Marshall Martin-Dreher placed his hand on his hip to form an imaginary trash can opening, and then pretended to shovel derogatory words into it. “The words go away,” he said.  

The 7-year-old boy recently learned this anti-bullying coping mechanism that he can use at school if kids call him names. He also can use the reminder technique to respond in kind with unpleasant name calling. He has an arsenal of other symbolic measures to use, too, including placing his hand over his heart when he hears something good said about him.

Marshall is one of 66 special needs kids at Zach’s Place who are learning how to deflect bullying and recognize dangerous situations. Zach’s Place, sponsored by nonprofit Special Kids Special Families, provides after school care, skills training and respite for families.  

Being bullied at school and elsewhere is a huge problem for special needs children, explained Jan Isaacs Henry, executive director of Kidpower of Colorado Springs. The organization trained staff members at Zach’s Place, who are in turn teaching their students how to cope.

“While any kid may be vulnerable to bullying and abuse, research tells us that people with disabilities are particularly susceptible,” Isaacs Henry said. Kidpower, which presents programs to school districts, teaches children up to age 18 confidence and how to use their own power to stay safe.

Linda Ellegard recalled how her son, Joey, who had a seizure disorder, endured such ostracization. “It’s a story a lot of parents of special needs children can tell,” she said.

She and Linda Rivera, whose foster child, Zach, had sustained a brain injury in a car accident, founded Zach’s Place in 1999 because there was no respite centers where parents could leave their special needs children, and where the kids could learn life skills and socialization. (Joey died in 1996, and Zach in 1997.)

Several parents recently asked the staff to provide anti-bullying skills. The organization received a city grant for the teacher training.

Renae Isakson, Zach’s Place program director, said they sometimes become aware of bullying incidents when a child tries to pick on playmates. “They mirror what happened to them at school,” she noted.  

The bullying can get ugly. She recalled a child who was sprayed with perfume by a boy on the school bus, who told her “you stink.” Others are ostracized or stared at because they sometimes act or look different.

Occasionally when special needs children are the butt of bullying, teachers and administrators shrug it off as kids being kids. Students and teachers don’t always know how to react to special needs classmates’ behavior so they belittle them, or ignore them, which can cause a variety of responses from sadness to hitting back.

When special needs kids have disruptive behavior in the classroom or there is bullying teachers sometimes overreact. She recalled that as punishment one teacher gave a child a lot of homework beyond the child's capability. The tearful child spent hours trying to complete it at Zach’s Place and later at home. The parents later talked to the teacher.

They cited another case where a teacher turned off a child’s mechanical voice unit because it was annoying.

The anti-bullying program is individualized for each student because they have such diverse learning abilities, Isakson noted. Part of the safety lessons are geared to teach the kids how to respect boundaries and who to go to for help.

Since some of the children have language difficulties, using signing (such as the trash can) is an ideal solution. Other signs have names such as close mouth power, listen up power, speak up power, walk away power.

The kids are learning socialization and street smarts by taking field trips to stores, parks, restaurants, the zoo. Since some don’t have many friends and aren’t invited to birthday parties and other events, Zach’s Place staff holds fun nights for their clients, inviting non-special needs kids to join in.

Julene Zizza, a public school special education teacher, noted that her own special needs son Gianfranco, 13, who attends Zach’s Place after school, is friendly and doesn’t always differentiate strangers from friends. “When he finds out their name he thinks they are friends, even though he doesn’t know them. We are working on that here.”

One common problem, Zizza noted, is that classmates sometimes call the kids “stupid” since they learn more slowly. They also call each other “retard.”

In her school, she explains to them what retarded means, that some children learn slowly or don’t understand their words, so they should be patient and respectful.

She said that Gianfranco has learned to advocate for himself in a sweetly disarming way.

“When kids or others ignore him, he says, ‘You should like me. I’m special education.’”  She noted, “He came up with that one by himself.”