Autism Unexpected: The Bullying Has to Stop


I heard something appalling on television this morning. I was watching a Today Show segment about a father who verbally unleashed on a school bus full of kids—kids his daughter with cerebral palsy accused of teasing her. While watching this sad story unfold, I saw a terrible statistic.

According to these statistics cited by The Today Show, 25 percent of children report that they are bullied on a daily or weekly basis. That number is shocking enough. For kids with disabilities, however, a full 85 percent report that they have been targeted.

Horrifying as those numbers are, they make sense. Kids with disabilities can be easy targets for bullies. They often look and act obviously different, are cut off from the mainstream population, and will sometimes react in ways that give bullies satisfaction: fear, crying, anger. Not to mention that nonverbal children with disabilities or children who have difficulty articulating themselves are easy to bully with fewer consequences because they have a hard time reporting the bullying.

Bullying is a hot topic these days. There have been several recent, high profile cases of young people committing suicide after being bullied. These incidents are terrible and it makes my heart hurt to think of the tremendous pain these teens were in. However, most cases don’t end up in death, but rather long stretches of torture, both psychological and physical.

There are any number of characteristics that draw bullies: disability, sexuality, body type, race, religion, the type of clothes you wear, how much money your family has, if you’re too smart—or not smart enough—any difference seems to be fair game. Sometimes the reason is as simple as being a bit odd or quirky.

Such was the case with Emily Willingham, founder of End the Bullying, a new online gathering place and information resource for children and families who experience bullying. Willingham hopes to provide a safe place for these individuals to find support and information about bullying.

Willingham herself experienced bullying as a second- through ninth-grader. “The bullying varied from taunting, teasing, and exclusion, to physical attacks that to this day leave me flinching when I see someone approaching me in my peripheral vision,” she says. “I was miserable and ideated suicide quite a bit and struggled with self-harming as a teenager.”

Sadly, Willingham’s nine-year old son, who has autism, has also been bullied. The verbal and physical bullying he experienced was severe enough to spur Willingham to withdraw him from school and commence homeschooling. “There is no question that his condition contributed to his being on the receiving end of bullying,” Willingham says about her son’s autism.

My family has been lucky thus far. To my knowledge, none of my children, ages 5, 7, and 9, have been bullied. However, I don’t know that we can beat the odds. With three boys, one of whom has autism, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before we have to deal with this issue in our lives.

No child deserves to have that threat hanging over his or her head. As a society we need to keep our eyes and ears open. We need to really listen to our children and their friends. We have to insist that schools follow through on their promises to not tolerate bullying. We need to teach our children to be kind to their peers and to stand up and defend their more vulnerable classmates.

Too many children are being irreparably scarred. The bullying has to stop.

There are many resources available to help parents teach their kids about bullying, see signs that they are being bullied and learn how to get help. You can find End the Bullying on Facebook as well as Twitter.

Originally published on October 4, 2010.