by Ingrid Schaefer Sprague
From childhood on, we likely have heard that we should embrace each other’s differences. However, certainly this is a learned skill. Moreover, when there are obvious physical or developmental differences, some children and teens notice and tease or mimic what they don’t understand.
For example, in recent national news, one Northeast Ohio case highlighted the severity of bullying when a teen with autism was the subject of a cruel prank.
Since bullying is not widely reported, it is hard to know whether children or teens with physical or developmental disabilities are bullied more or less than their otherwise “typical” peers.
Bullying can take various forms, including verbal, social (including isolation) and physical abuse.
Eileen Hawkins, president at the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland, noted a primary reason why children on the autism spectrum are teased or bullied.
“Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with social interaction with others,” she says. “Everyday typical social interactions that others take for granted must be learned by those on the autism spectrum. They may appear awkward or are clumsy — not only socially, but physically as well — and other children pick it up instantly.”
Lannie Davis, vice president at Julie Billiart School in Lyndhurst says it is the skills that children have or learn to successfully navigate bullying that determine the extent or how long it will last.
She notes that her students don’t have the natural ability to read social cues or body language of others, as well as having a neurological struggle that is unseen physically by their peers.
In working with children with speech and hearing impediments, Lauren Masuga, a speech language pathologist from the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center, says the primary reason why her clients are bullied is because they sound different when they talk, which makes them “stand out” from their peers. While they experience verbal and social bullying, Masuga noted that her clients also reported feeling more isolated from others.
Christopher Milo, a motivational speaker, included the relatively recent introduction of cyberbullying as a significant source of serious taunting, noting that different sites are popular with different age groups.
“We all react differently based on our level of confidence and based on our experiences and personality differences,” he says.
Is Your Child Being Bullied?
Identifying signs that your child is being bullied can be difficult due to different circumstances.
“(For) children who are on the autism spectrum, it can be challenging if they don’t have verbal skills, but a parent generally knows how his or her own child communicates and when something is wrong,” Hawkins says. “It depends on the child — some children with autism are nonverbal, but may act out more aggressively if something is not right for them. Other children with autism or Asperger [syndrome] are verbal and will be sure to tell anyone who will listen what has occurred. (Parents) need to communicate with them the best way that works for the particular child and try to find out if something is wrong.”
Parents should also be observant of behavior changes and signs in their child, Masuga says. “Some signs that bullying may be occurring are changes in the child’s appetite or difficulty sleeping. Another sign that bullying may be occurring would be if the number of ‘sick’ days increases. The child may be avoiding attending school for fear of being bullied. In addition, some students will have a sudden decline in academic performance, which can also be a sign that they are being bullied.”
“The most important thing to do, in my opinion, is ensure that the child has ways to communicate with you as their parent,” Davis says. “Whether that is through drawings, a book, simple phrases or a signal, they don’t always have the expressive language to articulate their discontent.”
What should and can a child who is bullied do about it? The approach may be dependent on the level of ability of the child. For a child on the autism spectrum it may be that an adult needs to intervene, since their social interaction skills are atypical. For a child who can interact, another strategy may be used.
“Since each child and degree of ability is unique, parents and teachers need to assess what skills might be best taught to the child to cope with and address bullying,” Masuga says. “There is no single skill or strategy that is right for each child or each situation. There are times when it is most effective to teach the child to educate and self-advocate, and there are times when it is best to teach the child to walk away and/or talk with an adult. Parents, teachers and clinicians need to ask specifically about bullying and teasing and ensure that there is ongoing dialogue.”
Starting at a young age, it is beneficial to educate children about physical and behavioral differences of other children to instill respect and compassion. For example, Hattie Larlham Preschool in Mantua is a year-round child care service for children ages 3-5. The integrated preschool provides opportunities for both parent and child to learn about community members with disabilities.
Masuga noted that creating an environment of open communication, respectful inquisitiveness and understanding facilitates education and reduces opportunities for bullying.
While mainstreaming atypical students in a population of typical peers should decrease bullying and antisocial behavior, the verdict is out on its effectiveness.
Teachers and other adults should model the desired behaviors in their interactions with both students and adults.
Michelle Burnett, director of clinical services from the Cleveland Hearing & Speech, says, “Emphasizing the more abstract concept of respect by demonstration of and praise for respectful acts and language can set the tone and provide examples of desired behavior throughout day-to-day activities.”