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 by bullying.
"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 acceptable responses.
"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 themselves."
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 bully."
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 self-confidence.
"Being involved with these groups helps the children feel like they can handle situations that are more challenging," she says.
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 tips helps.
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.