Children with disabilities are up to three times more likely to be bullied and up six times more likely to experience violence than their peers, according to research.
Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with an intellectual disability, told the Oireachtas education committee that many children with additional needs feel they bullied because they are "different".
The group was contributing to a special hearing of the Oireachtas committee focused on the mental health impact of school bullying.
Mark O’Connor, community engagement manager with Inclusion Ireland, said significant work was needed to change societal attitudes towards intellectual disabilities.
“The statistics, when it comes to children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities, are stark, and there is no way to sugar coat them,” he said.
“Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied, and six times more likely to experience violence or abuse than their peers. Between 35 and 40 per cent of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities experience mental health problems; this is five times greater than the general population.”
At the same time, he said, child and adolescent mental health services for children with intellectual disabilities were “almost non-existent”.
“We need targeted interventions in this area, as well as a public awareness campaign to shift public attitudes towards people with an intellectual disability,” he said.
"When 28 per cent of people surveyed by the National Disability Authority say that children with a disability or autism shouldn't be allowed attend mainstream education, you have a real problem with societal attitudes."
Inclusion Ireland has called for a number of measures to tackle the problem including a public awareness campaign on reducing the stigma around disability, greater investment in inclusive education and improving therapeutic supports within school settings.
Saoirse Brady of the Children's Rights Alliance said that while bullying is a bigger problem in other countries, it remains a significant issue in Irish schools.
She said the latest research indicates that about 8 per cent of 11-15 year olds encounter chronic bullying.
Young people who have experienced bullying are more likely to report experiencing levels of anxiety or depression that impairs their everyday lives.
Ms Brady said that while there were national policies and strategies aimed at tackling bullying, many principals and teachers feel ill-equipped to deal with some of the psychological fallout.
She said principals have highlighted a lack of access to counsellors and psychological support, which risks making problems worse.
In the absence of these supports, she said responsibility for dealing with mental health issues often falls to “teachers who are rarely appropriately skilled to deal with serious psychological issues.”
“There is a clear need for identifying the types of resources required for an adequate in-school model of mental health support for those who have experienced bullying or, where necessary, identify appropriate out-of-school supports where staff can refer victims of bullying,” she said.
Ben Holmes, a student at FCJ Bunclody and a member of the Webwise youth advisory panel, said proper training of school staff is crucial if the problem is to be adequately addressed.
“In order to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of all students, anti-bullying and student information programmes have to be consistent within each school,” he said.
“Encouraging second level institutions to train teachers and staff to deal with these issues in a thorough way, would also help humanise these issues.”
In order to help students understand the implications of their words and actions, he said a system where bullying situations would be met with “mediation rather than just punishment” would allow students to learn to stop bullying rather than learn to not get caught.