Parents and Teachers Can Take Action to Address Bullying of Children with Special Needs

By Marion Walsh, Esq., Littman Krooks LLP

Recent years have seen a welcome shift in public attention toward understanding the serious repercussions of bullying in school. Our society now recognizes that bullying, once dismissed as simply part of growing up,can have a serious negative effect on the mental health and social development of children, even into adulthood.

For children with autism, the problem has even greater scope and effect, in part because children with autism have intrinsic vulnerability to bullying and they are more likely to be victims of bullying. Children often face bullying for being different and the sensitivities and typical peers may not understand the behavioral differences of children with autism.

In addition to being more likely to be bullied, children with autism may have more trouble understanding and responding to teasing. Children with autism tend to interpret statements literally, so they may not understand jokes or sarcasm. Stress and anxiety may lead to an outburst or other problematic behavior, which can lead to further harassment.

The consequences of bullying can be severe. Research has shown that children who are victims of bullying may develop low self-esteem, learning difficulties, anxiety, depression and other symptoms, all of which can persist well into adulthood. In addition, although some types of bullying may decrease as children get older, that may not be the case for children with autism. Indeed, there may be a greater cause for concern with older children.
Here are four action steps you can take to address any bullying of your child:

  1. Do Not Ignore Problem of Bullying. Faced with these challenges, it is important for parents and teachers to be aware of the problem and take action to prevent and respond to bullying. Do not ignore early signs that a student is being bullied or is bullying another student.   Some of the focus must be on the bullies rather than the victims. Teachers should not only intervene when they witness bullying themselves, but teach other students how to do so. A school district’s curriculum and code of conduct should promote an environment free of harassment.
  2. Help Children Advocate for Themselves and Report to Adults. Children with autism can also be taught how to respond appropriately to different types of bullying behavior. Role-playing exercises can be especially effective in instilling the confidence and self-esteem necessary to respond effectively. Through conversations with parents and teachers, children with autism can learn when they need to strongly stand up for themselves and when they might be able to use a joke to deflect more mild teasing.  Make sure a child has a trusted adult in the school to whom to report any bullying. Parents and teachers must provide an appropriate balance of support to protect children from bullying while allowing independence and peer relationships to develop. Parents should bring this up at their child’s next Committee on Special Education team meeting, so that that team can consider goals to help the child advocate and needed supports for the child.
  3. Use State Law and School Policies as Tools to Stop Bullying. Finally, when a child is the victim of bullying, parents and teachers must take steps to intervene. Under New York’s Dignity for All Students Act (“DASA”), schools must protect students by taking prompt action to end harassment, bullying or discrimination that is reported to the administration. Parents should communicate with the school’s Dignity Act Coordinator for students with disabilities, and report any harassment. Check your school district’s policies and procedures
  4. Document Bullying. Be sure to document any instances of bullying in writing and report them to the school. Take pictures of any physical injury. Save copies of text or Facebook and other social media messages.

Preventing bullying requires a multifaceted approach, with attention paid to a number of factors within a social context, which is only possible when bullying is recognized as a serious problem. All parents and teachers should take active steps to raise awareness, teach children strategies to respond to harassment, and take action to prevent bullying.


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