Strategies to Reduce the Bullying of Young Children with Asperger Syndrome
Attwood, Tony, Australian Journal of Early Childhood
Sixty years ago Hans Asperger described a distinct profile of abilities and behaviour in young children that he called autistic personality (Asperger, 1944), but it was in 1981, a year after his death, that Lorna Wing first used the eponymous term Asperger Syndrome to describe children with an intellectual capacity within the normal range, but whose abilities and behaviour are consistent with our understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (Wing, 1981). The current prevailing view is that Asperger Syndrome is not an essentially different disorder from autism, but a variant of autism, and located at the milder end of the spectrum of autistic disorders (Frith, 2004). The diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome are still being developed and evaluated, but the following characteristics are based on the diagnostic criteria in DSM IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), two recent reviews of the research literature (Frith, 2004; Volkmar et al., 2004) and clinical experience (Attwood, 1998).
The child has a qualitative impairment in social interaction with the following characteristics: a failure to develop friendships appropriate to the child's developmental level; impaired use of non-verbal behaviour such as eye gaze, facial expression and body language to regulate social interaction; a lack of social and emotional reciprocity and empathy; and an impaired ability to identify social cues and social conventions.
There are also subtle impairments in communication skills, in that these children may have fluent speech but difficulties with conversation skills and a tendency to be pedantic, sometimes having an unusual prosody in their speech and a propensity to make a literal interpretation of the comments of peers and adults. Young children with Asperger Syndrome typically have a dominant interest in their play that is unusual in intensity or focus, and they experience considerable anxiety if there are changes to expected routines in their daily life. Although not included in the formal diagnostic criteria, there may be signs of motor clumsiness (Green et al., 2002) and being hypersensitive to auditory and tactile experiences (Smith-Myles et al., 2000). There can also be problems with executive function, or the ability to plan, organise and monitor one's own performance (Eisenmajer et al., 1996; Nyden et al., 1999; Ozonoff, South & Miller, 2000; Pennington & Ozonoff, 1996).
Government policy is to promote the integration of children with Asperger Syndrome with their age peers at school, but there is a distinct risk associated with integration, that is, the propensity of children with Asperger Syndrome to be bullied. The unusual profile of abilities, especially in the social domain, is not only recognised by parents and professionals, it is also very apparent to their peers.
Studies and reviews of the literature on bullying in childhood have indicated that the frequency and intensity of bullying is most prominent between the ages of eight and 14 years (Nansel et al., 1998; Olweus, 1993; Pepler & Craig, 1999; Rigby, 1996). However, bully--victim relationships begin to emerge in the preschool years (Vermande et al., 2000). This paper will focus on the reasons for the bullying of children with Asperger Syndrome that begins in the preschool years, and on strategies that can be used from early childhood onwards to try to prevent some of the long-term consequences of bullying that can have a significant psychological impact on typical children (Hay, Payne & Chadwick, 2004) and will undoubtedly also affect young children with Asperger Syndrome.
What is bullying?
If one asks a random selection of friends, colleagues and children to define bullying, the definitions show considerable variation. One person's example of bullying can be another person's idea of entertainment. It is important to have a consistent definition, not only for research but also to ensure consistency in school policies and strategies. Clearly, bullying includes a power imbalance, intent to harm (physically or emotionally) and a distressed target. Gray (2004) reviewed the literature on bullying in childhood, and used her extensive knowledge of children with autism and Asperger Syndrome to define bullying as repeated negative actions (possibly coupled with negative intent) towards (a) targeted individual(s) over time that may occur as a singular event with an imbalance in the power (physically, verbally, socially and/or emotionally) within the interaction. There can also be the possibility of contrasting differences in the immediate or delayed affect of the individual(s) involved.
There is a change in the nature of bullying during childhood, with physical aggression towards same-sex peers being the dominant form of bullying in children from four to nine years, and an increase in verbal and emotional bullying, especially between girls, during the child's high school years (Hay, Payne & Chadwick, 2004). There are some school settings where bullying is more common, particularly within hallways, when on school transport or travelling to and from home, during sports and at locations when the incident is less likely to be detected by an adult. Bullying can also occur close to the child's home by children of neighbours, family friends and relatives, Bullying usually occurs with a peer audience or bystanders and can take a wide variety of forms. The most common are verbal or physical confrontation and intimidation, injury and destruction of personal property, and derogatory gestures or comments.
There are other types of bullying that are perhaps subtler but equally devastating in their effects. Someone might obviously steal a possession and torment the child as he or she tries to retrieve it, or engage in malicious gossip, use comments that result in humiliation, or use obscene gestures. Another form of bullying is peer shunning or social exclusion, such as not being included in a group at meal times, not having questions answered, deliberately being chosen last in a game or team, or not being invited to a social event. There are also forms of bullying experienced by children but committed by adults. This can be where a relative or family friend enjoys teasing or playing practical jokes, but it can also include examples of educational bullying by a teacher. The definition of a bullying act is confirmed when a teacher uses his or her position of authority to ridicule and humiliate a child, respond with sarcasm or be overly critical or punitive, or use facial expressions that discredit or reflect non-acceptance (such as a glance that 'says' to the class 'I think he's silly, too'). Such actions can create a model of behaviour and demonstrate approval for similar acts between class peers and the child who is the target of the adult's acts of bullying.
Some forms of bullying are relatively rare in the general school …
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Publication information: Article title: Strategies to Reduce the Bullying of Young Children with Asperger Syndrome. Contributors: Attwood, Tony - Author. Journal title: Australian Journal of Early Childhood. Volume: 29. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2004. Page number: 15+. © 1999 Early Childhood Australia Inc. (ECA). COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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