SINGAPORE – A mother enrolled her son, who had minor social anxiety, in a neighbourhood secondary school in 2015, hoping he would learn to fit in.
Three years later, he “had to be withdrawn” from school as his condition had spiralled to post-traumatic stress disorder due to prolonged bullying in school.
Today, the 16-year-old still suffers from withdrawal syndrome and struggles to speak and move.
The mother, who wants to be known only as Poon, has had to engage a private tutor to home-school him.
She said the bullying has severely affected his studies and ability to cope with social anxiety.
According to a a student perception survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015, about one in five of 15-year-old students here reported experiencing some form of verbal bullying, while one in 10 encountered social bullying. Physical bullying is less prevalent at about 5%.
But experts say children with special needs are more vulnerable, given that they find it harder to build friendships and can be subjected to social exclusion.
About 75% of children with special needs attend mainstream schools, according to the Ministry of Education in 2016.
Then, there were 18,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools.
Parents and educators who spoke to The Sunday Times say incidents of bullying of special needs students in schools are not uncommon and can result in physical and psychological harm if left unresolved.
Last week, a video of a special needs student from Assumption Pathway School being bullied by at least four girls surfaced online.
The girls put a toilet seat around her neck and and used a toilet brush to scrub the victim’s head and groin area.
The school said the offenders have been disciplined and the victim counselled.
For Poon, 51, founder of a social enterprise, her son continues to struggle with the trauma of being bullied and is unable to take his O-level exams this year.
“I don’t know much about the bullying except what he briefly told the psychologist and he can’t really speak now,” she said.
She recalled her son being pushed around by his classmate two years ago.
As a result, he dropped his glasses on the floor and the other boy stepped on it, and shattered the glasses. She found out about it only when the school called her.
After finding out that Poon is an advocate of autism, the boy and a few others started calling him autistic and asked why he was not in the special needs school next door.
Another parent, a 51-year-old editor who wanted to be known only as Su, said the bullying of special needs students continue even up to the tertiary level.
She cited the experience of her son, who has autism and was studying at the Institute of Technical Education three years ago.
“He ‘talked funny’ to a girl that he met in class once a week and that probably angered her. The next week, she lured him out of the class into a far-flung corner to meet a big-sized friend, a former student,” said Su.
The friend asked her son what he said to the girl and started shouting expletives at him.
“My son is triggered by sounds like thunder, barking dogs and swear words so he threw his shoe at the friend. The friend then started hitting his head and stomach,” said Su, who lodged a police report with the school’s help and later a magistrate’s complaint but the matter did not proceed further.
For the children of other parents, the bullying started way back in pre-school.
Olivia Giam, 39, who taught for many years in a special education school and now teaches in a mainstream school, said she has come across far more incidents of special needs students being bullied in a mainstream school compared with a special education school.
She said that in a special education school, for example, a student with autism and another with motor and speech issues are busy dealing with their own problems and are less likely to “disturb” each other.
Dr Malavika Raghuram, 51, a counsellor and educational therapist who has worked with children with special needs, said the causes of bullying behaviour are multiple and complex, and include the personality of the perpetrators, their family situation, economic background and social support.
“Education and empowerment work wonders,” she said, adding that coaching and counselling of the bully and involving the family help.
“The vulnerable students could be empowered by helping them understand that there is a particular teacher or adult who they can reach out to when in trouble. Having peer mentors who are there to watch out for them will help too,” she added.
Given that the various incidents of bullying of special needs children is in mainstream schools, questions have been raised about the merits of an inclusive approach to education.
But experts interviewed were unanimous in supporting inclusion, and starting it early.
Dr Justin Lee, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies who has done research on the social inclusion of people with disabilities, said it is useful for students to become aware and interact with peers who have disabilities from a young age, so they have an opportunity to develop empathy. — The Straits Times/Asia News Nework