By Nicole Hegewald
In elementary school it is a common and unfortunate occurrence for kids to be picked on, made fun of, even bullied. Some resilient kids learn to cope with it. They may fight back or ignore it. Other kids can take it badly and their self-esteem may be damaged. Then there is the rapidly growing number of kids on the autism spectrum who can not even recognize when they are being picked on.
“Children with special needs are more apt to be bullied,” said Lucie Chansky, a member of the government affairs committee at The Arc of Massachusetts, a Waltham-based disability advocacy group. “If they’re weak, and someone thinks they can take advantage of them, often they will.”
A bill has been introduced that would require schools to address bullying and how to identify it at special education parent-teacher meetings by Massachusetts state Rep. Barbara L’Italien. The bill also aims to have the teachers show children on the autism spectrum how to recognize bullying and what to do when it happens.
“There’s a tsunami with the number of kids with autism,” said Gary Blumenthal, executive director of the Waltham-based Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers. “Every child needs help with those issues. Every tool is helpful.”
Children with autism often have difficulties putting others’ mean gestures in perspective. They often do not have developed social skills. These kids are unable to comprehend nonverbal cues such as tone, body language, sarcasm, raising and lowering of eye brows, and other bulling indicators. Something that may seem insignificant like disrupting routine or shifting papers on a desk can cause a violent outrage in a child with autism.
“All children should be protected from bullying,” Chansky said.
The bill’s advocates said they want anti-bullying efforts to focus on the bullies and the bullied. They believe that if the school community is educated, the students will be more sensitive to those students with special needs, and teachers will be able to recognize the signs if they aren’t.