Kids with disabilities need skills to cope with bullying

Adam was nine years old with a diagnosis of autism. Some people didn’t understand Adam’s lack of eye contact and […]

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Published September 10, 2011

Adam was nine years old with a diagnosis of autism. Some people didn’t understand Adam’s lack of eye contact and social awkwardness.

Two of his classmates began to bully him. At first they called him names, “weirdo” and mimicked how he walked. It escalated into shoving and tripping, usually at lunch when adults weren’t watching.

This went on for a couple of years. When Adam’s mom spoke to his principal and teacher, they said the incidents were isolated and not serious enough to warrant action.

“Kids will be kids” they told her and they would “grow out of it.” Soon, Adam began acting out before school and then he didn’t even want to go. After years of inaction by the school district, Adam’s frustrated parents decided to homeschool him.

It would be easy enough as a parent to think this couldn’t happen in their child’s school. Most schools have written policies prohibiting bullying/harassment. Minnesota has three state laws to protect students. Despite these efforts children and teens with disabilities continue to be bullied at a rate two to three times the rate of their non-disabled peers. This is especially true for kids with autism because of their difficulties with social interactions.


Putting a Definition to Bullying

Bullying is an intentional and hurtful act repeated over and over again against someone who has a hard time defending themselves physically or psychologically.

Bullying can be anything from name calling to physically shoving a person. Cyber bullying is use of internet technologies and other communication devices. This kind of bullying, is more psychological then physical.


Characteristics of the Bully and Children Who are Bullied

Many types of children can become bullies, even those who are bullied. The bully typically has witnessed physical and verbal violence or aggression at home. The bully uses the same behavior.

Bullies have a strong need for power and dominance, and have a built-in group of followers. Bullies are at risk for school failure, dropping out, and committing criminal acts. Some bullies may have been bullied themselves.

Those who are bullied also may be more sensitive to others’ feelings, more passive, and have a quiet temperament. Differences may, make then stand out and limit their ability to understand that the bully does mean harm. Children with disabilities often have a lower social standing among other students, making them targets.

Children who are bullied are at risk for short and long-term psychological problems.


Where Does It Happen

Typically bullying occurs out of sight of adults in hallways, lunchrooms, and playgrounds. But classrooms are frequently where bullying happens. Studies have shown that teachers fail to intervene in many bullying 


When the Bully is a Child with a Disability

A national study found that children with autism and attention deficit or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders were four times more likely to bully than their non-disabled peers. Researchers were hesitant to label these kids as “bullies” because they felt their behavior was directly linked to their disability. 

But it does present a problem for parents and schools. While it is difficult to think of your own child as a bully, parents should work with the school and talk to the child’s special education teacher and IEP team.


Bullying Dynamics

While it is easy to distinguish the “bully” and the person bullied, other players assist in the cycle of bullying. They may actively participate, uncomfortable laugh along or be disengaged and do nothing. A defender may actively help the person bulled. The most effective way to break the bullying cycle is to educate and engage everyone to speak up and stop the bullying act. Whole school intervention, which educates students, staff, and parents how to break this cycle, is most effective.


What Can I Do?

1: Teach Your Child How to Handle Bullying: Help your child deal with bullies by talking about bullying and make sure they understands it isn’t their fault. Teach your child how to self-advocate.

Make sure bullying victims are comfortable reporting bullying to an adult. Dealing with an aggressive bully can be dangerous so work with your child on a safety plan, to avoid high-risk areas and walk away.

Role play so your child has transferable skills. If your child comes home unhappy or seems different, be sure to ask them if anything happened. If they seem unwilling to share, contact their teacher.

2: Know Your Child’s Rights: Parents have a powerful ally in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Schools must follow Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. If the school doesn’t respond, file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

The Office of Civil Rights recently issued a summary on bullying and disabilities at    In addition, the Minnesota Department of Education’s “Possible Actions to Take if a Child is Being Bullied” is another useful resource and can be found at the Minnesota Department of Education website at . click on “Safe Learners.”


3: Create Change in Your School: Ensure there is a written policy against bullying/harassment in the school and students, parents, and staff are made aware of it. The Minnesota School Board Association has a model written policy schools can adopt.

Call 507-934-2450. Encourage Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) for your school. Contact the Minnesota Department of Education at 651-582-8439 or visit and click on “Evaluation & Program Planning Supports.”

Encourage your school to adopt a “whole school intervention” such as Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. These programs have been found to be very effective in reducing bullying.

  • Wash your hands! Hands that look can still have icky germs!
  • Work with your care provider to stay healthy. Protect yourself. Vaccines are your best protection against being sick.

You are not alone. Minnesota Autism Resource Portal.