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Invisible targets

One girl's story offers a glimpse into an everyday cruelty: the bullying of children with disabilities.

By GreatSchools Staff

You could hear a pin drop on the blacktop the day that Gabriella Matson, a fourth-grader at a Colorado public school, wandered onto the playground for recess. A crowd of children had gathered in rapt attention around the slide. Teachers attempted to distract Gabriella away from the scene.

Was someone injured? Had a bird hit a window?

Eventually, Gabriella caught sight of the spectacle — not a kid’s broken wrist or a stunned sparrow, but a message aimed directly at her.

“I’m going to kill Gabriella Matson tomorrow at noon,” said a note scrawled on the slide. (The names of Gabriella and her mother have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.)

Administrators called the police to make a report and requested that Gabriella’s mother, Janet, hightail it down to the school. With a little sleuthing, the school identified the prime suspect: a fifth-grade girl who had taken a disliking to Gabriella and had left a nasty note in her mailbox earlier in the year.

When confronted by the police, the suspected bully neither denied nor confessed to making the threat. Without proof, the police said they had no option but to drop the case.

Battling the school to take action

But for Janet there was no dropping the issue. A child psychologist who worked with troubled tweens and adolescents, she recalls trying to impress upon the school that the alleged perpetrator represented a danger to her daughter as well as other students — especially since the girl, whose father was a police officer, had access to guns. Gabriella was so traumatized she eventually became clinically depressed and needed to be medicated.

After weeks of urging school administrators to take action, Janet says she contacted the governor and lieutenant governor, who happened to be implementing a new anti-bullying program (which Gabriella's school had chosen not to use). Feeling that Gabriella still wasn't safe and that she herself had come to be seen as a “pain-in-the-ass mother," Janet withdrew her daughter and enrolled her in a local parochial school.

Janet says the slide incident was the worst instance of bullying her daughter — a solitary kid who preferred the company of books to her peers — experienced. But it wasn’t the only one. Later at the private school, Gabriella encountered bullying of the classic mean-girls variety with a new high-tech twist: texting, Facebook rumors, a full cyberbully assault. Though Gabriella had done nothing to provoke this abuse, the quiet, bookish kid represented something that made her especially vulnerable.

Targeting children who stand out

Considered “gifted with AD/HD,” Gabriella was one of the legions of children with a disability who become the target of bullying. Research has long shown that children with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder, or autism, as well as physical disabilities, are far more at risk for being bullied than other children. One 2007 British study found that 82% of children with learning disabilities claim to have been bullied. (An NIH study from 2001 found that 16% of all children report having been bullied in the past term.) According to Marlene Snyder of Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in Clemson, S.C., children with learning issues may be overly sensitive and reactive, which attracts the attention of bullies.

“Any child who is different from the norm is vulnerable," says Karen Hoving, an AD/HD specialist. "Typical kids are like vultures — they pick it up.”

Yet the widespread phenomenon remains under the radar for many schools, teachers, and parents. When it involves a kid whose disability isn't visible, bullying can be all the more difficult to untangle. "I don't think most kids will kick the crutch out from under a kid," explains Carol Greenburg, an autism specialist and the executive director of Brooklyn Special Needs Consulting in New York. "But when it's invisible — when it's 'They're weird' — it seems worse."

The disability, like AD/HD or obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be a confidential matter — so that fellow students only see the child’s unusual behavior with no context or explanation. And sometimes schools are anything but helpful: One study showed that 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying.

                                                                   An attempt to bully-proof her child...

Teaching kids social survival skills

Greenburg knows whereof she speaks. She says she suffered at the hands of bullies throughout her childhood because of her inability to read facial expressions and pick up on social cues. It was only as an adult, when she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, that she began to understand how her disability had affected her social life as a child.

But if her own experience offers another example of how kids with invisible disabilities are so often bullied, Greenburg's professional life suggests that it's a resolvable problem with the right kind of intervention. When her son Arren was diagnosed with speech delays and autism at age three and a half, she was determined to prevent him from becoming a target for bullying. Greenburg hired a private autism therapist, Ben Fox, who suggested they try something different from the usual applied behavioral analysis (ABA) treatment in which a therapist interacts with the child and gives rewards for correct responses. Instead, he facilitated playdates with Arren and typical children — teaching Arren the rules of play as well as appropriate ways to say no during interactions.

Despite severe speech delays, Arren, now 7, enjoys a wide group of friends both typical and autistic. To Greenburg's knowledge, he has never been bullied. Arren's bustling social life caught the attention of his school’s administrators, who ended up hiring Fox to design a school-based program that teaches autistic kids social skills through playing with typical children. Fox and Greenburg teamed up to create Brooklyn Special Needs Consulting, which helps parents and schools use that approach with autistic students.

Stopping the cycle of violence

Whatever pains parents and schools take to prevent bullying, the numbers suggest it's worth adult intervention. Indeed, the cycle of violence triggered by bullying shouldn’t be underestimated. According to a 2002 report by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, most school shootings were perpetrated by children who had been the victim of extreme bullying. And multiple studies have suggested a link between bullying and criminal behavior and delinquency, both for victims and perpetrators.

All over the world, hundreds of anti-bullying programs attempt to solve bullying as the societal problem that it is. But in the meantime, individual kids figure out how to survive as best they can. Janet says her daughter learned “never to place all her eggs in one basket,” thus recognizing bullying as a potential reality from which she needed to constantly protect herself. “She avoided the clique thing. She made friends in a number of different circles as a survival technique. Because in her experience, the person who is your best friend today might eat you alive tomorrow.”

Reviewed 2010

Comments from readers

"does your child get bullied everyday "
"My grandson was ADHD. He was just sepensed from school for a week. The teacher said he stood up and told another boy he was going to shoot him in the face. When ask the boy said he did not say that but another boy need by said he did. My grandson does not speak like that and to stand up in front of the whole class is not like him. He's been bully lately by a classmate. How to handle this is beyond his parents and our too. "
"In our area public schools are consistently in the top 5 in the nation. Based on that, and the glowing reviews from our neighbors we sent our son to the local public school for kindergarten. Always had a bad feeling. Then came first grade and all of a sudden our son was crying and begging us not to send him to school. He was spat on, called names, touched inapprpiately, pushed, and "touched" in the face. I say touched because that is what the administration said when our son was hit in the face by a child with special needs. To be clear all of the abuse and taunts- bullying-came at the hand and from the mouth of ONE boy who had impulse control, anxiety, and a learning disability. I know this because his mother told me he was protected by the disabilities act and that they were doing the best they could and that there was nothing we could do about it. The sad thing...she was right. No one, teacher, administration, no one cared about the toll it was taking in our son.! We were labeled as the problem parents and lied to by the administration at least 3 times. We were left no choice but to remove our child whom out of the 20 some instances only pushed back once in self-defense to a private school. The god news is that our son is in a safe, zero tolerance school but he still carries this with him. I am so angered that parents have this not my child attitude. I'm sad because the boy that tortured our son will most likely be the kid that is consistently bullied, and left out as he progresses through his academic career because his mom is "exhausted" and feels she has exhausted all treatments for her son and he is only 8. Our schools get so much funding for these children, this child has an IEP and a 504, attended pre-school for free but no one is protecting the child who isn't able to hide behind an IEP. We now have to pay to ensure that our son gets a chance to learn in a safe enviornment. "
"What about the kids who have these "disabilities" who are bullying other kids? Why isn't this addressed? I'm so tired of hearing "johnny is special...go back to your seat and quit bothering him" or "don't pick on her...she's handicapped..i don't care if she just intentionally shoved and screamed at's all your fault". I have sympathy for children who are bullied, but sometimes children use their disabilities to take advantage of the system while still being categorized the "poor disabled student who can't help it". "
"this is so sad i just cant believe this.God will protect her and her family "
"My grandson has Asperger's and has been the victim of bullying too many times to remember. We only reported it once, as we did not want it to be a problem that comes back or have him suffer more from upset teachers, parents, children. Unless you've had a child who gets in the car after school and burst into tears from the pain he has held inside all day, you just don't realize the ramifications that bullying causes. We were probably all bullied as children growing up, that is simply part of the process of learning how to deal with others, but a child with a disability does not possess the ability to process the meanness. Most Asperger's children are sweet and don’t understand why another would intentionally hurt him or her. I know they can be disruptive to a class and annoying to other children and make the teacher’s day more difficult, but their actions are not intentional, bullying is. "
"I have a 13 year old daughter who has a learning disability, and suffers from ADD and anxiety. She was bullied at her previous elementary school, and now attends an alternative school for kids with special needs. She is doing well at her new school, but still suffers from self esteem issues because of the bullying. I find it alarming and sad that as the article stated, a lot of teachers don't see anything wrong with bullying. From my daughter's experience, that was true. Any adult who would stand by and watch a child being bullied, and not do anything about it should be ashamed of him or herself, and certainly does NOT belong in a classroom. "
"Bullying at its worst. Mental disabilities. Not everyone is born with the same learning aptitude, and therefor are subject to bullying. Anybody experiencing similar problems, please contact me, or post a comment on my Facebook group."
"things like ths give me hope to stay in school i was burned severly at the age of 4 so i have had multiple surgeries ad sometimes have to miss school for weeks due to it. i get teased all the time for my scars and weight and i even go to a christian private school but after we told the principle also my bible teacher he preached to the class since jesus was treated poorly we shouldnt expect any better. i also have been made fun of my religion because i am catholic and go to a christian school, but we went to the christian school because it was smaller. i am a jounior and high school and this is the 3rd school i have been to in 3 years. i am losing hope and my parents wont let me swich schools again. this helped alot"
"Thank you for sharing what sounds like a your wonderful program for kids with autism and other LDs. Our programs start in pre school and we go into classrooms, help children identify their feelings and provide them with the language that promotes sharing, friendship and kindness. Many kids with a high self-esteem and an over blown sense of entitlement bully as well. Thank you for all that you do. Bullying is pervasive and can change the entire course of a person's life. "
"My grandson with Aspergers has also been bullied all his school life. They are a target because of language delay and quirkeness.They have a harder time trying to report to the teacher and usually the teacher kicks it off by saying boys will be boys. We heard this through black eyes and bloody noses and bruises. No one seems to ever see or hear what happens. They see the blood, but ignores what even the other children tell, because they would be forced to say yes we have bullies and we even have some teacher bullies. The shame of the teacher deal is usually it is the teacher being clueless. The teachers that deal with lunch, recess, halls ,reading ,speech, are not attuned to your child. There may be a board member that is over special ed. , but rarely are the teachers that deal with your child most of the day. At age 11 we placed him in a private school. All children in this school have an IEP . It is life changing. It is a college prepatory School. 30,000 a year. The ! states should learn from these types of schools. Bullies should be dealt with sharply and immediately. The problem is usually the bully is a teachers kid or someone that donates to sports or someone the teachers are afraid of and there is no money to educate or provide alternatives to the good kids. Schools attuned should be read by all.(By Mel Levine) (Tony Atwood) on Aspergers should be read by all. Most teachers have no clue. My Grandsons School was a joke. The principal was the biggest bully of all. The amount of Bullies that are teachers is mind boggeling. There is a company that provides help for Schools, but a lot Schools say , they have no problem. even when they have kids killing themselves because of it. Money seems to always be the reason that public Schools cant help IEP Children. You will see very few teachers of the caliber I am speaking of in our public Schools. I dont know about other areas. I do know I have hundreds of emails stating the same problems th! at have children on the spectrum. They also echo that public s! chools are not prepared to deal with these kids. Most still have the high school mentality. They are not forced to comply with how the Children learn. They expect the Children that cant, not wont , to comply to them. Vanderbuilt Childrens Hospital and The university of North Carolina Childrens Group can help you. Tony Atwood has written the best book on aspergers. Please know you are not alone in this problem. Sometimes you can find a private Christian School that is affordable. You cant win with our public schools. All you get is your child being treated so badly to get back at you. Your child suffers if you try to get in their pocketbook or if you do not agree that they are professional educators and do not have to listen to your Doctors, only take the information under consideration. They are above the law. They say there bylaws are better than the states, more rigid, therefore they go by there rules, which include the states but has addons. I still think that is rewritting the state law. Its like they say they only have 18 in a classroom , but my child always had at least 28 and sometimes 31. I think they count the parents that come in early to pick up their children? University School is also a possibility. Two days in the building and 3 days at home. If your child is on the spectrum an! d is being bullied please advocate for them with all you have. You are all they have. Love them, protect them. It can destroy their selfesteem if you dont advocate for them and help stop bullying and help get your child teachers that are attuned to them. That are given new training on spectrum children. That are given smaller mainstream classes. They need mainstream just smaller classes 8 to 1 ratios. They need a handpicked classroom. They do better in gifted than in delayed classes. There are realy good doctors that have written books to help you. You must work harder than you ever have to advocate and make sure you help your child have good feedback. They respond to ataboys more than critisism. They need help staying on track. Just a little nudge with a smile is worth a lot. "
"My son is Autistic and is in a gerenral educational classroom. In second grade in was bullied so many times by one child that the boy was expelled and placed in a different school. My son is polite, kind and impressionable. He just wants a friend. He does not understand social bondries but he tries to be friends no matter what the cost. The school has a zero tollerance for bulling but the first week of third grade the boy on the bus and on the playground are back to bulling. My son has already been in the principals office defending himself against a bullie.It is difficult to trust that anything will be done. It took a month of abuse before anything was done last year. I don't expect much difference this year. I have tried to place social goals on my sons IEP to address social issues but to my prespective these goals are not being addressed. I have to monitor the situation all the time. You would expect that the school with zero tollerence would teach more tollerance for sp! ecial needs then they do. They teach the child who is bullied but they do not teach the child who is going to bully any coping techniques before they happen. Bulling at such a young age leads to bigger and badder things in the future. Would it not benefitt all schools to teach anger management not only to the teachers but to students. Not all parent roll models will teach right from wrong that is when it takes a village (school) to teach the child what is exceptable and what is not. The child with special needs have enough battles in life they don't need to fight thier friends, teachers and classmates."
"Our child's bully is the child of a person in administration, so we've have zero cooperation. Not only that, we are now looked upon as troublesome parents because we have tried to protect our son's rights. Because of severe anxiety that resulted from a physical assault and sexual harassment that occurred on school property, our child did not feel safe in the school environment and we requested a paraprofessional. That was denied. Our child is on medical leave for severe anxiety and we have still been threatened with truancy. We requested homebound, and after a 3 1/2 hour meeting, we came out with a bare minimum, because this is not the least restricted environment. We stressed that our child's psychiatrist only recommended homebound because we weren't awarded a para. We have strong advocates--our child's psychiatrist, psychologist, and a retired special education director. Nothing seems to make much difference. Parents are part of the IEP team in name only--they are a! lways trumped by the school."
"I have a child with special needs who just started attending a 'typical' class for the first time. He experienced bullying the 1st week of school. He is only 5! This has been my biggest fear and concern for him. I have a 14 yar old who does not have a disability who has been getting cyber bullied for te lst 10 months now. I even pulled her out of the school that she was in and yet the bullies are still doing everything that they can to put her down. Bullying has NO BOUNDARIES as far a I can see."
"I think it's awful that teachers see nothing wrong with bullying. This is a BIG problem in our schools. My son suffers with ADHD and it's enough that he has to deal with it on his own terms, but then to have someone who is a total jerk bully him, I feel like I want to smack the kid myself. Kids should be taught from parents and teachers that bullying ANYONE is NEVER the right thing to do!"
"I admire the advice to be aware of your child possibly being a bully, but in reality parents of bullys dont care one iota. 'Its not their kid' so its not their problem. Very frustrating."
"IT is absolutely wonderful that you are bringing this issue to the forefront. There needs to be a lot more dialogue and, yes, action on this crisis in our schools. Bullying is no longer a quick one on one fight in the playground and then grudging friendship. It has become a viscious, demoralizing campaign waged by children who wish the attention to be off of them; kids who need to put others down to put themselves up. AS a MOm and school employee I've seen both sides. A few schools near us have succesful 'no-tolerance' programs, but most like my son's 'blue ribbon school' of excellence tend to ignore the problem until thereis a tragedy. One boy my son knows was bullied until he brought a knife to school to 'scare off' his abusers. Guess who was sent out on home teaching while the bullies weren't even reprimanded. An over-weight girl attempted suicide when the taunts became too much. (These are only the situations he is aware of) ANd, yes, I repeat this is a 'blue ribbon school' in suburban Long Island. No tolerance policies have to be 'for real'. Sensitivity training for teachers should be mandatory. Bullies need to be stopped in their tracks and dealt with sensitively. How aobut small contact groups for students in which they can discuss social issues? Let's stop the Columbines before they happen."
"I think the 25% of teachers that think nothing is wrong with bullying need to get sued if somnething happens on their watch. You put some financial pressure in the mix and people will all of a sudden wake up. There is no excuse for any child to be bullyed or made to feel uncomfortable at school and guess what the teachers need to make that happen as part of their JOB. NO EXCUSES! Thank God I don't have to deal with this much, my child has been blessed with very good social skills but if my child were being bullied you bet I'd be down there at the school and you know what the kid should not have to be transferred the bully should be kicked out! "
"That is so true. AD/HD kids are easy become targets of bullying. My son has AD/HD. He got bullying in school a lot. He got name calling all the time in school. I always tell him to walk away because he can be very sensitive and over reacting sometimes. However, it doesn't help. Other kids just do it even more. Once, a girl in his school kept calling him loser every time she sees him. He finally tried to fight back by pushing her. However, the girl received no punishment but told not to do it again. My son received detention. He got in this kind trouble all the time in school. I am a heartbroken mother. I don't know how to help him and I feel the school is not helping. I wish government should require teachers and school administrators to have some classes of understanding learning disable students since the number of this kind kids are increasing."
"This article is very simple as well as absolutely correct when it comes to AD/HD and bullying. A child with AD/HD is usually bullied and also ignored by his classmates. Never feeling comfortable when trying to join a play group, the child lives in fear and never enjoy being around kids his age. He can only confine in adults. The problem with schools - elementary especially - is that they do not help children to form assigned play groups and make sure that every one gets to be included during playground time. If the P.E. time is about a ball game, no one cares enough to make sure that the ADHD kid gets to kick or toss the ball too without fear. Parents of typical kids should never forget that it could be their child who is 'the weird one' and make sure that their children (no matter how perfect on their eyes) know not to be mean and take the side of the oppressed instead of the oppressor. The AD/HD kid is usually a great kid who wants more than anything to make a friend, he will be loyal and will expect the same. Is this so difficult to teach ? I have one, he has only been invited to a birthday party ONCE in 8 years of school!!! He is the most normal looking kid, just little impulsive, most often accused of being the bully because he does not understand the fine tuning of discreet retaliation. Under medication he is a 1000 times more polite and pleasant than most others. Give them a chance. "