Strategies to Reduce the Bullying of Young Children with Asperger Syndrome

By Attwood, Tony | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, September 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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