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Research Shows Strong Support Networks Decrease Chance of Bullying Among Children with Autism

In 2012 a study on bullying by the Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Kreiger Institute showed alarming results. The study, the largest look ever at autism and bullying, found that children on the spectrum are significantly more likely than other kids to be bullied. In fact, they are three times as likely to be bullied as their typically developing sibling.

Now there is new research out of the UK that helps us understand that the chances of being bullied are influenced by a variety of factors. Students who attend school in an inclusive environment are more likely to be bullied than those who attend a specialized school.  Likewise, children who are bused or take public transportation are at greater risk of victimization.

As a mother, the most interesting result of the survey for me is that children with autism who had strong support networks — including friends and teachers — were less likely to be bullied than those whose parents were actively engaged at school.

“Our results send out a message to parents and teachers to help them identify opportunities where they can intervene to prevent bullying,” said study author Judith Hebron of The University of Manchester.

One of the key places for intervention is the school playground. If children with autism are taught how to play cooperatively there is a greater likelihood that they will form bonds with their classmates.

Cooperative play means that it takes more than one child to make the fun. For example, shooting hoops during recess brings children together but doesn’t require them to rely on one another. On the other hand, playing tetherball, takes two children to engage in the activity. If one person is not fully engaged, the game ceases to be fun. Basketball is social play, while tetherball is cooperative play. Another example is hopscotch and four square—it is possible to play hopscotch by yourself, while four square requires your peers to play with you.

In order for adults and children to model cooperative play, which is one of the best ways for children to learn how, the design of school playground needs to be rich in cooperative play opportunities.  See saws are a perfect example of cooperative play.