How to Help Students with Special Needs Avoid Being Bullied or Becoming Bullies

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

As news reports from around the country continue to confirm, bullying can have tragic consequences – not only for students being bullied, but also for those doing the bullying.
Unfortunately, young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities are particularly at risk for experiencing the negative effects of bullying.
Like many states, Massachusetts has anti-bullying legislation. It specifically defines bullying, mandates anti-bullying education, and holds school personnel accountable for reporting bullying incidents. But teachers, administrators, and school districts are not the only ones responsible for putting an end to bullying. Parents and family members must also take an active role in addressing this serious problem.
Starting at a very young age, parents can talk to their typically developing children about the special needs of other children. They can teach them how to better understand and appropriately interact with classmates who may have ASD or other developmental disabilities. Armed with information and understanding, students may be less likely to become bullies at school and more likely to report any bullying activity they witness to responsible adults.
Parents of children with special needs can help them develop and strengthen peer relationships by helping them improve their communication skills. They may need you to explain to them what is OK and what is not OK when conversing with friends. Working with them on hygiene, dressing appropriately, and practicing social skills like taking turns can also help them avoid bullying.
Increasing the number of age-appropriate activities a child with special needs engages in can help reduce the likelihood that s/he will become a victim of bullying. So can reducing the amount of time s/he spends engaging in socially stigmatizing behavior such as hand-flapping.
Children with special needs and typically developing children both need to be taught how to identify bullying and learn that it is always unacceptable. If a child reports being bullied, it is essential that parents work with teachers and administrators to assess the situation and end the bullying. They should encourage the child to appropriately seek adult assistance and avoid telling him or her to fight back.
Although children with special needs are often the target of bullies, they can also become bullies themselves, sometimes lashing out at other students verbally and physically. If they are verbally abusive, helping them improve their communication skills and express themselves more appropriately can be helpful. It can also help them learn how to address their peers (and teachers) in a respectful, friendly manner.
In some cases, children with special needs may get more attention from their peers if they are targeting an individual and making jokes. Peers may find them funny. However, explaining to them what is appropriate behavior and most importantly, providing other means for them to get the same level of attention from peers through appropriate behavior, can end their need to engage in behavior that leads to hurting others.
If students with special needs become physically or verbally abusive, parents and teachers can work with them on impulse control and on learning alternative, or “replacement” behaviors. Parents should be sure that they are modeling good behavior and appropriate language at home.
The negative impact of bullying has affected children of all ages, sizes, and abilities in all areas of the country. While bullying can seem like an out-of-control social phenomenon, there are steps that parents and families can take to put an end to this problem.
Working together, family members and school personnel and other caring adults can help children learn about and avoid bullying, feel safer, and enjoy life.
By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601.

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