Special Needs and Bullying Support Guide

Bullying can happen to any child, but children with special needs are at an increased risk. Some children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to harassment and may lack the social and cognitive skills to deal with it when targeted. Learning that your child is being bullied can be upsetting, but help and support are available. Learn tips, tools, and resources for addressing bullying of your special needs child.

 

How Common Is Bullying in Students With Disabilities

Any child can be bullied, but it is sadly more common for children with special needs.

Here are some statistics on bullying in kids with special needs and disabilities:

Causes of Bullying in Children With Special Needs

Unfortunately, children with special needs enter the school system with many risk factors and characteristics that can lead to bullies targeting them with aggressive behavior.

Some of these factors are listed below.

Challenges With Social Skills

Many children with special needs have developmental and cognitive impairments that prevent them from fully understanding what is happening to them while being bullied.

These differences can also prevent them from knowing how to respond or react, and the reactions of others around them, such as laughter, may be confusing and frightening.

Environment That Allows Bullying

A big factor in bullying is whether the environment allows for bullying, as this type of behavior can often be stopped or prevented with the right action from adults.

If your special needs child is being bullied, it would be wise to look into their school environment and speak with their teachers and school administrators for more information and to learn what staff members are doing about the bullying.

Physical Vulnerability

Bullies often target children for physical reasons, such as when a kid getting bullied is small or weak in stature and, therefore, less likely to be able to defend themselves.

To make things worse, many kids with special needs also have disabilities that limit their movement, making them unable to leave situations that make them feel uncomfortable or scared.

Which Kids With Special Needs Are Most at Risk of Bullying?

Children with special needs typically face an increased risk of bullying. Additionally, certain disabilities and conditions are more likely to attract the attention of bullies.

Autism Bullying

63% of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) reported being bullied, compared to about 20% of kids without disabilities, according to a joint study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University.

Food allergies, which occur in about 2 students per classroom, are another frequent target for bullies, with nearly half of students with allergies reporting incidents, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

Food allergy bullying can be particularly dangerous when bullies threaten to hide the specific food in something the victim is eating or wave the food near them.

Other disabilities and conditions that are common targets for bullies include:

Types of Bullying That Can Impact Kids With Special Needs

Kids with special needs are at risk for a few main types of bullying.

Physical Violence

Physical bullying is one of the main types of bullying. It occurs when someone uses their own body or an object to inflict bodily harm on another person or scare them into thinking they will do so.

This type of bullying can also occur when someone causes physical damage to another person’s property or takes something important to them.

Verbal Threats and Emotional Abuse

Verbal and emotional bullying involves using words to intimidate, embarrass, or emotionally harm someone. For children with special needs, verbal abuse can be equally as damaging as physical abuse. However, its signs are often less apparent.

Examples of verbal threats and emotional abuse include:

Other Forms of Bullying

When a bully targets a student based on their race, color, religion, sex, disability, or national origin, it can be considered harassment, according to both the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

To be considered harassment, bullying against a child with a disability can be either physical, verbal, or graphic/written but must be based on the victim’s disability.

Furthermore, under these guidelines, federally funded schools are obligated to address and resolve all matters involving discriminatory harassment or face consequences from both the DOJ and the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

Signs and Effects of Bullying in Kids With Special Needs or Disabilities

It is not always easy to recognize the signs of bullying in kids with special needs, especially if their speech or communication is impaired and they cannot directly tell you.

However, knowing the signs and looking out for them is especially important since the effects of bullying can be severe.

Signs of Bullying in Kids With Special Needs

  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Coming home with lost or damaged personal items, such as clothes or electronics
  • Decline in school performance or loss of interest in school activities and events
  • Frequently being sick or faking sickness to avoid school
  • Not wanting to go to school or seeming to be afraid to go
  • Talking about harming themselves or having suicidal thoughts
  • Unexplainable injuries, such as bruises or cuts

If you have noticed one or more of the above signs of bullying in your child, talk to their teacher or school principal as soon as possible.

Effects of Bullying on Special Needs Kids

When a child with special needs is bullied, it can impact all areas of their life at home and school.

Effects of bullying on children with special needs include:

  • Decreased performance in school or other activities
  • Engaging in harmful behaviors to cope
  • Increased desire for isolation and antisocial behaviors
  • Low self-esteem and poor self-image
  • Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety
  • Overall poor health

The effects of bullying on a child can last long into adulthood if left unaddressed, which is why it is so important to address bullying as soon as it starts.

What to Do If Your Special Needs Child Is Being Bullied

If you have reason to believe that your child with special needs is being bullied at school, it’s important to act promptly. Consider taking the following actions.

1. Talk With Your Child

Show your support, calm their fears if they are being threatened, and let them know that you will help them figure out and resolve this situation.

This is also a good time for you to assess the situation for yourself after hearing their side.

2. Alert Your Child’s School

After hearing your child’s side of the story, you should alert your child’s teacher(s) or principal and other school department officials. This is especially true if you are aware of any threats of violence to your child or other children.

It is also important to do this to document the incident.

3. Seek a Resolution

The way you handle the situation should never involve retaliation or revenge against the bully, as this would teach all children involved a dangerous lesson.

Resolutions will differ for each situation but may involve consequences or a punishment for the bully, such as removing school privileges and implementing policies designed to make the victim and others feel safe while at school, such as improved hall monitoring.

4. Advocate for Your Child’s Safety

Know when to advocate for your child’s safety if you are unsatisfied with the resolution that their school has offered, and never be afraid to go up the chain of command if necessary.

5. Encourage Bullying Prevention and Policy Changes

The best way to end bullying is to stop it before it starts, so encourage your child’s school to implement bullying prevention policies if they do not already have them.

In addition, you can also encourage the school to implement anti-discrimination policies and provide education to the entire study body on disabilities.

Children may be less likely to bully students with disabilities if they are more aware and understanding of their condition.

6. Weigh Your Education Options

If you have exhausted all other possible solutions and nothing has worked, sometimes the best option is changing schools, perhaps to a private school or a district with a better reputation. Homeschooling is also an option for parents who are in the position to provide it.

Understanding how schools deal with bullying can influence your decision when exploring education options.

7. Know Your Child’s Rights

Always be aware of your child’s legal rights and educate yourself on all laws that are in place to protect them and other kids with special needs.

If your child’s rights have been violated and their school did not provide an adequate resolution, you can file a formal grievance with your school district or contact the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Getting Help for Your Child

No child should have to deal with the deep and complex emotions that are often the result of bullying. In many cases, professional help and therapy can help a child experiencing bullying to learn coping mechanisms and increase their self-esteem.

Here are some ways you can get help for your child.

Counseling

Many special needs kids being bullied find it hard to open up to a parent about what is happening to them. However, they should still be encouraged to speak with an adult they trust. This can be a school counselor or professional therapist.

This type of counseling is individual or private and is always confidential. It allows people of all ages to talk about and work through their experiences, feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

Group Therapy

While some kids may feel more comfortable talking to a therapist in a one-on-one setting, others may find group therapy more comfortable and effective.

This type of therapy can be effective for young adults because it provides a safe place for kids to share stories and relate to one another. It also removes some more individual attention that some children may be uncomfortable with.

Play Therapy

Play therapy uses playtime to help children share their feelings and learn coping strategies. With toys and games, therapists create a safe space for kids to express themselves.

This approach supports emotional growth and helps children develop skills to deal with bullying in a healthier way.

Resources for Children With Special Needs and Bullying

There are many different resources to help children with special needs and their families deal with bullying.

Resources for Bullying Prevention

These organizations provide resources geared toward preventing bullying:

  • Bully Free World: Provides numerous resources for parents on bullying, including a printable template for notifying school authorities about bullying or harassment.
  • Global Down Syndrome Foundation: The website for this nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping those with Down syndrome, has a section called “Words Can Hurt” that teaches about the right and wrong words to use when talking about people with disabilities.
  • National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC): NDSC offers support for individuals with Down syndrome and their families and advocates for equal rights and inclusion on their behalf.
  • PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center: This organization offers information and resources for kids, parents, and educators on how to prevent and address bullying in school.
  • STOMP Out Bullying: This nonprofit works toward bullying prevention with a specific focus on bullying that occurs as a result of discrimination.

Get Help for Kids With Special Needs Facing Bullies

If you are caring for a child with special needs who is dealing with bullying, know that support is available. Your family doesn’t have to face this alone.

Dealing with the challenges that come with caring for a child with special needs experiencing bullying can be overwhelming. However, getting support and understanding how bullying is dealt with in schools can make a huge difference for your child, family, and yourself.

By actively fostering a supportive and inclusive environment, every child — no matter their needs and abilities — can experience a safe, respectful, and nurturing space to grow and learn.

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ReferencesView References
  1. CBS News. (2012, March 30). Survey finds 63% of children with autism bullied. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/survey-finds-63-of-children-with-autism-bullied/
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 25). People with disabilities and chronic diseases: Information about Bullying. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandsafety/bullying.html
  3. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center. (n.d.). Students with disabilities and bullying: 5 Important facts. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.pacer.org/bullying/info/students-with-disabilities/
  4. Stomp Out Bullying. (n.d.). Special needs kids and bullying. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.stompoutbullying.org/special-needs-kids-and-bullying
  5. Stopbullying.gov. (2020, July 21). Bullying and youth with disabilities and special health needs. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying/special-needs
  6. Stopbullying.gov. (2021, November 10). Warning signs for bullying. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying/warning-signs
  7. U.S. Department of Justice. (2011, October). Bullying. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://www.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh241/files/archives/factsheets/ojpfs_bullying.html#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Office%20of%20Juvenile%20Justice%20and,are%20both%20females%20and%20males%20in%20equal%20proportion