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Research by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) has shown that children with special educational needs or disability (SEND) are more than three times more likely to be bully-victims than their non-disabled peers.

What is bullying?

In the playground, it is persistent name calling, teasing, spreading rumours, ignoring or leaving out, threatening or humiliating, pushing, pulling, hitting, kicking, taking or interfering with personal possessions. Online, the cyber bullying can happen day or night via text messages, emails, websites, online gaming, instant messaging and social networks.

A report from Warwick University (Bullying experiences of disabled children and young people in England) found that 80 per cent of young people with learning difficulties reported experiencing bullying, 70 per cent of children with autism combined with other characteristics (for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder) have experienced bullying, and more than 90 per cent of parents of children with high functioning autism reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months. Why? They may look or act ‘different’. They may lack the social skills to communicate or understand. Or they may be alone in the playground, so an easy target.

These children may not tell you they are being bullied, because they may not realise that they are.

‘Children with autism may not intuitively know that the acts of other children are examples of bullying. They sometimes consider that such behaviour is typical play and something that they have come to accept as yet another example of the confusing behaviour of their peers,’ says Professor Tony Attwood, clinical psychologist and autism expert.

Children may develop low self-esteem, lack confidence, become socially isolated and perform badly at school. Bullying can leave them depressed and withdrawn, scared to go places and try new things. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), children bullied during their early years are up to three times more likely to self-harm than their classmates when they reach adolescence. Some may even go on to develop mental health disorders. 

Some become ‘bully-victims’ and start to bully others too. The National Autistic Society (NAS) says that children on the autism spectrum ‘may become aggressive when a game is not being played the way they want and then try to control the situation. They may also become frustrated at being left out in the playground and try to make children become friends with them.’

Educate your child about bullying:

  • Explain the actions which constitute bullying, and how and where can it happen. Try social stories or comic strips to help the child to comprehend.
  • Don’t tell them to ignore it. Ignoring acts of bullying does not work, Atwood says. ‘The bully will escalate his or her actions until the child responds.’ 
  • Parents should work on ‘encouraging the child to have the confidence and ability to disclose his or her experiences as a target’, Atwood says.

Look for the signs of bullying:

  • Behavioural changes - becoming withdrawn, stressed or depressed
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Coming home with damaged, missing or dirty clothes or bags
  • Asking for more money
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Changing route to or from school. Being late home.
  • Increase or change in obsessional/repetitive behaviour
  • Bullying siblings – copying the acts of bullies at home
  • Deterioration in school work

Work with the school:

  • It is vital to have a team approach to address bullying. Don’t try to tackle the bully or his/her parents yourself. Get the school staff involved from the outset.
  • Keep a record of any events along with text messages, web comments or social media postings.
  • Report it to the school and discuss how best this can be tackled together. All schools have an anti-bullying policy.
  • Support the school and do not keep your child off school.
  • Changing school alone is not the answer. ‘Research on typical children has indicated that simply changing school has little effect on reducing the likelihood that a child will be a target of bullying. However, parents may transfer the child to a different school that has a renowned intervention programme to reduce the incidence and effects of teasing and bullying, says Attwood. (The Good Schools Guide SEN team can help you to find such schools.)

Build up their confidence:

  • Praise them for things they are good at, make an achievement book or board with photos and pieces of work to remind them.
  • Look for local social groups and clubs to join. Your child can meet others with similar difficulties and experiences and this can help to make them feel less isolated.
  • Social skills and communication training may be helpful.
  • Explain that it's okay if not all the children in their class are friends.

 How the school can help

  • Have a whole-school approach to anti-bullying with clear policies.
  • Listen. Take issues seriously. Be consistent. Take action.
  • Celebrate differences.
  • Be inclusive.
  • Raise awareness of disability among other children to help them understand why someone may be different, communicate in different ways or behave differently. Encourage them to support their peers and discourage bullying. Bill Gates told one high school, ‘Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.’
  • Set up structured activities and clubs at breaks and lunchtimes.
  • Allow pupils to go to the library or computer room at breaks or lunchtimes if they wish.
  • Set up peer mentoring, befriending, buddying schemes or circles of friends. These ‘can offer effective ways of supporting disabled children and making them less vulnerable to bullying,’ says NAS.
  • Establish support systems to help vulnerable children who are being bullied, so the child knows exactly who they can go to for help. Autism consultant Carol Gray suggests creating a map of the child’s world and identifying the places where the child is vulnerable to, or safe from, acts of bullying.

 If you need help with managing a bullying situation at school, you can book a troubleshooting service with our consultants.

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