What to Do if Your Special Needs Child or Teen is Bullied at School
Parents of kids with special needs are constantly torn between the urge to protect them at all costs and the necessity of teaching their kids how to cope with the “normal” world. Bullying and teasing have been an ongoing problem for generations, even with more and more schools implementing anti-bullying programs.
It’s extremely upsetting to hear that any kid has been bullied, but when the victim is a child with special needs, it’s devasting. Here’s what to do if your autistic child is being bullied in school.
Help Your Child Understand What a Friend Is—and Isn’t
One of the defining characteristics of autism is a varied perception of socializing. Children with autism may not understand the difference between positive attention from peers and bullying.
Talk to your child about what a good friend is, what kind of behavior they should expect from friends, and how to make good friends. Use stories with clear and simple illustrations to show your autistic child what friendship is, and help them differentiate how good friends behave versus what bullies do.
Teach Self-Advocacy Skills
Bullying can come through words, cyberbullying, and in worst-case scenarios, physical harm that may or may not result in injury.
In addition to learning how to recognize a bullying situation, autistic kids need strategies for responding to bullying. Practice self-advocacy skills, including walking away, asking a teacher or aide for help, or techniques for letting bullies know their behavior is bad. Support your child’s efforts to tell bullies to back off, and teach them what to do if the bully responds with increased aggression, including calling for help.
Never tell a child with a disability to “toughen up” or fight back. Watch for signs of bullying, including increased withdrawal, unexplained injuries, sleep disturbances, and changes in eating habits.
Incorporate Protections Into the IEP
Every year, schools are required to develop an individualized education plan (IEP) that sets goals and makes accommodations. Insist that the plan includes protections against bullying and acknowledgment that bullying will not be tolerated and perpetrators will be kept away from your child to the greatest extent possible.
Build strategies that allow your child to avoid encounters with known bullies, and require that school staff respect your child’s request to be extracted from uncomfortable situations. Make sure your child has an advocate and monitor on the playground and in other areas of the school where bullying is a risk.
New teachers and school staff members need time to get o know your child and may not know your child’s needs right away. Be sure to be attentive to the staff and keep an open dialogue. Don’t be put off or ignored if someone is busy. Persistently advocate for your child.
Bullying and/or harassing a person with a disability is a crime. The most important thing to do if your autistic child is bullied at school is to advocate for your child relentlessly and constantly monitor the school’s compliance with accommodations and protections in the IEP.
Photo – Mikhail Nilov