Children with special needs are particularly at risk to both traditional bullying and cyberbullying. While an estimated 43% of children in the general population are victims of bullying, up to 60% of children with special needs are bullied. This number is staggering and deeply upsetting. When the bullying is being done online, there are usually no witnesses, and it is much more difficult to tell when the child has become a victim. If you looked at the data concerning children with special needs that is on our “Cyber Bullying Facts” page, it is alarming. However, parents of children with disabilities should not be discouraged.
It is important to realize that children with special needs are often more trusting when it comes to interactions with friends or their peers. Many times, they don’t understand the dangers trolling the dazzling world of social media or game apps. Parents want their children to reach out and make friends, but they want it to be done in a safe environment.
Here are 11 things parents need to do to help a child with special needs avoid the nasty side of technology:
1. Limit the amount of time a child is allowed to use online social media or their mobile phone. Children with special needs might struggle with communicating their thoughts aloud and might retreat into the cyberworld. Technology can be a wonderful development tool, but opens up the risk of cyberbullying as well. Be especially careful of online gaming that includes participant chat rooms. These are full of both trolls and internet traffickers looking to take advantage of kids.
2. Look for signs that your child is being targeted. Do they suddenly avoid the internet? Do they get upset when a mobile phone rings or a message pops up? Do they suddenly want to avoid school or activities they once enjoyed?
3. Open messages, texts, and images together. Read messages with your child to get a good understanding of what is being sent. It also helps avoid unneeded suffering if you can intercept hurtful messages.
4. Know who your child is friends with online. Limit friends to people he or she actually knows, and beware of fake profiles created by bullies.
5. Help protect your child’s privacy by setting privacy controls. Keep personal information guarded from trolls and traffickers.
6. Watch your child when using devices and social media. You don’t need to hover, but always keep technology in living areas of the home. This will eliminate the temptation to snap racy pictures or hide cyberbullying.
7. Monitor your child’s technology activity. Stay up to date on the sites and games your child frequents (once again, pay special attention to online gaming).
8. Know the signs of Cyberbulling. A survey from The Harford County Examiner reported that only 10% of bullied teens report the bullying to their parents. This means that you cannot necessarily rely on your child to tell you if he or she is the victim of cyberbullying. Instead, rely on observations of your child’s mood and behavior to clue you in.
Major behavioral changes in your child can be a sign that something is wrong. Go to our section on “Parent Tips” to review common signs.
9. Stop the Bullies! If you believe, or know that your child is being bullied online, there are several steps you can take to prevent any further bullying. Information on combating the bullies can also be found under “Parent Tips”.
10. Include bully prevention strategies in your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program). During your meetings with the school, address concerns of bullying and ways to lessen their occurrences. This will allow more eyes and ears to be on the lookout for signs or events that could harm a child.
11. In some cases, it may be appropriate to call a lawyer. Some cases may be considered “disability harassment” by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This would mean the school must address the bullying.
Most importantly, when your child with special needs is being bullied, you must reassure him or her that they are loved.
Bullying and Students on the Autism Spectrum
Students on the autism spectrum are bullied more often than students with disabilities. In fact, of the students with disabilities who are bullied, 63% are on the autism spectrum. Regardless of the outcome associated with bullying, and whether or not the student has a disability, bullying is a serious and pervasive problem that must be addressed in schools. Bullying involves repeated harmful actions toward an individual or a group. It occurs when someone is perceived to have a weakness, a challenge, or a difference that may serve to isolate them and to make them a target for harmful acts. Bullying often occurs in front of, or includes, others. Witnesses can play in important role in increasing or decreasing bullying, if they choose. A fast growing area for bullying students on the spectrum is cyberbullying, in which Facebook, email, Twitter, and other forms of social media are used to spread unkind and often untruthful information about students. These students are often lacking in person-to-person social skill,s and thus much more dependent on social media to network with friends. While social networking can be a great resource for students to connect people, it can, and often is, used in a harmful manner to ostracize and exclude others.
Keep in mind that for students on the autism spectrum, bullying, including cyberbullying, may be difficult to detect and understand. Because of theory of mind or “mind reading” challenges and social skill deficits, these students become vulnerable targets for bullying. Theory of mind differences result in difficulties grasping the intentions of others and understanding what others are feeling and thinking, or understanding what is being said about them on social media. In terms of social skills, individuals with autism have difficulty reading nonverbal cues, including body language and the facial expressions of others. In addition, they may take comments literally instead of understanding the underlying and, perhaps, unkind message or post. Many may have difficulty detecting the difference between friendly banter and bullying. As such, learners on the spectrum may over – or under-react when perceived or real bullying happens.
We also need to realize that kids with special health needs, such as epilepsy or food allergies, also may be at higher risk of being bullied. Bullying can include making fun of kids because of their allergies or exposing them to the things they are allergic to. In these cases, bullying is not just serious, it can mean life or death.
Creating a Safe Environment for Youth with Disabilities
Special considerations are needed when addressing bullying in youth with disabilities. There are resources to help kids with disabilities who are bullied or who bully others. Youth with disabilities often have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or Section 504 plans that can be useful in crafting specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying. These plans can provide additional services that may be necessary. Additionally, civil rights laws protect students with disabilities against harassment.
Creating a Safe Environment for Youth with Special Health Needs
Youth with special health needs—such as diabetes requiring insulin regulation, food allergies, or youth with epilepsy— may require accommodations at school. In these cases they do not require an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan. However, schools can protect students with special health needs from bullying and related dangers. If a child with special health needs has a medical reaction, teachers should address the medical situation first before responding to the bullying. Educating kids and teachers about students’ special health needs and the dangers associated with certain actions and exposures can help keep kids safe.
Federal Civil Rights Laws and Youth with Disabilities
When bullying is directed at a child because of his or her established disability and it creates a hostile environment at school, bullying behavior may cross the line and become “disability harassment.” Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the school must address the harassment. Read more about federal civil rights laws.