Coping with bullying: mental health outcomes of students with ASD

A research chat with PhD graduate Alyssa Altomare

Tell us about your research project.

The main goal of my study was to examine how students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) cope with bullying, and how coping strategies relate to mental health outcomes (i.e., anxious and depressive symptoms) in the context of bullying.

I worked as a facilitator at an organization geared towards adolescents and young adults with ASD while completing my Master’s degree. While teaching vocational skills to a group of students with ASD, one youth was singled out and bullied by two of his peers.  The bullied youth later explained to me that when he’s treated this way, he just “ignores” it.  However, it concerned me that he could still hear the comments even if he was “ignoring” them (a strategy we commonly hear adults provide to children).

There has been a lot of research on the prevalence of bullying among students with ASD – and the prevalence of bullying among this population has been shown to be very high. However, there has been less research on the mental health outcomes among students with ASD who have been bullied, and very limited research on how students with ASD are coping with bullying.

I collected data from 49 students with ASD in grades 4-12 through questionnaires. I also invited a parent and a teacher connected to each student participant to be involved – I had 48 parents and 34 teachers complete the questionnaires. The questionnaires looked at the prevalence of bullying among these students, the students’ coping strategies, as well as anxious/depressive symptoms.

What did you discover?

Consistent with previous research, the results from my study revealed high rates of peer victimization (using the past month as a timeframe), with the highest rates reported by parents (83.3%) and teachers (73.5%). My study then looked more specifically at the possible outcomes of the different types of coping strategies:

  • Externalizing coping (e.g., getting angry; shouting; swearing) was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms. This means that when students report and/or are observed to engage in externalizing coping in response to bullying, this may be an important indicator that they are at increased risk for developing depression and that perhaps intervention is needed.
  • Internalizing coping (e.g., rumination) was associated with an increase in anxiety symptoms. Given that internalizing coping might be difficult to detect after a bullying incident (i.e., internal mental states), it’s important to screen student’s coping strategies to get a sense of their mental states, and to identify students with ASD who are struggling.
  • Trivializing coping (i.e., making light of the problem) was associated with fewer anxiety symptoms. More research is needed to determine how students with ASD process bullying episodes, and how Trivializing coping contributes to their psychological wellbeing.
  • There was no association between Distraction coping (e.g., watching TV; reading a book) and anxious or depressive symptoms. More research with a larger sample size may help to clarify whether students with ASD who engage in Distraction coping have fewer, or potentially more, symptoms of anxiety or depression after experiencing bullying.
  • In my study, Approach coping strategies (i.e., problem solving; seeking social support) were not related to anxious/depressive symptoms – but with a larger sample size, significant associations may have emerged. It is possible that students with ASD who engage in problem solving to address their current bullying situations have limited success in doing so, and their inability to stop the bullying on their own may have a significant impact on their mental health over time. It is also possible that social support seeking as a coping strategy does not offer the same benefits to students with ASD as it does to students from the general population – if they have difficulty communicating their concerns, or they may be treated differently when they do approach others for help, for example.

What does this mean for teachers and clinicians?

The results showed that Trivializing coping (e.g., “I will think it’s no big deal”) predicted less anxiety among bullied students with ASD (the only coping strategy linked to a decrease in anxious/depressive symptoms). Thus, efforts to promote and maintain these types of coping responses may be enhanced by incorporating confidence and self-esteem building exercises into the daily lives of students with ASD.  Ultimately, each student would benefit from an individualized approach that considers their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and their unique context to determine which coping strategies may work best for them.

Given the high rates of bullying experienced by students with ASD and the associated negative outcomes (e.g., anxious/depressive symptoms), it is important that students with ASD are regularly screened for bullying within the school system, as well as during clinical assessments (e.g., diagnostic and/or psycho-educational assessments).

Gaining a more in-depth understanding of the role of coping in relation to mental health in the context of bullying has the potential to shift societal perspectives from overly simplistic solutions to handling bullying, to more informed perspectives on bullying.  Simplistic solutions (e.g., “walk away;” “tell someone”) when communicated to students with ASD may do more harm than good.