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Bullying and students with disabilities

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In a highly publicized case of assault charges filed against two classmates for the bullying of an autistic teenager in Maryland, these problems continue to illustrate the plight of students with disabilities who have impairments in social skills. The bullied student often strongly defends his abusers which only increase the difficulties that schools face in working with students with disabilities in multiple social interaction settings. Schools are faced with the huge task of keeping these students safe while trying to provide appropriate social skills training for students with disabilities.

Students with autism spectrum disorder, characterized by social impairment and communication difficulties, leaves some youths less able to recognize teasing or bullying when it occurs. Students with significant social skills impairment may not even understand teasing if it is happening right in front of their face, much less if it is done behind their back.

With those issues in mind, experts say that one way for schools to address bullying of students with autism and other disabilities is to take a step back and examine the entire school environment. While social-skills training is commonly a part of the individualized education program, for students with autism, such instruction should not be limited just to those specific students.

All students will benefit from good social-skills and communication instruction. Punishing bullies alone does not end up teaching them the skills they need to replace their negative behaviors with more positive ones. Often punishment alone only creates more opportunities for bullying to occur.

Schools are using a variety of approaches and individual programs to improve social interactions between students with developmental disabilities such as autism and their typically developing peers. In order to help foster better connections between peer groups, the following programs are currently in place in some locations across the country:

Peer Advocacy
The Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights Center, or PACER, based in Bloomington, Minn., has several bullying-prevention resources for schools, including a toolkit to help start a peer-advocacy program. Such programs use the power of peer influence, and students can often spot problem behavior before adults do.

Positive Behavioral Supports
This school-wide intervention framework supported by the U.S. Department of Education, offers schools a way to organize and monitor behavioral expectations for students and adults.

Second Step
This program, used in more than 30,000 schools and aimed at students ages 4 to 14, includes in-school lessons on empathy, emotion management, and problem-solving. It also includes lessons for all students in how to recognize, respond to, and report bullying.

Remaking Success
Currently being studied in several schools, this program enlists paraprofessionals who often "shadow" students with disabilities as active coaches on the playground, bringing children together and creating opportunities for joint play. The program has shown some success in expanding the social networks of students.

The numbers of students with disabilities who have reported being bullied frequently has been researched to be over 46%. The students with autism found to be most at risk of being bullied were those who had more classes in general education, some form of conversational ability, and interacted with friends at least once a week. That study concluded that school-based bullying interventions must target students' conversational ability and social skills and must also address the fact that students are often victimized when they're in general education settings. Schools should encourage "social integration into protective peer groups" and increase the empathy and social skills of the general student population, the researchers recommended.

Those types of interventions can work if they are embedded in a systematic framework for addressing a school's climate, experts believe. However, one-shot approaches, such as a school rally or asking students to sign pledges promising not to engage in bullying have relatively little impact unless they are connected with something else in a school. Home-grown activities, like those that are created by students for their peers, often turn out to be the better plan.

SOURCES: The National Bullying Prevention Center; StopBullying.gov; Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health

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