Shannon Rosa

Shannon Rosa
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
October 12
Senior Editor
The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism
For more about parenting, autism, iPads, and geekery, see my personal blog, Also Senior Editor at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism,

MARCH 11, 2009 3:34AM

What Kind of Kid Bullies the Sibling of a Special Needs Child?

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This is a follow-up to "Picking on the Girl With The "Retarded" Sister, in which I tormented a junior high classmate even after I found out she had a special needs sibling.

What kind of kid acts the way I did? Harasses a peer without cause, for sport, and after discovering facts about the victim's home life that should have made them totally off-limits?

In my case, there were two reasons:

First, I suspected that no one would stop me. Most people didn't realize I was such a little asshole. Adults like my kind, hard-working parents considered me harmless -- if sullen and a bit of a shirker -- and most students didn't notice me. My victim Deanna was quiet and kept to herself. When I decided to bully her, I anticipated smooth sailing on those soulless seas.

Second, people with disabilities were theoretical to me. Most kids my age tossed around the word "retard" as a synonym for "jerk" or "loser;" I had never before known a classmate who would find "retard" hurtful. I never considered that people I actually knew could have family members with disabilities. When I found out that Deanna's sister had special needs, I was intrigued, but not enough to change strategies or target. Not enough to stop badgering a blameless girl, or consider that her life might have been challenging enough before my bullying.

I had no empathy touchstone. I had no personal connection to anyone with a disability.

The problem wasn't lack of exposure: there were eight students in the special ed class at my sizable elementary school, and their three teachers frequently brought them onto our enormous shared recess field. But I don't remember any attempts to integrate those students into our community, to help us meet them, talk to them, understand that they were just kids, too. They sat on the grass near us while we played statue maker, but they might as well have been behind a glass partition.

No one ever helped us recognize the shared humanity behind the special ed students' differences. And unfortunately, my personal experience has been that many people still need to be smacked upside the head before they can see the kid under the special needs label.

If I could reach back in time and smack myself, believe me, I would.

On Friday: What parents and teachers can do to help promote understanding and prevent bullying of children with special needs and their siblings.

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The thing I don't get is, did you just call and hang up, or did you make it clear to her that she was a victim because of her sister?

Do you think she deserved better treatment because of her sister, or just because you weren't nice?
We never teased her because of her sister; but we kept teasing her even after I discovered she was a sibling of a girl with special needs. You tell me: was it better to keep bullying her like she was any other kid, or should her already challenging home life have made her off limits to any kid with an ounce of empathy?

I ask this earnestly rather than as a challenge. I would really like to know your opinion.
I think you're expecting too much of your younger self. As a kid in high school and Jr. high, I considered myself completely average. I didn't see that living in a family with a handicapped member put a hefty amount of stress in my childhood life until I was in my late 30s and my sister went into therapy and told me.

So, if I couldn't recognize that I deserved a break, how could an outsider?

We all do stupid things as kids and we learn. Some learn to let mean comments roll off their back -- which is a useful life skill. Others learn empathy.

Teens aren't adults and they don't have an adult's impulse control or ability to empathize.