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Children with autism are subject to worrying levels of mental health problems and are more likely to be bullied at school. So says a new study out of the University of Manchester, which reveals the extent of the difficulties faced by pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) compared with their peers.

Any type of social situation can be challenging for those on the autistic spectrum, placing them at increased risk of bullying. “Schools are such intensely social environments, compounding the worries of children on the autistic spectrum about how other children see them or how to deal with unstructured social situations”, says the study’s lead author Dr Judith Hebron.

Teachers can find it hard to identify the problems that these children are having in class because they often perform well at school. Many go to great lengths to hide the anxiety they suffer or try to develop strategies to deal with it on their own. “Many children expend huge amounts of energy trying to appear ‘normal’, but this can lead to intolerable stress levels”, says Dr Hebron. Those subject to chronic stress and anxiety as children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems in the future.

The Manchester study echoes the results of a survey by the National Autistic Society (NAS), which found that 63 per cent of children and young people with autism said they have experienced bullying. Social isolation was also identified as a key issue, with 20 per cent of respondents saying they have no friends, while 50 per cent said they would like more friends.

Dr Hebron believes, though, that ongoing work in many mainstream schools shows that there are ways to moderate the anxiety of those with ASD, and that it is possible to teach tolerance of difference to other children.
“We need to see a school system that supports young people with autism both academically and emotionally” says Amanda Batten of the NAS.

The University of Manchester study, co-authored with Professor Neil Humphrey, can be found at:
www.manchester.ac.uk

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