Emotion Reactivity and Bullying in Adolescent Boys with Autism; Bi-Directional Longitudinal Outcomes

Oral Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 1:45 PM
Arcadis Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
C. Rieffe1, S. Novin2 and E. Broekhof1, (1)Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands, (2)Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Background: Bullying is a worldwide concern for everyone involved. Bullying involves repeated and intentional harm to someone over a longer period of time, causing long-lasting negative effects on the victim’s mental health and social development, but in fact, everyone involved is negatively affected, including the bully. Adolescents with autism are more often involved in bullying than adolescents without autism, and although emotional functioning is important in this respect, we do not yet know the causality of these relationships.

Objectives: Fear is more often related to victimization in normal development, but we found that anger was more dominant in victims with autism in an earlier, cross-sectional study. In this study, we longitudinally examined these relationship again, to establish their causality. Based on parents’ feedback and clinical observations, we expected that more victimization in adolescents with autism could cause a stronger anger reaction, since it seems that trying to gain control over socially difficult and unpleasant situations often causes an uncontrollable emotional arousal.

Methods: A total of 185 adolescent boys (89 with autism) were tested, age range was 10 to 15 years old. The participant filled out self-report questionnaires on Bullying, Emotion Reactivity (from which we only used the scales for Anger and Fear). Background information was derived from their parents and schools. Informed consent for participation was provided by all parents and participants.

Results: In order to examine the contribution of emotions on Bullying and Victimization and vice versa, General Linear Model (GLM) analyses with clustered bootstrapping were performed. The outcomes showed that being bullied caused higher levels of shame and fear in boys with and without autism, but also more anger in boys with autism specifically. Higher levels of anger, in turn, caused more victimization in both groups. More fear contributed more strongly to more victimization in boys without autism.

Conclusions: The outcomes of this longitudinal study show a bidirectional relationship between emotion reactivity and victimization in adolescents boys with and without autism. Adolescents who are more bullied, develop more negative emotions, anger and fear, over time, which may not come as a surprise. Unfortunately, however, these stronger levels of negative emotions can, in turn, be a trigger for bullies who now see that their bullying is effective. Consistent with the literature on adolescents from a community population, fear is the most dominant emotion related to bullying. Yet, adolescents boys with autism seem to predominantly react with anger when being bullied, supporting the viewpoint that socially unpleasant situations cause uncontrollable arousal. These new insights might offer important strategies for prevention and anger management in adolescents with autism.