Bullying. . . The Real Problem. . . An Aspergian Woman’s Perspective

Kirsten has this to say:

Bullying is a problem that affects nearly everyone, autistic or neurotypical, children or adults. At one point or another we’ve all faced a bully, or been a bully ourselves. Bullying and the damage it can cause is a popular topic of debate right now—we’re finally leaving behind the archaic “it builds character” mentality—but for those on the autism spectrum bullying can be even more difficult to combat.

What is bullying? Pure and simple, bullying is harassment. A bully is someone who regularly makes others around them feel badly. Bullying can be physical (assault), mental (verbal abuse), or indirect (spreading rumors).

Some bullies know what they’re doing. These are the mean kids (or adults) who are angry, hurtful people who put down those who are weak because it makes them feel powerful. Often times these bullies have their own problems with self esteem and lack of control, and take their issues out on those around them. Some bullies aren’t inherently mean people, and have a tendency to be manipulative and controlling without realizing. For example, a jealous boyfriend who won’t let his girlfriend have male friends is an abusive bully, but he might not realize it. From his point of view, he’s protecting the one he loves from other males who might want to take advantage. But intention does not excuse behavior. Bullying is always bad, with no exceptions.

Bullying is such a broad topic that it’s hard to pin down exactly how to recognize bullying, or to know how to stop it. As with most things in life, it’s a case-by-case deal.

If someone you know (your boss, your friend, your classmate…) is making you feel badly about yourself on a regular basis, you’re probably being bullied. Even if it’s passed off as “friendly teasing,” or “it was just a joke!” Remember, real friends don’t hurt each other. A professional, courteous boss doesn’t patronizingly call you “sweetie” when you’ve done something wrong. An ordinary classmate doesn’t laugh at you for something you can’t control. For someone who’s faced a lifetime of bullying it can be hard to break the cycle, as the long-term toll on self esteem that abuse creates can convince the victim that they are at fault, that people treat them this way because they deserve it.

Individuals with autism are often bullied, but many people forget that autistics can be bullies too. Autism can make it hard to put oneself into someone else’s shoes, so to speak. And if a friend fails a test, it might seem tempting to ridicule them for being stupid, without taking into consideration how that might make them feel. When I was in third grade, there was a boy in my class who was easily startled, so I had a lot of fun digging up worms and showing them off to him and giggling at his frightened reactions. Looking back, I know what I did to him was wrong. He was constantly wary of me, and I’m sure I made him feel pretty badly about himself. He probably wondered, what is it about me that makes people want to do these mean things? I was a little slow on the whole theory of mind thing, and it simply didn’t occur to me that scaring another person was wrong.

On the whole, most spectrumites are victims, not abusers. I myself have been bullied as far back as my memory goes. Before it was my peers, it was my teachers. I remember my preschool teacher absolutely hated me. I had no idea why, though in hindsight I bet it had something to do with me being a flaming autistic. Once, during recess, I picked her a bouquet of dandelions, because I liked getting presents, so maybe if I gave her a present she would be nice to me. She took them from me, with a snear said that she was allergic to flowers, and threw them into the woods. Another time, she dislocated my shoulder when I wouldn’t put down my yogurt after she blew the whistle for the end of snack time. I didn’t want to let go of the cup (I was still eating) so she tried to wrench it from my hand, which my weak toddler joints couldn’t handle.

When I entered public school it seemed like wherever I went people didn’t like me. My classmates would leave, whispering, when I entered the building blocks corner. Rhyming songs about how no one would marry me were sung at recess. I was called a beaver (for my teeth), a twig (for my body), and a retard (for my hand flapping) and my only defense was to chase my attackers with the threat of a cootie-contaminated kiss.

As I got older I made my first “mother hen friend,” as Tony Attwood refers to them. Through her, I became part of a small group of classmates to whom I could belong. It was much easier to laugh off bullies’ mediocre insults with a wingman or wingwoman at my side.

But then middle school started. We were all split up into four class groups. My three best friends and I were evenly divided up between the “teams.” So I was stuck with 30 or so other 12-year-olds I’d never met. The only people on my team from my elementary school were, coincidentally, the kids who found me to be the best bullying target. My aspergian back talk about things like the real pronunciation of “retarded” said through my Hermione Granger teeth, made me stand out like a sore thumb. So, needless to say, my middle school years weren’t all that wonderful. Everything and anything I did, innocuous or not, seemed to get me negative attention. When I dyed my hair pink, my classmates teased me about “killing someone and soaking [my] hair in the blood.” When I tried to dress like everyone else, I was confronted with snide questions about who I thought I was. When I went back to my thrift store clothes I was made fun of for being too “punk.”

I took solace with the other outcasts of my team, who just so happened to be the Goths. They seemed so strong with their studs and pins and chains, and they hated everybody else just as much as I did. I started wearing chains around my neck (from my garage instead of hot topic) and ripping up my pants on purpose. This didn’t really help my bullying situation, but at least I finally had a niche I could fall back on. The Goths didn’t think I was so ugly that I would die old and alone, or that I was so stupid I would end up homeless.

By high school things got better. I was reunited with my old friends, and because they’d met new people over middle school, our group had expanded. On the rare occasions bullies picked on me, the other kids in the class would actually come to my rescue. We were mature teenagers now, beyond all that kid stuff. People still made fun of me (“Kirsten Lindsmith” apparently had connotations in and of itself), but it was behind my back so I didn’t have to deal with it. For once I could ignore it all. Unfortunately, by then my self-esteem had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t even conceive of the notion of self-love. In the back of my mind, I thought I was slow, stupid, ugly, a loser, and any other unwanted adjective I could think of. Throughout high school I was again and again walked all over by people I loved and trusted because I thought that’s just the way things were. It was burned into me that no one would ever love me, and the best I could hope for would be for people to begrudgingly tolerate me. I honestly believed that other people’s feelings mattered more than my own, and that my happiness was somehow worth less.

After receiving my diagnosis, I read that people on the spectrum are far more likely than neurotypicals to fall victim to abuse. I hadn’t even known what abuse was (other than spouses hitting each other on CSI) but for the first time in my life I cried in public when I looked up a checklist on abuse in the dining commons at my university. I fit every one of the bullet points for symptoms of a victim.

These days nobody bullies me. But my life so far has been mostly spent being a victim of bullying in some form or another, and it’s taken its toll. It’s taken me years to build up the (rather delicate) self-confidence I possess today, but the slightest insult will send me spiraling into a meltdown. Wherever I go I feel that strangers are staring at me, judging me, hating me. I’m anxious and frightened wherever I go. I assume the people around me (my friends, my family) only tolerate me, and probably find me annoying. I’m incredibly unstable and unsure of myself, and I personalize nearly everything negative I encounter. Thankfully, now that I’m in college I don’t even have to interact with my peers. I’m in a much safer bubble compared to public school, and I have all the time in the world for therapy and whatever other voodoo magic will help me recover. I often tell myself that I’m a wimp, that I shouldn’t be so affected by the things people have done to me years ago. But I’m slowly coming to accept that trauma is a very real thing, and I’m not just “over sensitive”, or “over emotional”, as people have called me in the past for feeling hurt.

If you are being bullied, whether it’s by a stranger, a peer, a teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, or your best friend, the best thing you can do is to tell someone. Get your feelings validated. Know that you are not “overreacting,” and that no one deserves to be treated hurtfully. If your best friend is a bully, that means they’re not your best friend.

I hate the classic mantra “just ignore them.” Oh, don’t listen to the bullies, they’re just lonely kids with bad homes. Or they’re just bad people. Or they’re just aliens. It’s not really all that easy to “just ignore” someone who is screaming at you in the hallway, or laughing at you on stage during your school play, or stealing your clothes after gym class. Public school is a breeding ground for harassment. Everyone’s at “that age,” and you’re all crammed in together with nowhere to run. You can’t avoid a bully who goes to the same 1000-person school that you do.

But know that it does get better, as overused as that phrase has become. There will always be bullies in the real world, but they become much easier to avoid. For one, adults are actually allowed to go to the police and file harassment charges.

I don’t really have any advice for dealing with bullies, as that’s pretty clearly not my strong suit. But seek strength in numbers, even if it means being “that kid” who tells the teacher. It’s better to report a bully and be moved to another class than to grow up in an environment where you feel unloved, even hated. Get away anyway you can, and know that it’s not you who’s drawing out these feelings in other people, it’s the bullies who are seeking an innocent target upon whom to unleash their manipulative evil.

No one deserves to be bullied. Not you, not anybody.