Bullying, disability and mental health

Everyone is different, but having a disability can make children and teens a target for bullies. Children with disabilities can also bully others.

The experience can also affect a child or teen's mental health—whether they are the person being bullied or the bully themselves.

How often are children and young people with disabilities bullied?

Children with disabilities are often more likely to be victims of bullying. More than half—62%—of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example, report being bullied once a week or more*. This is significantly higher than the 1 in 5 to 1 in 7 Australian students who report being bullied once a week or more**.

Other studies reveal similar results. International research published in the report, Walk a mile in their shoes: bullying and the child with special needs by AbilityPath.org, shows:

  • children with disabilities are 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied in the United States
  • more students with disabilities are bullied in Britain than children without disabilities—in 1 study, 60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied, compared to 25% of students in general
  • children with visible physical conditions or disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, can be more likely to be excluded from social activities and called names.

Mental health and bullying

Bullying can affect a child or teen's mental health and wellbeing. It can be associated with low self-esteem, and can contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It can also lead to feelings of helplessness and being suicidal. Children and teens with intellectual or physical disabilities can also be more likely to experience anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Behaviours and experiences like this are also often undiagnosed and untreated among young people***.

Risk factors for children

The Bullying. No Way! website explains that bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence can all be about picking on difference, even though we are all different and do things in our own way!

Some factors can make a child more likely to be a victim of bullying, including:

  • having a learning disability
  • having a speech impairment
  • being clumsy
  • being ‘off task' and disruptive
  • not having good social or emotional skills (this is also often associated with having few friends—another factor that can make children vulnerable to being bullied)
  • not showing normal distressing reactions****.

Looking after your child or teenager

If you think your child or teenager is being bullied or is bullying others, you can talk to a teacher at their school about ways they can show support. The Bullying. No Way! website has resources about topics including disability and student and family wellbeing. Children and teens with disabilities deserve to be appreciated for the values they offer as a person, not seen for their disability first.

Teachers, parents and carers also have a responsibility to encourage young people to treat others fairly, as well as to model positive behaviours themselves. By being sensitive to children and young people and not using their own power over others to hurt people, adults can support children and young people with learning to recognise and practise positive behaviours.


*2007 Channel 7 Children's research by Verity Bottroff and Phillip Slee, cited in Developing Inclusive School Communities: Addressing Bullying of Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Paper presented at: Making sense of autism and strategies that succeed conference, 4-5 September 2008, The Children's Hospital at Westmead Educational Research Institute (CHERI): Sydney.

**As cited on the Bullying. No Way! website.

***Research by Sturgeon, 2007, cited in CommunityMatters, a 2010 Australian Government draft manuscript.

****As cited in Verity Bottroff and Phillip Slee in Developing Inclusive School Communities: Addressing Bullying of Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.