Fighting Back Helping Students with Special Needs Build Skills, Prevent Bullying

By Petruccelli, Marisa L.; Ladew, Patricia | The Exceptional Parent, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Fighting Back Helping Students with Special Needs Build Skills, Prevent Bullying


Petruccelli, Marisa L., Ladew, Patricia, The Exceptional Parent


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In response to the well-publicized, sometimes tragic consequences of bullying in schools and communities across America in recent years, most states have now passed anti-bullying legislation. Many of these laws specifically define bullying, mandate anti-bullying education, and hold school personnel accountable for reporting bullying incidents. While this is a positive step in the right direction, parents of children with developmental disabilities and other special needs may wonder what they can do to protect their children and prepare them for situations they may encounter in integrated classrooms.

For military families who have children with special needs, the concern is even greater. Frequent relocations mean that their sons and daughters are often the "new kids," without friends or support groups, and therefore may be more likely to be bullied.

This article gives readers an inside look at one family's experience and offers insights on what parents can do to help their children with special needs develop skills and strategies to deal with bullies.

At first glance, 12-year-old Ryan does not look like a boy who would be teased or bullied by his classmates. He's big and strong and friendly and funny. But Ryan has Asperger's Disorder, a developmental disability that makes communication and social interactions very challenging for him. And, because his father, Tom Sass, is a Captain in the Navy, Ryan's family moves a lot. In recent years, Tom, Ryan's mother Pam, and his two sisters Megan and Emma have lived in Italy, Germany, Virginia, and Hawaii. They are now living in the Greater Boston area while Tom is stationed at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

His family's frequent relocations have made it difficult for Ryan to build friendships. "It's hard to make friends when you're new," says Pam. "It's harder to develop those core friends who support you and make you less of a target. It's easier to bully a child without friends than a child who is part of a social group."

Ryan is not your typical seventh grader, but he is a typical adolescent with Asperger's Disorder. He has a very active, inquisitive mind and his interests include ancient civilizations, puppetry, mime, medieval weaponry, and collecting magic cards. He speaks in a more formal manner than his classmates, often wears a beret to school, and drinks out of a canteen instead of a water bottle. "Kids notice he's different," says Pam.

Making friends has always been challenging for Ryan, especially in unstructured settings such as the lunchroom, the playground, or anywhere kids are "hanging out." "He doesn't really know how to socialize or just be with kids," says Pam. "When other kids are just 'hanging out' Ryan will go off and pursue his own interests."

When he does make an effort to interact with other students, he is likely to try and engage them in conversations or make-believe play around one of his favorite subjects--dragons, for example.

Because it is difficult for Ryan to understand social nuances, he may not understand when his peers try to avoid him or change the subject. This results in certain challenges that Ryan must learn to navigate.

Bullying and Other Challenges

For some children, being bullied may mean being punched or hit; some are victims of "cyberbullying" via the Internet. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), "Bullying happens when someone hurts or scares another person on purpose and the person being bullied has a hard time defending himself or herself. Usually, bullying happens over and over." For Ryan, being bullied means being consistently left out of a group (another HRSA example of bullying). His classmates sometimes say unkind things to him or talk about him behind his back, which makes Ryan feel isolated and unhappy.

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"For Ryan, being bullied is kids ignoring him, kids not playing with him, kids telling him he cannot play with them and excluding him," says Pam. …

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