What comes first for middle schoolers with autism: behaviors that could entice bullying, or the bullying itself?
This is one of the many questions Assistant Professor Marisa Fisher is hoping to answer with a new federal grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).
Fisher received the award from the Early Career Development and Mentoring in Special Education program, which supports researchers as they develop their own line of independent research. She will use the nearly $400,000 grant to study friendship and bullying in the lives of middle school students with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability.
Fisher has long-studied the victimization of individuals with disabilities: her research focuses on their social vulnerability, and reasons behind why they might be victimized. Recently, she examined how social media can pose a threat to those with disabilities.
“Studies say that students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers; is this true? If so, why?” Fisher asked.
She developed the new four-year study with these questions in mind—and with the ultimate goal of creating an intervention to help reduce bullying of students with disabilities in schools.
“In order to find a way to help these students and reduce bullying, we need to be able to see and describe the problem. We need to know what bullying looks like to these students.”
Questions, answers and more training
During the first year, Fisher will review current literature to examine ways in which bullying is usually measured. Based on these findings, she aims to create a self-report questionnaire that students with ASD and intellectual disability can understand.
The questionnaire will be reviewed by experts—including parents, scholars and schools—before being administered to 100 sixth through eighth graders in public schools around Michigan to identify when they have been bullied or teased.
If the questionnaire works, she will then start data collection for the next three years of the study—enrolling up to 75 sixth graders to follow throughout their time in middle school.
When the questionnaire is first handed out, Fisher will also collect data from teachers and parents to learn more about the students’ behavior. This will help indicate how the students are interacting in school separately from the self-report measures.
The students will then fill out questionnaires three times a year for the remaining three years.
She hopes the study will illuminate why students with ASD and intellectual disability are targets for bullying—are they exhibiting behaviors that lead them to be bullied? Or are they being bullied regardless of their behaviors? She hopes to better understand the impact bullying has on these students.
“Do students with disabilities even know they’re being bullied? If not, do we tell them? I hope this research will provide an avenue for students with disabilities to better protect and advocate for themselves.”
As part of the grant, Fisher will also receive training from leading scholars in special education—including her Michigan State University colleague, Professor Emily Bouck.
She will receive training on a variety of topics, including higher level statistics, working with schools and students and ASD and more.
In addition to ongoing research and teaching, Fisher is co-director of Spartan Project SEARCH, an on-campus internship program that is helping young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities prepare for the workplace. Spartan Project SEARCH recently graduated its first cohort in 2017; six out of the eight graduates have already found jobs. In the fall, the program will welcome nine new students at Michigan State University.