This study examined how students’ characteristics and aspects of the school environment are associated with experiences of being bullied among adolescents with ASD in the first year of middle school. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the possible association between bullying victimization and classroom environments using a sample of seventh-graders with ASD. The results revealed that seventh-graders with ASD who had higher-quality friendships or who received assistance when encountering difficulties in school had a lower risk of being socially excluded at school. Regarding insults or teasing, the school environment was shown to play an essential role alongside the positive impact of adolescents’ friendships. Students with ASD who experienced high social cohesion, harmony, and mutual assistance in regular classes had a lower risk of being insulted or teased by classmates. This finding indicates that social acceptance by fellow students could reduce the risk of students with ASD being victimized and suggests that a positive classroom environment is an essential factor that protects against both social exclusion and insults or teasing.
Hebron and Humphrey (2014) found that positive peer relationships are associated with lower bullying victimization levels. They argued that positive peer relationships could provide a friendly environment for learning social skills and are essential for protection against victimization . The current findings are consistent with those from the studies of typically developing adolescents, which suggest that peer victimization is less likely to occur in a classroom environment comprised of positive, warm, and supportive peer relationships [27, 28]. Thus, efforts to reduce bullying should emphasize empathy among students in regular class settings.
Positive friendship quality, receiving social aid while at school, and a positive learning environment in the classroom all decrease the risk of being bullied. Typically developing students with higher-quality friendships are likely more likely to accept social support and connectedness and embrace diversity at school. These are the core elements of social capital . Building social capital, a sense of community, and positive interpersonal and intergroup relationships at school are essential for preventing bullying . Additionally, a friendly and supportive school environment that guides students with an unconditionally positive attitude also enhances social capital by promoting the belief that people are trustworthy, fair in their actions, and helpful when needed . Regardless of whether anti-bullying efforts only focus on a single type of bullying, building social capital at schools is essential to developing social-ecological interventions to prevent the bullying of adolescents with ASD.
However, participants with more friends were more likely to be extorted or sexually harassed than those with fewer friends. This result contrasts with previous studies that found that students with ASD who had fewer friends at school were more likely to be victimized [3, 18]. This suggests that having friends does not necessarily guarantee protection and support as some friends could be aggressive and abusive. Studies have indicated that a substantial proportion of bullying events occur within the boundaries of perceived friendships [32, 33]. Additionally, regarding sexual harassment, a discrepancy often exists between the offenders’ and victims’ interpretations of behavioral intention. Rather than the aggressor’s intent, the victim’s perception may be more critical in identifying whether victimization has occurred. Finally, when individual characteristics were controlled for (i.e., sex, BMI, learning capability, and psychological distress), participants who were part-time in regular classes were more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than those who were full-time in regular classes. However, in general, the association between the amount of integration in regular classes and the sexual harassment of students with ASD is unclear and warrants further investigation.
Regarding the individual characteristics related to vulnerability, participants with more significant psychological distress were more likely to experience social exclusion and insults or teasing than those with lower levels of psychological distress. Previous studies have shown that depression, anxiety, and stress are significantly associated with bullying victimization among adolescents. The elevated levels of psychological distress resulting from these conditions constitute risk factors for bullying victimization [34–36]. In this study, male participants were more likely to have experienced sexual harassment than female participants. However, of the current sample of 184 students, only 17 were female. Therefore, there may not have been sufficient data to properly analyze the actual differences in experience between boys and girls. Future studies should compare the risk of sexual contact victimization among male and female adolescents with ASD and delineate the mechanisms that underlie any sex differences.
In conclusion, the longitudinal/accumulated effects of bullying on adolescents with ASD seen during the first year of middle school represent pressing issues. However, the present study only examines the association between bullying victimization and social exclusion, insults or teasing, extortion, and sexual harassment in the school environment. This focus leaves the field open for future studies regarding the potential association between other types of bullying and the school environment and bullying studies outside schools / in special education classes .
Instead of self-reporting bullying victimization, there is a significant essential need to use multiple informants, including parents and teachers [37, 38]. In Taiwan, middle-school homeroom teachers do not typically remain in the classroom throughout the day, thus preventing said teachers from observing student interactions. Furthermore, adolescent students tend to be reluctant to tell their parents about their experiences in school. Again, as previously mentioned, the victim’s perception, rather than the aggressor’s intent, may be more crucial in identifying victimization. Therefore, the self-reported experiences of bullying victimization in this study are considered valid. However, bias or faulty awareness was likely present within these self-reports of interpersonal interactions. Future research on this population should further identify student-reporting bias and collect data from multiple informants.