The Effect of Exposure on Attitudes Towards Bullying and Autism in Schools
Objectives: This study aimed to explore whether there are differences in attitudes towards the bullying of different targets (autistic and neuro-typical) and different violations (verbal bullying and social exclusion) in contrasting school settings: high explicit exposure to autism (schools with centres for autism) and low explicit exposure to autism (no centre). It also aimed to explore cognitive attitudes towards people with autism according to school setting and level of personal exposure to people with autism.
Methods: Survey data were collected at the beginning and end of the school year from 775 children (384 male), aged 11-12, from six mainstream schools: three with high explicit exposure and three with low explicit exposure to autism. Participants read vignettes depicting bullying scenarios then completed measures of their judgements, emotions and intended behaviours in relation to the vignette and also their cognitive attitudes towards people with autism.
Results: Analysis indicated no significant differences by school (explicit) exposure, but did reveal a significant increase in prosocial attitudes towards people with autism with increased personal exposure.
Conclusions: The research question asked whether a particular model of inclusion can influence the attitudes of neuro-typical children towards their peers with autism. Studies of group identity have shown that exclusive peer in-group norms lead to an increased likelihood that children will engage in bullying towards out-group children whereas an inclusive normative climate can reduce intergroup bias. While this study found no difference in attitudes by school type, this particular model of inclusion was only recently established, and would benefit from a longitudinal research design to explore whether an inclusive normative climate can be developed to stimulate increases in prosocial attitudes over time. The difference in attitudes by personal exposure also highlights the importance of positive contact at a personal level, and has implications for future school interventions embracing the contact hypothesis to instil greater understanding and acceptance, and potentially make an impact on the lives of young people with autism.