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.


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 2015