It's a given that parents will always worry about their kids and
try to do what it takes to keep them safe. But when it comes to the
bullying a child with special needs may face, it's hard for parents
to know how to help.
And, unfortunately, it's not uncommon for children with special
needs to be the target of bullies. Statistics from
AbilityPath.org's Walk a Mile in Their Shoes report show that
children with special needs are two to three times more likely to
be bullied than their peers.
Kathy Ruffulo, vice president of children's services at Aspire
Children's Services, believes bullies are something on every
parent's radar. She says education and building a child's
selfesteem can help protect them from getting emotionally injured
"We have one family that we work with here with a daughter in a
wheelchair. They went into the school and talked to the kids in the
classroom about why she's in the chair, how she's not different
from them and how they can help her get around," she says.
"Sometimes kids just make fun because they don't know any
different. If you can help typically developing kids understand a
little bit of what is going on with kids with special needs, they
can develop some empathy for them."
What else can parents do?
Rebecca Kieffer, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker
at North Shore Pediatric Therapy, says the best way for parents to
help their children is to be observant and aware of what's going on
all the time.
"One thing I think that parents definitely need to do is let
their children know that this is not their fault, that they're not
alone and don't have to face this alone," she says.
It's important to talk about it. Asking specific questions and
having regular conversations with your child, as well as their
educators, will help you be aware of what is going on.
Role-playing social stories and working on problem-solving
skills are just a few ways parents can help their child with
bullies, but Kieffer also suggests writing scripts and memorizing
"I feel like children, especially with autism and Asperger's,
already have difficulty with social interaction as it is. They
don't have the skills to really recognize bullying and stand up for
themselves," she says. "Children with special needs need someone to
help teach them the steps they need to stand up for
Ruffulo, who has a nephew on the autism spectrum who has been
bullied, says that building a safe support system is key. For her,
one of the biggest pieces is to have the child feel comfortable
talking about their situation.
"When you think about what parents want for their kids, they
want their kid to be happy. They want them to be safe and have
friends. You hope that when you send your kids to school that they
are going to be in a safe atmosphere and that doesn't always
happen," she says. "Keeping the lines of communication open and
giving them advice on how to handle the situation is essential, as
well as encouraging them to not get into a power struggle with the
Online bullying is on the rise and children with special needs
aren't immune to the cyber abuse. With so many children using
technology, kids with special needs have joined the online
community to fit in. While iPhones and Facebook can help them
create social connections, it also makes them vulnerable to
negative comments, violent pictures and cyber harassment.
"Sometimes, special needs children are more at risk for this
because they don't understand what is going on," Kieffer says. "I
think cyber bullying is going to continue to increase because kids
are getting more and more cruel. It is a big concern."
Kieffer encourages parents to monitor their child's online
accounts regularly and to be involved with the same online
communities as their children.
Peer mentors groups can be helpful in teaching resiliency by
giving kids role models, Kieffer says. Not only do they encourage
kids to be active and communicate, but such groups can help their
"Being involved with these groups helps the children feel like
they can handle situations that are more challenging," she
Ruffulo suggests parents caught up in bullying look for
anti-bullying prevention groups at school or in the community. She
says meeting other special needs families and swapping ideas and
Kieffer encourages parents to keep their emotions in check.
Overreacting isn't necessary and parents need to "model proper
behavior and support their child," she says.
Lindsey is Chicago Parent's summer 2013 intern. She is a senior at Ball State University.
See more of Lindsey's stories here.
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