Bullying and Special Needs: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Shannon Des Roches Rosa



According to Tim Shriver, Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, FX is currently the only TV network that bans the word “retard.” Bullying of people with special needs remains entrenched, and insidious. According to AbilityPath.org, “Some reports estimate that nearly 85 percent of children with special needs experience bullying.” But it doesn’t need to stay that way.

In partnership with the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, Abilitypath.org is launching a nationwide “Disable Bullying” campaign that will “engage a broad coalition of parents, educators, activists and policymakers to prevent and combat behavior that is widespread but has until now not been clearly documented.”

Glee’s Lauren Potter and her mother Robin Sinkhorn are leading the call for action:

AbilityPath has created Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, a toolkit-rich campaign report and guide [PDF]:

AbilityPath.org is an online hub and special needs community for parents and professionals, which provides over 90 years of experience serving individuals with disabilities through the nonprofit that created it, Community Gatepath (www.gatepath.com). Their staff and network of doctors, therapists and early childhood specialists are experts in serving the needs of adults and children with disabilities; however, it was realized that very few in their industry are experts when it comes to bullying and the child with special needs.

AbilityPath.org created the Walk a Mile in Their Shoes report and guide to achieve the following:

  • Educate all parents on the issue. Both parents and experts shared with AbilityPath.org the limited information that is available specific to the issues faced by children with special needs.
  • Empower parents and educators to take action and apply meaningful change in the classroom and these children’s lives by providing educational as well as legal options in an effort to prevent and/or fight back against the actions bullies.
  • Assist the actions of policy makers, school administrators and professionals in a team effort to ensure that this issue is at the forefront in the public arena when bullying is discussed, researched or legislated. It is clear that the U.S. is nearly a decade behind other nations when implementing, legislating or researching policies regarding bullying and children with special needs.

Some report insights specific to kids with autism and Asperger’s:

  • Special education programs and inclusion efforts have opened doors for thousands of children with special needs. Yet, those very doors may have also made them vulnerable to bullying.
  • Children with special needs use the Internet as much as, if not more than, other students. While the technology provides a more fluid means of interacting with peers and opens up a new potential pool of social contacts, researchers also know that it provides a completely unfiltered method for bullies to attack and harass children with special needs outside of the classroom. More research is necessary to gauge what kind of a threat cyber-bullying is to children with special needs.
  • “Because of difficulties with social interaction and the inability to read social cues, children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome have higher rates of peer rejection and higher frequencies of verbal and physical attacks,” said Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.
  • 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.
  • Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University says, “Personally speaking, I have found that children with Asperger’s tend not to ask for help, not because they prefer isolation or independence, but because it does not naturally occur to them that another person will have a different perspective, different experience/knowledge and, thus, might find a different or better solution. I always advise parents and teachers to encourage children with special needs to tell you how they are feeling, even though they may not respond. If they can’t answer directly, perhaps they will share their thoughts on how the same instance of [cyber]bullying might make another person feel. That might clue you in to the emotions they are wrestling with.”

I just got off a campaign press conference call, featuring the following advocates:

  • Sheryl Young, CEO, Abilitypath.org
  • Lauren Potter, Actress, Glee, & mother Robin Sinkhorn
  • Timothy P. Shriver, Chairman and CEO, Special Olympics
  • Anthony K. Shriver, Founder and Chairman, Best Buddies International
  • Congresswoman Jackie Speier, U.S. Representative (CA-12)
  • Tom Torlakson, California State Superintendant of Public Instruction  

It was instructive to hear everyone’s plans, and the reminders for constant vigilance and advocacy for kids who might not be able to speak up for themselves (though Lauren related an incident in which boys started harassing her, and she told them off, saying they should “grow up already.”). Personally, I would have appreciated more information on advocating for kids like my son Leo in the community, not just at school — but that is not where the majority of bullying takes place.

Please read the entire report [PDF] — it’s important. Then email or give print copies to every teacher, every administrator, and every community leader you know. Our kids are depending on you.