10/10/2014 12:35 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Bullying Of Disabled And Special Needs Children: A Parents' Guide

Schoolgirl being bullied in school corridor

Finding out your child is being bullied can be especially concerning if he or she has special educational needs or a disability (SEND). Your child might not be able to communicate what's going on so well or defend themselves, either physically or verbally.

Katie Dare from Family Lives, the charity which runs BullyingUK advice and support, says: "Disabled children are three times more likely to be bullied [compared to others]. Often a disabled child is bullied because of ignorance, fear and awkwardness which can manifest itself as negative attitudes towards disability."

She adds: "A child could be singled out if they're seen to be doing different work or receiving additional support at school or they might be targeted because they appear more isolated due to their impairment. In turn this isolation may perhaps – but not always - mean they find it harder to make friends."

Another factor is that SEND children sometimes have to deal with more frequent 'transitions' compared to others – for example moving between mainstream and special needs schools or vice versa, or spending time in hospital. These transitions can make social interation at school more challenging.

A child on the receiving end of bullying might, depending on the nature of their disability, also find it harder to express what's been going on to parents or teachers, leaving the bully believing they are less likely to get caught - spurring them on.

Alternatively a bullied individual might not even realise what's happening to them. This was Helen's experience with her 14-year-old autistic son, Joe (not his real name), when he was bullied by a fellow pupil at school.

"This boy was teasing him on a daily basis about various things. At the start it was very subtle and Joe wasn't able to pick up these signals and was confused as to whether this boy was joking or serious. He kept the persistent name calling and teasing to himself initially. From a very young age I've talked to him about bullying, however it can be difficult when your child is on the autistic spectrum for them to retain this information."

When things escalated to physical bullying, a friend of Helen's son did tell her what had been happening and then she was able to go into school and raise the issue. Joe over-reacting and then getting into trouble himself was an extra worry for Helen.

"This boy's behaviour was making him angry and I was worried he would attack the bully, whether he deserved it or not."

Once she was aware of what was going on, Helen and the school worked together to tackle the situation.

Although bullying is more common for children with additional needs, it's by no means inevitable. Katie's advice is that parents of SEND children shouldn't worry unnecessarily before it has even happened but that it is wise to 'proactively engage with their child's school to be prepared just in case'. Making teachers and other staff aware of the complexities of how your son or daughter's condition might shape their reactions to bullying will mean they will have a greater understanding of what to keep an eye out for.

Which types of bullying might a disabled child experience?

Disabled and SEN children are especially vulnerable to some forms of bullying so it's worth looking out for signs of these:

  • manipulative bullying – when someone is trying to control them. Unfortunately they might not really understand what is happening and why what's going on is wrong. This could include the other child getting them into trouble at school or elsewhere.
  • conditional friendships – when phases of friendship are mixed with phases of bullying. This can be confusing and damage a child's ability to trust others.
  • Exploitative bullying – when aspects of a child's condition are used to bully them.

Finding out more if they are being bullied

Depending on a child's disability or difficulties, communicating about what's happening can be even more challenging than in other circumstances. If verbal skills are limited, using puppets, stories or visual prompts can all help you find out more. If you suspect bullying and your child attends mainstream school, perhaps approach their school's SEN co-ordinator for assistance with this.

What else you can do

Here's BullyingUK's advice for parents whose SEND child is being bullied or at risk of it happening:

  • f you're worried that your child is going to be a target for bullies think about how you can prepare them for this. Build their self-confidence and self-esteem and ensure they know they can come to you for support.
  • Help make staff aware of how your child might react differently to bullying compared to other pupils and what they can do to help.
  • Find out more about their situation at school generally. If they are being bullied because they can't do things or behave disruptively it might be because they do not have adequate support in the classroom.
  • Try and observe other children's interactions with your son or daughter - do they coerce them to behave inappropriately? Some SEND children have limited impulse control and do not read social situations so don't realise when they are being 'led on'.
  • Check the school's bullying policy. Is there anything about SEND in it? Is this being upheld?

If you don't receive the help you need from school, seek some from specialist external agencies or charities.

Family Lives BullyingUK provides support via email, online chat or a free confidential helpline.

More on Parentdish: Bullying advice and information