It’s unfortunate that we hear about bullying so frequently in the media today. For parents who have children with special needs, it’s even more troubling when our kids are subjected to bullying; we may not be aware of these horrible actions until our child begins exhibiting the symptoms of bullying, which may include increased anxiety, anger, depression, and not eating or sleeping—just to name a few. Bullies often target people who are perceived to be different from others. The difference does not have to be obvious. While children with autism or kids who use wheelchairs may have more noticeable differences from others, children who have less distinguishable differences—such as a child who has a peanut or milk allergy—may also be bullied. Kids who have “theory of mind” challenges are particularly vulnerable to bullying. This arises because the child has difficulty understanding the bully’s intentions. Furthermore, autistic children have difficulty reading body language and picking up on social cues, which also increases their vulnerability.
Parents of children with special needs learn to read our kids’ cues even before they start school. We know when our child is anxious and what may be triggering that anxiety. It’s important for parents to communicate the child’s verbal and nonverbal cues to teachers and paraprofessionals, who will be responsible for interpreting them. Many schools have a “buddy system” where children with special needs are paired with typical kids in the classroom, at lunch, recess and in before- and after-school activities. Teachers and administrators are often supportive of such a system, since it benefits everyone involved. Breaking down the barriers of differences helps decrease the incidents of bullying. This is true at all levels of human nature. While schools’ anti-bullying campaigns do help bring awareness to the issue, reductions in bullying will only be seen when kids embrace the differences that exist between one another. Not surprisingly, children are often better at this skill than adults.
Our son with autism is very motivated socially and loves making friends with his peers. His middle school has a program where typical peers assist in the special needs classroom during the day. From this and his involvement in mainstream activities, such as choir, he has developed significant and lasting friendships with typical peers. It isn’t just the special needs students like our son that benefit; the typical kids really get to know and become invested in the special needs students through daily interactions with them. The students that volunteer for this program are often student leaders. When potential bullies observe the “popular” and academically strong students eating lunch and spending free time with the special needs kids, the potential for bullying is reduced.
As special needs parents, we must advocate, advocate, advocate for our children. During IEP meetings, it is important to inquire about the integration measures the school has in place to combat bullying and foster special needs/typical friendships. A step further is to reach out to the typical student’s parents to set up play dates to deepen these relationships. The more other families in the community know the special needs family and their child, the greater chance for understanding. A simple thing, like volunteering for a school activity, increases our opportunity to advocate for our child. An example of this happened on a school trip that I chaperoned. I noticed a student staring at my son as he was prattling on in his socially-too-loud speech. I went over to the child, asked her name and introduced her to Tommy. I asked Tommy to explain to her what autism is, to which he replied, “Autism makes my brain work differently…I like to pace, I script and I love choir!” She warmed right up, and we had a nice conversation. I have hope that this quick talk will help break down the barrier between this young lady and her understanding of autism.
The purity of mind that many special needs children posses can make disenfranchised typical kids more comfortable in their own skin. Our kids don’t usually bully because it isn’t conceivable to them. It is rare for a special needs child to put on airs. The “I accept you for who you are” attitude so many children with developmental disabilities have is a relief to the middle schooler who feels an outcast. This is a great opportunity to grow the single most important combatant to bullying—confidence. If the outcast can gain confidence through the unfettered acceptance by a special needs kid, the vicious cycle of bullying is weakened.
The sad reality is that kids with special needs are bullied at a much higher rate than typical kids. 63% of kids with autism have been bullied.1 It is scary and unacceptable. Keys to minimizing bullying are school programs and parental involvement. Most importantly, advocate, advocate, advocate for our children.
By Kate Sondgerath, Specialist