Dealing with Bullies

Ways to defend your special needs child.

As any parent can confirm, bullying is an ongoing concern for children. And when disabilities are a factor, that concern is magnified. Research tells us that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers without disabilities. Children with autism are even more vulnerable. In a 2009 survey conducted by Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 88 percent of parents of children on the spectrum reported bullying. In nearly 40 percent of these cases, the child was victimized for more than a year. This statistic is even more sobering when you consider bullying often goes unreported by a child who fears that getting adults involved will only make matters worse.

The Problem

To effectively address the issue, it’s important to understand bullying, which is defined as aggressive or unwanted behavior between individuals characterized by an imbalance of power. A key feature is that victims feel unable to defend themselves. It can involve physical aggression, but often involves verbal taunting, exclusion and exploiting children through some form of technology, such as text messaging and social networking sites.

Often, children don’t tell adults they are being tormented. Therefore, parents need to be extra vigilant. Kids on the spectrum may have limited speech or might not realize they are being targeted. As with so many other aspects of autism, it’s up to the parents to remain alert so that they can detect problems early on.

Creating Change

Available more than ever are anti-bullying programs, which for a fee can be implemented at your child’s school. Before a school district invests time and money in a program, however, parents should ask questions to ensure the strategies of that program have been proven effective. Michael Greene, Ph.D., research advisor for the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, offers advice on what works and what doesn’t. Cited as ineffective are implementing zero tolerance policies, producing isolated efforts, like special assemblies, focusing only on physical aggression, accepting bullying as a normal rite of passage, and offering individual counseling for the bully or victim.

Effective approaches involve a more fundamental climate change to create a culture of respect for all differences. Keys to successful intervention include developing safe ways to confidentially report bullying, getting bystanders involved, and using peer support networks and active parent involvement.

Warning Signs that Your Child’s Being Bullied

  • A sudden reluctance to attend school
  • An increase in anxiety
  • Changes in routines, such as sleeping and eating
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Cuts and bruises
  • Torn books and clothing
  • Missing items from bookbags, lunchboxes, etc.

Monitor the Situation

Visit your child’s school and observe how others interact with your son or daughter, particularly in unstructured situations. This might be most easily accomplished in the cafeteria. It’s a good idea to be involved as a volunteer so that you have a reason to be on campus. Talk to your child often and ask questions, such as: Do your friends have special names for you? Who do you sit with at lunch? Which friends do you talk to during the day? What’s your least favorite class and why?

Keep in touch with your child’s academic team. Many teachers prefer e-mails to phone calls, which are beneficial because you have a paper trail of your correspondence. You can ask for data on how your child is progressing on Individualized Education Program goals related to social skills and self-advocacy. This can open the door to conversations about how your child is doing. If possible, ask other students about your child and if they have observed any problems. Bullying is more likely to occur in unstructured situations, like during lunchtime or PE, so be sure to include cafeteria monitors, campus security guards, coaches and anyone else who interacts with your child when you distribute your student portfolio.

Outside of School

While an academic setting presents many opportunities for bullying, victimization can occur anywhere. During the summertime, make sure there is always someone monitoring your child’s interactions with others. If you’re considering a summer camp, speak with the staff in advance about their policies on bullying and what measures they take to ensure the safety of their campers. Generally, most camps that cater to individuals with disabilities ensure that all activities are closely supervised, often with a one-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio. Still, it’s a good idea to confirm guidelines are in place to prevent oppressive behavior and to keep the lines of communication open with the staff for the duration of your child’s camp experience.