Kids with Disabilities: Stand Up to Bullies


At the playground, I keep a discreet eye on my son. Now that Drew is getting older, I have to stop hovering over him, but it's a hard habit to break. I watch as he takes a ball over to a group of boys, which still catches me by surprise; it's a great reminder of how far he's come. A year ago he never would have done that. I steal glances to see how he interacts with the boys. He smiles, offers the ball and gives it a pretty good kick. A game has started. I relax.

It doesn't take long before my heart starts pounding, and my defenses go up. The other boys aren't letting him have a turn to kick his ball. They act like they're going to, but then they kick it to somebody else. In their defense, my child does not actually run to the ball when it heads in his direction. When lots of bodies head for the ball, he recoils and walks away from the action. He's laughing, so I remind myself he's having fun.

And then it starts. First the name calling, followed by teasing, yet my child is still laughing. He doesn't understand, or maybe he does, but he doesn't know what to do. Because he ignores this behavior, most of the boys get on with the game, but one boy continues teasing, "Stupid! Stupid! You're so stupid!"

Frustrated, I call Drew over and tell him to bring the ball to me, and I end the game.

Non-verbal until age 4 because of apraxia, a severe speech and processing disorder, and on the autism spectrum, Drew still struggles with language. Primarily, he might say one thing but mean another or repeat the same phrases over and over. In social situations, where conversation moves fast, his delayed processing and recall puts him at a disadvantage. Also, until he has practiced a skill to the point of muscle memory, he struggles with basic physical activities. Academically, there are simple strategies to help him. Socially, however, it's obviously different.

I'm not the only mom struggling with a child who gets picked on and won't (or perhaps can't) fight back. And kids with disabilities, no matter how minor or severe, are becoming victims in larger numbers. According to John Hoover and Pam Stenjhem, this type of bullying is called disability harassment. Their article "Bullying and Teasing of Youth with Disabilities: Creating Positive School Environments for Effective Inclusion," which was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, offers schools and parents advice about helping stop disability harassment, including creating an environment that "is aware of and sensitive to disability concerns and harassment." They encourage the community to discuss disability harassment and report it, teaching students about it and helping to bring awareness to it.

As a teacher and parent of a child with a disability, I know schools can only do so much. I think back to those moments in the park, when I watched my son get called a "baby" and "stupid," and how the other moms witnessing the event did nothing. Why didn't they step in? They watched the exchange. How could they witness their children be so cruel and not do anything?

Perhaps these moms didn't let it go. Perhaps they discussed it on the car ride home or saved their comments for later, but in my experience, teachable moments are just that - moments. I want them to teach their child to apologize, or better yet, not to do it in the first place. I've learned to become bolder in speaking to these kids, asking questions such as, "Do I need to talk to your mother?"

We've worked very hard to manipulate friendships for my son, choosing friends and creating situations to help him practice social skills. We explain how teasing looks and what he should say if kids aren't being very nice.

Fortunately, I have friends with older children who have experience with disabilities, whether it's dyslexia, autism or processing disorders. These boys come over and play with Drew, treating him like one of the boys.

I don't want people to treat him with white gloves either. Just like other adolescent boys, he can be stubborn, cheat or lie about things. These boys don't let him get away with it, and I'm glad. But they give him extra time to get his thoughts across, or repeat themselves if they see he's confused. In a sense, they are training him for those playground moments, because we all know kids tease each other, and that it's a fact of life.

I want both of my kids to understand what bullying looks like and how to stand up to bullies, especially when the victims don't understand or can't stand up for themselves. My son is not a fighter, and though there are times I wish he was more assertive, I'm grateful that when it comes to the playground, he's the first to invite all the kids to play, the first to ask if somebody is OK, and the first to offer a smile. In that sense, he'll always be a winner.

Julia Garstecki is a New York-based freelance writer. For more information about parenting a child with special needs, visit her website at

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