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Boys with autism respond more angrily to bullying

Boys who are bullied develop more fear and shame; boys who bully develop more anger and less guilt, which makes it easier to justify more bullying. Boys with autism respond more angrily to bullying than others, and thus make for an easier target. Developmental psychologist Carolien Rieffe and her colleagues have recently published an article in 'Autism’ about this phenomenon.

Chicken or egg, Rieffe wondered. Is it that children express fear and are therefore bullied? Or that the bullying makes the children scared? In order to distinguish cause and effect, Rieffe, her Leiden colleague Evelien Broekhof and Sheida Novin of Utrecht University, examined boys with bullying behavior and their victims. Earlier research has shown that boys who were bullied were more fearful than others. This new study followed boys over a period of two years, during which time the researchers saw that long-term bullying caused a change in the emotions felt, namely that boys who were bullied became more fearful and ashamed.

Nobody benefits from bullying

Rieffe explains: "This outcome was in line with expectations, because you can imagine that anyone who is bullied for a long time will become uncertain, no matter how self-confident you are to begin with”. Boys with bullying behavior also changed, becoming more boisterous and experiencing less guilt about their actions, "In doing so, they are probably justifying bullying to themselves." But ultimately, no one has benefited from bullying. It is not only bad for the child being bullied, but also for those who bully and those who watch and say nothing or encourage the bullies from the sidelines. It concerns the entire group that the children are part of.


Rieffe speaks of a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing emotions in bullied children. The bullying makes children angry and afraid, and they feel more ashamed, causing them to withdraw and move further away from the group. This applies to boys with and without autism. In addition, boys with autism have a stronger reaction to bullying. Rieffe: 'In itself it is not the wrong reaction to stand up for yourself, which is usually the function of getting angry. The only danger is that you will become an easier target again. '

Group dynamics

The problem and at the same time the solution to bullying lies in the group that the children are part of. Rieffe does not entertain ‘victim-blaming’ and therefore is not a fan of anti-bullying programs that focus mainly on the victim, such as social skills training for the child being bullied. In fact, she finds it rather stigmatizing for children who are being bullied. These children could start to think that something is wrong with them, while the cause of the bullying is not related to them at all. The whole system of roles has to change, with a focus on changing the dynamics in the group, Rieffe thinks. There are good programs that respond to this and also prove effective, such as KiVA.

Bullying affects the entire group

'Because every child has the same right to be part of a group', continues Rieffe. 'The child who is more emotional than others, or the child who struggles to assert himself in the group. Anger is a clear signal to the environment that something is wrong in the group. Fearful reactions that we see more often in children without autism can easily remain hidden from the teachers. Or at home parents do not know where that fear comes from, because many children do not want to tell their parents. ' If the research yields something for boys with and without autism, it is true that teachers and school leaders must actively intervene on bullying behavior. That applies to the whole group.
Bidirectional relationships between bullying, victimization and emotion experience in boys with and without autism

Anti-Bullying Week 17 t/m 21 September

This year the Anti-Bullying Week is organized around the theme of Show you! and by that we mean you as a teacher. Students must know that they can trust their teachers, so they can find you and dare to ask for help when they are being bullied. Trust is of great importance in this and therefore mutual trust is central to Anti-Bullying Week 2018. You can find more information about the theme and tools for the week, in Dutch:
Laat je zien!

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