The idea that a child with special needs could be bullied is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, this is the reality. For members of this demographic, unique behaviors can draw attention. Surprising to some, the reverse can also be true; a child with special needs may be easily mistaken as the bully. Either way, bullying is a national problem. New research shows that children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are far more likely than their peers to be bullied. A recent study found almost 50 percent of children diagnosed with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome have been bullied, compared to just over 10 percent of the general teen population.
Because children who require specific behavioral or academic considerations are often highly functioning, they are placed in mainstream classes where they draw unwanted attention because of their unique behavior, social awkwardness, difficulty communicating, or even their difficulty reading aloud.
Bullying often takes the form of teasing, name-calling, hitting or the ostracizing of an individual.
To complicate matters, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may have trouble communicating with their parents or teachers about what is going on, and can sometimes be unable to fully comprehend the bullying due to poor grasp of social cues or inability to recognize teasing.
Bullying increases anxiety and depression in children with special needs.
Research shows that not only are teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders bullied more often than the general population of children, but bullying also factors in significantly to the symptoms of anxiety and depression that children with an Autism or Asperger’s diagnosis often experience. The study in question found that being ostracized or bullied were both strong predictors of depression and anxiety, with ostracization more often causing symptoms.
For some children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, bullying can prey on their inclination to paranoia, or greatly upset the daily routine they need to feel stable.
When children with special needs are mistaken as the bully:
Of additional note on this topic, some children exhibiting characteristics of Spectrum Disorders are more likely to do the bullying. Research has shown that children with poor attention and impulse control in particular are almost four times as likely as their peers to be bullies, and have often been the target of bullying themselves before turning the tables on others. The bullying can be a symptom of the anxiety and depression that stems from having been bullied, coupled with difficulty focusing and other behavioral difficulties.
Bullying can also just be a misunderstanding on the part of those who do not understand Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“Children with Asperger’s or Autism do not always display emotions and can come across as stoic, which may seem offensive,” says Catherine Roach, center director, Brain Balance Achievement Center of Encino. “Couple that with a child who may repeat questions and statements and the child could easily be mistaken as a bully who is mocking others when he or she is not.”
How to manage bullying among children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
If your child is being bullied, experts recommend a variety of responses to help remedy the problem:
- Get other parents involved. Group together with parents of other children who are being bullied to reach out to the school. Also, contact the parents of the children who are the bullies.
- Help your child connect with other children who are bullied. They are more powerful in a group at school than on their own.
- If the school won’t work with the situation, move your child to a school with a high degree of parent participation.
- Role-play ignoring the bully or walking away.
- Tell your child to focus on a goal when walking. If the child stays focused on a destination it may reduce his or her chance to interact with the bully.
- Tell your child not to smile around bullies. Bullies can interpret smiling as a sign of weakness.
- Teach your child to walk confidently with head held high.
- Work with your child to make a list of adults in the school your child can seek out for help.
- If your child is doing the bullying, it may be because he or she needs help with other challenges, such as depression or anxiety.
About the Author:
Dr. Mark Flannery, D.C., M.S., B.S. is a fellow of the American Association of Integrative Medicine, Diplomate of the Chiropractic Board of Clinical Nutrition, Diplomate of the College of Clinical Nutrition, Certified Nutrition Specialist, and Co-Founder, Brain Balance Achievement Centers – Encino, CA.
Sterzing PR, Shattuck PT, Narendorf SC, Wagner M, Cooper BP. Bullying Involvement and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Prevalence and Correlates of Bullying Involvement Among Adolescents With an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;():1-7. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.790.
Being left out puts youths with special needs at risk for depression. Margaret McKenna et al. Copyright © 2012, The American Academy of Pediatrics. http://aapnews.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/04/29/aapnews.20120429-2.full
Bullying and attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder in 10-year-olds in a Swedish community. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 134–138, February 2008
Vulnerable targets: Student with disabilities and bullying. Federation for children with special needs newsline. http://fcsn.org/newsline/v30n3/bullying.php