By Amy Williams

Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

I silently repeat that phrase to myself a lot these days.

As I overhear parents in the checkout line at the grocery store, my heart breaks. I hear whispers, “If that were my kid…” or “I can’t believe that kid…” ricocheting down the aisles. On social media I see posts from my “friends” shaming other moms in regards to how a child was behaving in Target or at the local Applebee’s. I thought I had left this passive aggressive cruelty behind in middle school, but now suddenly I am aware of it again.

Over the past ten years, I have been working with a variety of children in public schools and daycares. I thought I had a solid foundation of understanding children and the different abilities and comprehension levels they display—or so I thought.

Twelve years ago, we were blessed when our family friends asked us to be their son’s godparents. Of course we said yes! This little guy is an extension of our family and fits right in with our biological sons. He is the sweetest and most compassionate child, and unlike my older boys, still wants to hold my hand on walks.

We love him.

But all this love has opened my eyes to another problem I was completely unaware of until the past few years. Around the first grade, we found out our godson has a mild form of autism. Previously, we had chalked up his behavior as a little temper, an artistic view of the world, or he’s just a child. He was found to be on the spectrum and began receiving services to help him overcome his nuances.

After his diagnosis, I was suddenly aware of how others judged him or his parents. I overheard mean comments about how he should not be allowed in a restaurant if all he was going to do was refuse to eat. What the people didn’t know was that he had begun to see a feeding specialist and was overcoming severe food aversions. That morning was a huge breakthrough for him, because he asked to try new food: a muffin at this particular eatery.

I sat with my friend enjoying a stolen minute sipping coffee, chatting, and deflecting mean glances from an elderly couple a table behind us. As our coffee turned tepid, we laughed and shared moments from our week. Our talk did take a serious turn, however, when my friend told me how her son had been complaining that kids were not nice to him.

Unfortunately, children with special needs are two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their peer counterparts, and cyberbullying is taking bullying to a whole new level. It is quickly reaching epidemic proportions, but it is especially prevalent among children. Research states that 87 percent of our youth have witnessed or experienced acts of cyberbullying. We can almost guarantee that our own children have encountered digital aggression at some point in their lives.

And my godson is no exception. It has been a few years since that morning in the cafe, but he now contends with mean remarks or phrases over games he frequently plays on his tablet or console. Often, he is unaware others are being cruel, he thinks they are being his friends and doesn’t understand the undertones of the names the bullies use. He just enjoys interacting with others.

Our friends addressed this issue with his teachers and taught him that some words are not okay to use and are not funny. He has been taught to handle his reactions through role playing, and now he gives very little reinforcement to bullying behaviors.

Even though the cyberbullying is improving for him, words still cause pain. Children with special needs might be targeted more often, but it is essential people try not to judge or shame others over appearances or behaviors. It is impossible to understand the battles someone is overcoming.

As parents, we are given the unique chance to lead by example and to be mindful of how we use words around our children. Our kids are watching us and following our cues. If we talk about a child in the grocery store or blast others on social media, we are contributing to the problem. The bullying cycle can end with us. By modeling kindness, our children will be able to turn over a new page.

What is one thing you will do to stop cyberbullying?

Author_Amy WilliamsAmy Williams is a journalist based in Southern California. As a mother of two, she has learned a lot of things the hard way, and hopes to use her experience as a parent to help other parents raise their children to be the best that they can be.