Bullying and the Special Needs Child
Recent research indicates that a child with a disability is more likely to be physically or verbally bullied than typically developing peers. As a special needs teacher/care provider, and therapist with over twenty years experience, I can attest to this data. However, by teaching children to understand that not everyone sees the world the same way, parents can facilitate understanding and healthy interaction between all kinds of children. Developing social skills and an action plan to prevent bullying can decrease the odds that kids will be bullied, or that they themselves will become bullies when faced with situations that produce social anxiety.
Although children with disabilities are more likely to be the object of bullying, sometimes they are tagged as the bully, often as a result of low self-esteem or being bullied by others. No matter how your child is affected by bullying, these steps can go a long way in preventing this hurtful practice:
When a Special Needs Child is Bullied:
- Talk to the child about situations that invite bullying. A child with developmental delays such as Down Syndrome or Asberger’s syndrome is many times to trusting and friendly. Because he does not understand the concept of others playing tricks, he becomes an easy target. You as a parent can help with some simple advice. For example, you can talk to your child about where to sit on the bus for example; when possible sit near the driver or a friend. Sometimes knowing where to be and where not to be can stave off confrontation with bullies.
- Teach your child about body language. This is very hard for children who are autistic or with learning disabilities, because they often don’t pick up on social cues such like facial expression, stance, and body language. Help them to understand that a bully will most likely demonstrate quick or jerky movements, use a loud voice, and distorted facial expressions. Teach your child to assess… “Is this person too close to me?” “Is he speaking very loud?” If so, your child needs tools to use confident body language of his own.
- Using appropriate social language is a skill many Special Needs children almost never learn. Children with language delays and processing difficulties cannot come up with a quick response to verbal bullying on their own. Practice confident positive social language (not threats). Try role play practicing scenarios with your child at home, so that he is prepared for a bully if it comes his way.
- Children need be ready to take safe action like leaving the situation or going an adult. A child with a disability which causes her to think very concretely could be reluctant to approach an adult because she thinks she may be creating a problem. We need to teach them to overcome these feelings, using hypothetical examples, and emphasizing that it is responsible to report unsafe bullying situations.
When the Bully Has Special Needs:
Often the child with a speech difficulty or the child who leaves the “regular” classroom for special instruction is teased and ridiculed by his peers. This child may have been teased for poor academic or social skills, and may look for someone who is weaker in those areas. Bullying in this case may also be the result of misreading social cues or lacking the communication skills to ask for something appropriately. Developing skills in social confidence can reduce the tendency to bully. Here are some examples:
- Explain the rules. Talk about when something is his and when it is not. Sally’s turn on the swings is just that – Sally’s turn! Whether or not another child wants to swing at that moment it is not an option because someone else is taking a turn. Fair play is an incredibly difficult concept for Autistic and Asperger’s children so extensive practice and role play are important.
- Teach them body language. Make sure your child knows that a head shake, turning away, or standing up to someone (as well as the verbal “No”) means no. This body language should tell the child to stop. If your child is struggling to pick up on social cues, practice different scenarios at home, role play and discuss what happened afterward. Reading or telling some of these scenarios at bed time may help to solidify the concepts.
- You also must use appropriate social language! Help your child practice using her words, not actions, to get what she wants. If she wants to play with a ball or borrow a pencil, remind her to wait for a positive response before just taking the item she wants.
Parents of typically developing children should explain that children with special needs may be struggling with the aforementioned social skills. This is an opportunity for them to take a leadership role and show respect to their classmates. They can help stop the cycle of bullying by supporting their special needs peers.