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Disability Bullying: Has Your Child Been a Target?

A new report and campaign from sheds new light on the rate of bullying among kids with different abilities, even invisible ones like ADHD and LD. Has your family been affected?

Children with special needs, including invisible differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities, are two to three times more likely to experience bullying than their typically developing peers, according to a new report released from, a nonprofit serving families and children with special needs.

Chances are that doesn’t surprise you. As the mother of a child with ADHD and comorbidities, it sure didn’t surprise me.

For me, reading the report, titled “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: Bullying and the Child With Special Needs,” required a box of tissues and many calming deep breaths. It begins with the personal experiences of being bullied from several children with disabilities — stories that are both heartbreaking and infuriating — then goes on to cite research on the topic, and finishes with a plan of action for parents and schools.

The report states that only 10 studies have been completed in the United States specific to kids with special needs and bullying. In addition to finding that our kids are two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their nondisabled peers, the study also reported that all 10 studies concluded that the bullying of children with disabilities was usually persistent and that it was typically associated with their disability.

Nancy A. Murphy, M.D., FAAP, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children with Disabilities Executive Committee, is quoted in the report as saying that while bullying has negative effects on all its victims, kids with special needs are especially vulnerable, “since these children already struggle with self-esteem issues and they desire to fit in and are less likely to stand up for themselves.”

The report states that children with special needs are bullied more frequently for several reasons, among them are two that apply to our invisibly disabled kids:

They may have a low frustration tolerance. When frustration increases and reaches a threshold, it can lead to a meltdown, which makes the person stand out as being different.”

“Students with developmental disabilities may have difficulty paying attention to more than one piece of information, which may cause them to stay ‘stuck’ in a conversation. Such actions can have adverse effects on their social skills and make it difficult for them to hold conversations and make friends.”

I would add that the two- to three-year lag in maturity and difficulty reading social cues that our kids are prone to are also contributing factors. I know those affect my daughter’s social interactions at school.

The report also cites preliminary data from a Connecticut study where schools are documenting reported incidents of bullying. Early data suggest that more than 50 percent of all complaints involved a student with an individualized education programs (IEP) or a disability.

It’s not all bad news: kicked off a campaign to “disable bullying” during the same press conference that announced the report’s release. In the press conference, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier called for making the special-needs population the top priority for federal funds directed at bullying prevention. Tom Torlakson, California State Superintendent, is seeking legislation in California to require school personnel to intervene in and then to report incidents of bullying. School administrators will be required to followup on each incident with both sets of parents. This is a model for addressing bullying that other states could potentially follow.

Since 2005, 45 of the 50 states have passed laws against bullying, according to the report. And, as of October 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights informed all public schools in the U.S. that bullying and harassment can be discrimination, and schools that know about, but fail to stop such acts may be in violation of federal civil rights laws. Further, the report notes that if your child has an IEP or 504 plan, you can request a meeting to address the
child’s harassment — either by working on skills and goals to indirectly limit harassment or by requesting a change of placement to directly remove your child from the presence of her or his bullies.

Read the report with your own child in mind. provides many other suggested strategies and resources, including toolkits for parents and teachers. I guarantee you’ll want to take action.

Below, you can watch an video featuring Glee star Lauren Potter, who has Down Syndrome, discuss the topic.

What will you do to “disable bullying”? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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