This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The entire month of April (except for Sundays) I will be blogging through the alphabet on autism-related topics to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month.
B is for Bullying
“All kids get bullied; it’s a rite of passage!”
“Just ignore them and they will get bored and stop.”
“They only bully you because they’re jealous of you. Be bigger than them and ignore it.”
“We can’t coddle our kids. Bullying will toughen them up and make them ready for the world.”
We see a lot of talk about bullying these days and we hear a lot of schools talk about their “zero tolerance” anti-bullying programs, but bullying is just as bad as ever and Autistic kids (and adults!) are particularly vulnerable. We get more than our share of bullying and we often have fewer resources to cope with bullying than other children do. (And, make no mistake, bullying hurts ALL children, regardless of neurology.)
CBS News reported that 63% of Autistic children have been bullied and are three times more likely to be bullied than their siblings without autism. When I listen to the stories of the Autistic adults I know, it sure feels like that figure is too low. I told my parents about a lot of the bullying I faced in school, but there was a lot more I didn’t tell them about. I was ashamed of the way I was treated. I felt like it did no good to tell, so why bother? My mother knew about the day I was boxed in the ear because the whole side of my head was still red when she saw me hours later. But I was too ashamed to tell her about the sexual lies about me that my classmates had published in the gossip column of the school newspaper. She knew about the defacement of my (very expensive) school yearbook because she wanted to see the yearbook when I brought it home. She was angry about what the other children had done to my book. I misunderstood her anger and thought she was angry at me for letting it happen (if you’ve ever been the subject of a nasty game of “keep away,” you know there is not “letting” involved when fellow students destroy your property.) Because I misunderstood her anger, I was afraid to tell her about other incidents of bullying.
The survey reported in the CBS news article involved asking parents of Autistic children about bullying. Another report from Time Magazine says Autistic students were bullied almost five times as much as non-autistic students with a 46% rate of being bullied (and parents in this study said they felt the true rate was even higher than that.) The figures may actually be low because parents don’t always know. Their children may be afraid to reveal the bullying, too ashamed to talk about it, apathetic due to a belief that no one can help them anyway or due to depression caused by the bullying. Their children may have lower communication skills that don’t provide the children with the tools to adequately communicate what is going on in school Or, in many cases, the children may not fully realize that they are being bullied. I think sometimes I missed realizing that I was bullied. And there are situations that I look back on as an adult and realize more of what was happening — situations where I thought the other children were my friends but when I remember our interactions, I am shocked to realize that they were doing horrible things to me and I kept coming back for more because I didn’t know any better back then.
The first time I remember being bullied was in second grade. I am pretty sure I must have been bullied earlier, especially considering what I remember of my behavior in first grade (I was a very odd child.) But the first I remember was when I was seven years old. Someone, I have no idea who, had heard me playing piano and asked if I could come to the office and play a piece over the intercom during morning announcements. I played a piece I loved, called “Whirling Leaves,” that ran up and down the whole keyboard. I loved the sensation of crossing my hands over each other up and down the keyboard so that piece was my favorite to play.
When I was done and had returned to my classroom, a boy who sat near me said, “you finally did something right.” It was what I have come to learn is called a “back handed compliment” and while I didn’t know the name for a comment like that, it still stung and put a tarnish on my day. More than my day, apparently, since it still stings forty years later.
That is mild bullying, though. As kids grow up, their bullying gets both more subtle and more overt. The psychological bullying gets more subtle, harder to counter, harder to get help with. The kids around me matured at a different rate than I did and I never had any idea how to deal with the bullying words. But the bullying got more physical around middle school as well and that bullying got more and more overt.
For anyone who says that bullying is just a rite of passage or harmless, they should pay attention to the ways Autistic pre-teens and teens get bullied. I was boxed in the ear, had rocks and bottles thrown at me, was hit in the head with a plank (science class, studying inertia and gravity with balls rolling down boards), had bleach thrown on my clothes, was tricked into eating a laxative chocolate bar . . . and other things enough worse that I don’t feel like talking about them. Even in university (the place that high school teachers swore to me there would be no more bullying) I had fellow students pretend they were going to punch me, fists stopping inches from my face, and a professor — a grown man in a position of power — would growl at me like a rabid dog when he passed me in the halls.
And all that was mild compared to what other Autistic students have faced. In Fall of 2014, an Autistic teen in Ohio was tricked by classmates who said they were doing the ice bucket challenge but instead they poured human waste on him, filmed it, and shared the video around school. In January of 2015, an Irish teen had his pants and underwear pulled down and was forced to eat twigs while the bullies filmed the attack and later posted it on Facebook. In March, 2015, an Autistic teen in Louisville, Kentucky was threatened by a classmate with a knife and then choked so hard by that same classmate that the teen has been too injured to return to class. In 2013, an Autistic teen in Australia had his hands blown up and shrapnel embedded in his legs, down to the bone, by bullies who gave him a bomb made from a golf ball.
I could go on and on, because these stories are popping up all the time, every week. Sometimes every day. What’s worse, often teachers and the parents of the bullies say the Autistic children deserved the bullying they got. Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me — I got a lot of bullying from teachers. A lot.
Parents of bullies in Iowa claimed the Autistic teen who their children were bullying had “brought it on himself.” One specific example given was of the teen using insulting language toward a classmate who then punched the teen in the face. I don’t know what children are taught now, but I was brought up to believe that it is wrong to respond to words with blows. But a relative of the teen who punched the Autistic teen for saying the wrong thing said they were proud of their nephew for punching the teen. Even the school principal and the president of the school board claimed no bullying was happening.
I’d like to know what happened before the Autistic teen called others names. I have a good guess. I used to get bullied and bullied and bullied until I couldn’t take it any more and lashed out. Then I was blamed for everything that had happened, even though my behavior was a reaction, not a cause. And since I was not as subtle as my more mature classmates, I was always the one who got caught misbehaving. I was always the one blamed for bad behavior. Quite often, I got punished for defending myself while the bullies were treated as if they were the victims. I suggest that’s what was happening in the Iowa case as well.
Bullying is just another example of why we need to fight so hard for autism acceptance. Children take their cues from teachers and parents. Look at how the Iowa parents and even the school principal responded to the bullying situation — they said the Autistic teen deserved to be bullied. And the parents and principal were very aware that the teen was Autistic. Yes, we need awareness of autism but awareness alone is just not enough. Awareness left that young man out in the cold, blamed for the abuse others heaped on him.
Acceptance means teaching that Autistic people do have feelings, do have empathy (even if we don’t always express it in ways that non-autistic people are capable of understanding), that we do have value, and that we are full members of the human race, deserving of dignity and accommodation. Acceptance means teaching others that when we don’t understand what is going on, the proper thing to do is to help us, not to bully us. Acceptance means teaching principals and teachers how to understand bullying dynamics so that they can see more of what is going on, not just the desperate reactions of a badly bullied child with less social skills of subterfuge than their “more socially sophisticated” tormentors. (I wonder why it is that the people who have more social skills are the bullies while the people who have fewer are the victims? Perhaps our idea of what social skills actually are is unhealthily skewed?)
We need to all work together to build a bully-free world for everyone. We need to understand bullying and have compassion for all involved (yes, that means the bullies, too. We cannot allow them to continue bullying others. But people become bullies from a place of pain and lack inside themselves and part of ending bullying is recognizing that pain and lack and helping the bullies become happier people, too.)
Until Autistic people are accepted, bullying will continue and it will be justified by those who don’t understand what’s happening. People must be aware of autism and aware that Autistic people are different from non-autistic people in significant ways. And people must accept that Autistic people are trying their best and meet us with love, understanding, and acceptance, helping to mentor us in the confusing social ways of the culture that surrounds us.
Until we have full autism acceptance, there will always be people who see our vulnerabilities and think we are extra “fun” to torment and there will always be people in positions of power who do not see the whole picture and say that we deserved the abuse and brought it on ourselves. When we can move from ignorance to awareness to acceptance, we can move from violence and bullying to understanding, friendship, and love. A world of autism acceptance is a world I am eager to work toward every day. Please, let’s all work toward that beautiful goal.