Defined:  Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.
In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
    Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

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  • 65% of parents reported that their children with Asperger’s syndrome had been victimized by peers in some way within the past year
  • 47% reported that their children had been hit by peers or siblings
  • 50% reported them to be scared by their peers
  • 9% were attacked by a gang and hurt in the private parts
  • 12% indicated their child had never been invited to a birthday party
  • 6% were almost always picked last for teams
  • 3% ate alone at lunch every day

Source: Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing (2009)

It’s no secret that bullying is a big problem in the U.S. among school-aged children and it’s an especially big problem for children with Autism and Asperger’s syndrome.  According to new national studies, children with autism spectrum disorders are bullied nearly five times as often (46% of autistic children in middle and high school told their parents they were victimized at school within the previous year, compared with just over 10% of children in the general population).

Because many people within the Autism Spectrum have trouble recognizing social cues, they are more likely to be awkward around others. They often engage in repetitive behaviors and tend to be hypersensitive to environmental stimuli (loud noise, bright light, strong odors, and touch).  All of which makes kids with the disorder ripe targets for bullies who home in on difference and enjoy aggravating their victims.
While about a third of autism cases are severely disabling, suffering from lower IQ’s and the inability to speak, the remaining two thirds of those with Autism have average or high intelligence and many can function well, if their social and sensory development issues are appropriately addressed.

That may help explain why the highest functioning children in the current study were at greatest risk of being bullied. While their social awkwardness was more obvious because they actually interacted more with mainstream peers, this made their actual disability less visible, likely making their condition harder for their peers to understand.  Children with autism who could speak well, for example, were three times more likely to be bullied than those whose conversational ability was limited or absent.

Researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University conducted a survey of 1,200 parents who had a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and found 63 percent of the kids had been bullied. The researchers also found these children were three times more likely to be bullied than their siblings who do not have autism.  While any child that’s bullied can experience significant emotional distress, children with autism may experience “meltdowns” or aggressive outbursts when upset, and the survey found some of the children are being intentionally triggered into such episodes.

“These survey results show the urgent need to increase awareness, influence school policies and provide families and children with effective strategies for dealing with bullying,” Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement. “We hope that this research will aid efforts to combat bullying by helping parents, policymakers and educators understand the extent of this problem in the autism community and be prepared to intervene.”

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The survey reported other interesting findings. 61% percent of children with Asperger’s are currently being bullied, a rate that almost doubled that of children with other diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Children with autism who attended public schools were 50% more likely to be bullied than those in private schools or special education settings; and while bullying occurred at every grade level, it  appeared worse for children with autism between fifth and eighth grade.

What explains such high rates of bullying among the autism community?
According to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, children with Asperger’s may be more prone to bullying because they’re often placed in typical classrooms in regular schools. The Institute also said certain behavioral traits including clumsiness, poor hygiene, rigid rule-keeping, talking obsessively about a favorite topic, frequent meltdowns and inflexibility may make children with an autism spectrum disorder more prone to bullying.