational services for school-age students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Australia Position Paper April 2010 Accessed 6 October 2010
  • <autismspectrum.org.au/a2i1i1l237l113/what-is-autism.htm> Accessed 6 October 2010
  • Cross, D., Shaw, T., Hearn, L., Epstein, M., Monks, H., Lester, L., Thomas. (2009). Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS).   Retrieved 4th June, 2009, from http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/NationalSafeSchools/Pages/research.aspx
  • Dix, Katherine, Shearer, Jo Slee Phillip, Butcher Christel
  • KidsMatter for students with a disability Evaluation Report Ministerial Advisory Committee: Students with Disabilities The Centre for Analysis of Educational Futures, Flinders University
  • Government of South Australia Quality Educational Practices for Students with Asperger syndrome A report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee: Students with Disabilities (MAC: SWD) South Australia September 2006 Accessed 6 October 2010
  • Hawker, S. J., & Boulton, M. (2000). Twenty years' research on peer victimisation and psychosocial maladjustment: A meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies. Journal Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 41, 441-455.
  • <healthreform.biz/health/understanding-the-types-of-autism/> Accessed 6 October 2010
  • National Safe Schools Framework: http://foi.deewr.gov.au/documents/national-safe-schools-framework-resource-manual
  • Slee, P.T (2003). The PEACE Pack: A program for reducing bullying in our schools. Flinders University, Adelaide.
  • Slee,P.T. Bottroff, V; Wotherspoon, A., & Martin, J. (2013). Asperger's And Bullying: An Inclusive Educational Approach'. A DVD Resource, Flinders University, Adelaide. Produced and Directed by Alison Wothersppon (Ph.D).
  • ScienceDaily, April 18, 2005, Autism Linked To Mirror Neuron Dysfunction.
  • Shearer, Jo and McColl, Margaret, Behaviour Management: Children and Students with Disabilities - A Whole-School Approach Ministerial Advisory Committee, December 2003 <macswd.sa.gov.au/> Accessed 6 October 2010

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