Stigmatization of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders



People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may experience high levels of stigmatization within society. Negative interactions with others might include direct confrontations like bullying, or less obvious forms like discrimination. These situations can occur at any time during the person’s lifetime. This brief focuses on findings from seven articles published in 2011 focusing on these issues.

Bullying in Children and Adolescents with ASD

Previous studies have shown that, among typically developing children, there are two types of bullying victims:

  • Passive victims who tend to be physically weaker, anxious, insecure, solitary, academic, and poor at sports
  • Proactive victims who tend to be irritating, provocative, socially clumsy, and have problems with social interaction (Sofronoff, Dark, & Stone 2011)

These characteristics could also describe many children with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). This means that children with AS might be easy targets for bullies.

Sofronoff, Dark, and Stone’s (2011) study on bullying focused on 133 children (aged 6-16), 23 parents of typically developing children, and 92 parents of a child with AS. They found that children with AS showed a high level of social vulnerability. Social vulnerability occurs when a person or group of people have characteristics that place them at risk in social situations. Hence, those children with AS who were less  socially vulnerable were also less likely to be bullied (Sofronoff, et al., 2011).

What is bullying?

When another student, or several other students do any of the following:

  • Say mean or hurtful things, make fun, use mean, hurtful names
  • Completely ignore or exclude from group or group activities
  • Hit, kick, push, shove, or do things to prevent movement (i.e. lock in room, put in trash can, etc)
  • Tell lies or spread false rumors
  • Send mean notes to try to make other students dislike someone
  • Tease repeatedly in a mean and hurtful way

When is it NOT bullying

  • Teasing that is meant to be friendly and playful
  • Two students of equal power and strength arguing or fighting

What is cyber bullying?

When any of these activities take place through

  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Chat room
  • Website
  • Cell phone text messaging

Potential negative effects of being bullied

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Poor grades
  • Negative health effects

Potential negative effects of being a bully

  • Other types of anti-social/problematic behaviors
  • Poor academic performance
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

(Kowalski & Fedina 2011)

Previous studies have shown that about 17% of all students report being bullied 2-3 times per month or more. Between 10 and 19% of students report having bullied another student 2-3 times per month (Kowalski & Fedina 2011). Kowalski and Fedina (2011) explored traditional and cyber bullying among 42 students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) or Asperger Syndrome (AS) in grades 5-12.  The researchers found that students with ADHD or AS were at a high risk of being bullied compared to their peers. They also found that students and parents did not agree about their child’s online activity and bullying behavior, or about concerns regarding internet safety. Parents often did not know how often their children had been victims of bullies or whether their children had bullied others. Also, parents had little knowledge about their child’s online activity.

Students who had been bullied or who had bullied others reported lower self-esteem, higher depression, and higher anxiety than students not involved in bullying activities.

Students with ADHD or AS reported the following

  • Victimization
    • 57% had been victims of traditional bullying in the previous two months
    • 19% of those victims had been bullied several times per week
    • 21% had been victims of cyber bullying within the past two months
    • Most of those victims experienced it once or twice
  • Perpetration
    • 38% had bullied others in the last two months
    • 29% of those had done it once or twice
    • 6% had cyber bullied others in the last two months
  • Details about reported cyber bullying
    • 67% bullying through instant messaging
    • 60% bullying through social network sites
    • 20% bullying through text messaging
    • 50% bully was a friend
    • 38% bully was another student at school
    • 25% did not know the identity of the bully
  • Results of bullying
    • Both those being bullied and those bullying others in traditional settings reported higher rates of depression and anxiety
    • Self-esteem was higher for those who had not bullied or been bullied

(Kowalski & Fedina 2011)

One possible outcome of bullying for students with AS is a fear of being laughed at (Samson, Huber, & Ruch 2011). In a study of 123 people (40 with ASD and 83 without ASD), individuals with AS recalled being laughed at more often in childhood and experienced this more negatively than those without AS. As a result, people with AS more often (45%) reported being afraid of being laughed at than those without AS (6%). Of those with AS, 18% had a marked fear and 8% had an extreme fear of bullying(Samson, et al., 2011).

Butler and Gillis (2011) explored stigmatization of individuals with AS by surveying the attitudes of 195 undergraduate college students. They found that there is a high level of stigmatization towards individuals with AS. These negative feelings stemmed from ideas about the behaviors associated with AS, not necessarily the label of having AS. A large number (70%) of those participating had never known anyone with AS, which may increase stigmatization.

Nevill and White’s (2011) study of 652 college students found that students who had a first-degree relative with ASD were more open and accepting of people with ASD. In a study of 42 female students in the health and social services field, Werner (2011) found that students were uncomfortable with working with individuals with ASD. This was partially because students held some negative ideas about people with ASD. Many students worried that individuals with ASD were not clean, were hard to communicate with, and unable to control behaviors. However, most students also had very little contact with or knowledge about individuals with ASD (Werner 2011). Thus, stigmatization may be lessened by increasing awareness and contact between individuals without ASD and those with ASD, including AS.

In addition to a lack of knowledge about people with ASD, the participants in Werner’s (2011) study also had particular ideas about working with individuals with ASD. They thought that working with this population would be very challenging, but rewarding, and that selfless, giving people worked with this population. While these ideas about ASD seem very positive, they still perpetuate stereotypes about people with ASD and those who provide services to them (Werner 2011).

The general public seems to lack good information or experience with people with ASD. In a study that focused on information on ASD in public media, Stevenson, Harp, and Gernsbacker (2011) found that most of this information focuses on children with ASD. Very little information exists about adults with ASD, making adults with ASD particularly vulnerable to misinformation and misunderstanding.


  • Butler, Robert and Jennifer Gillis. 2011. The Impact of Labels and Behaviors on the Stigmatization of Adults with Asperger’s Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41:741-749.
  • Kowalkski, Robin and Cristin Fedina. 2011. Cyber Bullying in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome Populations. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5:1201-1208.
  • Nevill, Rose and Susan White. 2011. College Students’ Openness Toward Autism Spectrum Disorders: Improving Peer Acceptance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders  41:1619-1628.
  • Samson, Andrea, Oswald Huber, and Willibald Ruch. 2011. Teasing, Ridiculing and the Relation to the Fear of Being Laughed at in Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41:475-483.
  • Sofronoff, Kate, Elizabeth Dark, and Valerie Stone. 2011. Social Vulnerability and Bullying in Children with Asperger Syndrome. Autism 15(3): 355-372.
  • Stevenson, Jennifer, Bev Harp, and Morton Ann Gernsbacher. 2011. Infantilizing Autism. Disability Studies Quarterly 31(3).
  • Werner, Shirli. 2011. Assessing Female Students’ Attitudes in Various Health and Social Professions toward Working with People with Autism: A Preliminary Study. Journal of Interprofessional Care 25: 131-137.
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