Bullying in the Special Needs Community

In honor of the end of Autism Awareness Month in April, let’s highlight bullying in the special needs community.  Whether face-to-face, nasty notes, harassing cell phone voicemails or cyber stalking, bullying has become an epidemic.

There are numerous statistics about childhood bullying and its growth in the computer age.  We know with certainty that bullying of children with disabilities is significant but, unfortunately, there has been very little research to document the harassment of this population segment.

Only 10 U.S. studies have been conducted on the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, but all of these studies found that children with special needs were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers.  According to PACER’S National Bullying Prevention Center, one study has shown that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of total students.

This should be disheartening to each of us and should act as a wake-up call to government legislators, educators and parents.

Because bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power, students with special needs are especially vulnerable and frequently targeted.  For example, in the fall of 2009, responses to a Massachusetts Advocates for Children online survey asked about the extent of bullying against children on the autism spectrum.  Nearly 90 percent of parents responded that their children had been bullied. These findings are applicable to most students with disabilities.

All children deserve to feel safe in school.  The Federation for Children with Special Needs lists a few ways parents can support a child with special needs who is being bullied:

  • Tell your child that this is not his or her fault, and that your child did nothing wrong.
  • Gently emphasize that above all, your child should not retaliate or attempt to fight or hit the bully.
  • Role-play ignoring the bully or walking away.
  • With your child, make a list of adults in school he or she can go to for help, such as counselors or administrators.
  • Arrange for him or her to see friends on the weekends, and plan fun activities with the family.

Children and young adults with learning disabilities and special needs are undoubtedly at increased risk of being bullied.  And, unfortunately, a person’s disability can make it difficult to identify the type of bullying that is occurring. It is important for both teachers and parents to take the time to clearly define and describe bullying behaviors for children with special needs, so they can identify bullying and notify adults if they experience or witness bullying.

We, as a society, have somehow moved away from teaching our children about empathy and compassion. We, as parents and educators, have moved far away from teaching kids that, just because someone is different, it does not mean that they are a target to bully and tease.

As a person with A.D.D. and the founder of  Fitness for Health, a therapeutic, exercise facility for children and adults with special needs in the Washington, DC, Region , I believe that we need to relearn and re-emphasize respect and human decency for everyone. It is every parent and educator’s responsibility to speak to our kids about why some people are different and answer any questions that they have openly and honestly.  Only then, we may have the opportunity to create happier and healthier kids at school and less bullying.

Fitness for Health is proud to offer fitness programs created specifically for the special needs community that help improve self-esteem, weight management and kids’ health while helping children reach their full potential.