Bullying and Victimization in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome Populations

Lonely teen

Vulnerability of ADHD and AS Populations

A recent study highlights youth with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Asperger Syndrome (AS) as populations particularly vulnerable to peer victimization (Kowalski & Fedina, 2011). Both disorders result in behavioral reactions that may alienate peers and thereby increase an individual’s likelihood to be targeted by bullies. The researchers note that children with ADHD can be impulsive, defiant, and aggressive, whereas children with AS often lack the awareness to read social cues and are easily agitated by external stimuli. Prior research indicates that children with ADHD are more likely to report instances of peer victimization than their classmates without ADHD. The same is true for children with Asperger Syndrome. Kowalski & Fedina endeavor to illumine a highly aggressive and emerging form of bullying and its prevalence among vulnerable populations: cyber bullying.


Traditional and Cyber Bullying Compared

Cyber bullying is defined by Kowalski & Fedina as an instance when technology, (email, texting, social media sites) is used to bully others. Cyber bullying is likened to traditional bullying in that it takes place over a period of time and results in a power imbalance. However, cyber bullying is distinguished from traditional bullying in that 50% of victims are unaware of the perpetrator.  Kowalski & Fedina note that the removal of accountability opens up the bullying pool to a population who might otherwise never act maliciously. The researchers also note that cyber bullying offers victims no reprieve. Victims of traditional bullying at school, for example, are able to escape after school hours to alternative settings. The worldwide web offers no such haven and bullies have the ability to torment their victims at all hours of a day.


Vulnerability Explained

Kowalski & Fedina hypothesize that, while children with ADHD and Asperger Syndrome are more susceptible to traditional bullying, they are also at an increased risk for cyber bullying. The Internet can often be an enticing platform of social interaction for children who lack certain social skills. Children with ADHD and AS who are utilizing the Internet for this purpose may, sadly, increase the risk of peer victimization. Further, Kowalski & Fedina hypothesize that there is a disconnect between children’s online activities and parents’ knowledge of these activities. The lack of supervision heightens victims’ vulnerability and allows bullying to continue unchecked.


Examining Bullying Behavior and Reactions to Victimization

Participants in the aforementioned study by Kowalski & Fedina (2011) were recruited from a summer camp specifically for children with an ADHD or AS diagnosis. Participants were asked to complete an Electronic Bullying Questionnaire (Kowalski & Limber, 2007) to assess for both victimization and bullying behaviors. Participants were also asked to fill out a written survey with questions about Internet use and supervision. A questionnaire developed by Fekkes, Pijpers, & Verloove-VanHorick (2004) was utilized to assess participants’ physiological reactions to victimization, in particular, anxiety, sleep problems, headache, fatigue, poor appetite, skin problems, and bed-wetting. The 10-item Rosenberg Self Esteem Inventory (1965), as well as the Beck Depression Scale (BDI-Y) and Beck Youth Anxiety Scale (BAI-Y)—both introduced in 2005–were also administered to participants. Finally, parents were afforded the opportunity to complete a specially designed survey via Survey Monkey to assess knowledge of their children’s online activity as well as their perceptions about their child’s involvement in cyber bullying.


ADHD and AS Increase Risk for Bullying

The results yielded by this research (Kowalski & Fedina, 2011) support the hypothesis that youth with ADHD and Asperger Syndrome are at an increased risk for both traditional and cyber bullying. Kowalski & Fedina note: “Just over 57% of the respondents indicated that they had been traditionally bullied within the past two months, with 19% of these being bullied several times a week. Over 21 percent (21.4%) indicated that they had been victims of cyber bullying within the past two months, the majority of these (9.5%) experiencing cyber bullying once or twice” (p. 5). Parents, though more in tune with instances of traditional bullying, appear relatively uninformed about cyber bullying, with 73% indicating their child has never been the victim of cyber bullying. Incidentally, instant messaging and social networking sites were two of the most frequent platforms for cyber bullying behavior.


Targeting Interventions

Cyber bullying continues to gain momentum as a method for systematically victimizing others and poses unique challenges unmatched in traditional bullying efforts. Researchers, clinicians, parents, and all stakeholders in a child’s life must be aware of the prevalence, severity, and emotional consequences present with this phenomenon. Similarly, interventions should aim considerable attention toward youth who by nature are more vulnerable to victimization. Efforts must also be made to interrupt cyber bullies’ behaviors and increase behavioral consequences.





Beck, J. S., Beck, A. T., Jolly, J. B., & Steer, R. A. (2005). Beck youth inventories for children and adolescents (2nd ed.). San Antonio, TX: Harcourt Assessment.


Fekkes, M., Pijpers, F. I. M., & Verloove-VanHorick, S. P. (2004). Bullying behaviors and associations with psychosomatic complaints and depression in victims.

          Journal of Pediatrics, 144, 17–22.


Kowalski, R. M. & Limber, S. (2007). Electronic bullying among middle school students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S22–S30.


Kowalski, R. & Fedina, C. (2011). Cyber bullying in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome populations. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5: 1201-1208.


Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


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