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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Kids with special needs are at risk for a few main types of bullying.
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 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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
There are many different resources to help children with special needs and their families deal with bullying.
These organizations are dedicated to preventing bullying:
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.