Community Voices: Autism and Bullying
Hello all. If you haven’t seen our previous interview with Neil Kenny, I’d recommend checking it out. I was inspired to do something on bullying and autism due to the tragic suicide of Joel Langford. As well as expert insight such as Kenny’s, I wanted to demonstrate more personal accounts which stress the impact bullying has on autistic people. I have included three separate accounts, one of whom wishes to be anonymous.
I’d urge any parents or neurotypicals reading this to take these accounts seriously. After all, yesterday’s bullying becomes tomorrow’s abuse.
Growing up different and recognising you are different from your peers is hard. Putting up with their response to your difference is worse. In primary school I was so overwhelmed by the chaos of playground that I stood at the side lines of the playground, just watching the chaos and trying to understand it. Eventually my peers started to notice my differences and told me all about them so I wouldn’t forget: my funny walk, my too quiet voice, my fearfulness, my excitement at anything to do with reading, my lack of interest in TV, my refusal to swear, my goody two shoes following the rules as we were told. The taunt of goody two shoes and teacher’s pet followed me all through primary school.
Eventually the bullying turned physical. When I was 9 I was pinned by two girls behind a prefab and punched repeatedly in the stomach and told she’d get me again if I ever slagged her accent again. It took me years to understand why that came about and how I deserved it. In class we had been forced to switch copies and correct each others spelling, she wrote fink and fought meaning think and thought but I couldn’t understand why there was an f or what words she had meant to write down and as I quietly asked her why there was and f and what this word was supposed to mean her anger became apparent. I told no one. It was my fault somehow and I had to be strong and deal with the consequences.
They’d sneer when I was called out to ‘special’ classes for extra English when they were doing their Irish. Towards the end of primary school, I’d transformed from friendly, happy and outgoing to quiet and fearful. I had mastered not drawing attention to myself, and by extension my many defects that my peers seemed to find so mercilessly funny. Even teachers laughed when misunderstood the meaning of their language like metaphors, similes, or have given instructions. I learned early on I was seen as stupid, gullible and odd so I closed up and tried to be someone else. Someone they wanted to see, but I couldn’t preform that part so I became invisible.
Secondary school I’d go from week to week without speaking a word. When I tried to speak if prompted by a teacher of peers, my voice would come out in a barely audible whisper that I could never seem to make louder or I’d just sit in shocked silence at the sudden attention, my sweaty palms glued to the underside of the table, all my muscles frozen, waiting for the spotlight to lift. After a few weeks I made friends with two quiet girls who were always alone like me. They were happy to talk to me but reluctantly talked to each other initially. They pulled away from me by second year due to my interests in sports and lack of interest in soaps they told me that they didn’t want me to sit with them at lunch anymore. So I didn’t. I went back to reading on my breaks.
The class had all started saying hi to me at one point but that was as far as they wanted to go when I tried to engage them back. It passed on and people all over the school started saying hi to me even though we’d never spoken so I’d always say hi back and think nothing of it. Years later I realised a good teacher was trying to get them to engage with me so I’d feel less alone. I didn’t feel alone, I’ve never felt not alone so I couldn’t tell the difference.
I thought I’d toughen up over time if I kept taking the harassment, pushing, circling around me, backing me into a wall so they could name call at me I’d get stronger. I’d look at the ground and not respond as that made them leave me alone faster. Though it led to me being spit on, shoved and taunted often. The lane I walked alone through on the way home and to school to get to my house became my daily terror challenge. Once the teens that hung there stole the only hat I’d ever worn, a present of my first concert, and burned it just to get me to react. They won, I begged them not to burn it and they laughed as the tears welled in my eyes as they burned my precious happy memory.
I was given nicknames for the amusement of others, called Happy for an entire Christmas weekend were we performed for the cubs as elves in Santa’s grotto as part of their Christmas day away. He’d say Hi Happy and I’d respond with Hi Glen. I thought it was nice he was saying hello to me, my friend told me he wasn’t being friendly and was using me as a joke.
By fifth year of secondary school I was trying to become comfortable in my own skin and build my confidence. Get rid of the shy quiet person they didn’t want to see. Turns out they didn’t want me to be bubblier or friendlier. Everything I seemed to say would be met with scrunched up confusing faces and they’d walk off ignoring me. Turns out if you’re not worth their notice they’ve no problem letting you know it.
Still I persisted. I was making the most of my life. Prefect, venturer, basketball player, good student who helped with staff and parent teacher meetings on what were supposed to be my halfdays. Despite this and my constant studying, improvement academically over the years I met another kind of bully. An adult, the snob, who thought a kid with a dyslexia diagnosis was incapable of achieving the grades to get into university. University it all I talked about since I discovered it’s existence towards the end of primary school. Despite my expressed desire to attend college, my decent grades in higher level and my extracurricular contribution to the school life this guidance counsellor thought my kind were not good enough for college.
I was determined to prove her wrong and I did. Having got the points to get into college, I found out I couldn’t get in by default as the school, where it was the guidance counsellor’s job to inform me and my parents as I was the eldest and first ever in my family to seek to attend university that I needed an up to date assessment for the department of education to recognise my Irish exemption. As it stood, they didn’t and I failed my leaving cert by default for having not done Irish. Not by choice but due to the lack of paper work and reassessment.
I had to repeat my leaving cert to fix this mistake and get re-assessed. I was still dyslexic and for the third time, suspected of having an autism spectrum diagnosis that my parents did not wish to pursue because of the stigma and lack of understanding. I succeeded in getting into a joint honours college course, got my 2.1 degree.
I was in mental crisis and sought counselling help which had me diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Finally I had an answer for why I was odd, different and unable to understand everything around me. It allowed me to forgive myself for my failings. Forgive those who had failed me for lack of understanding.”
I rebuilt my image by letting me be the authentic me not the pretender. The authentic me will be awkward, will freeze up around peers, will be friendly, happy and distant, yet reliable, caring and resilient all at once. I’ve come out the other side of bullying with the knowledge that it was never my fault that I was a target. That it’s okay to be me, because I’m actually pretty cool and don’t care who does and doesn’t like me as I know my strengths and weaknesses.
Hang in there no matter how tough it gets. Talk about things with your family or someone you trust. Escape into your passions to recouperate when things get too hard. Know it can always get better and sometimes how it currently is good enough. Don’t forsake yourself. The world deserves and needs to know your amazing quirky perspectives. We are valid human beings. Advocate so others will be understood and be kind and understanding to help the people in this world become a little kinder to others like you in turn.
I was bullied in a previous job at the age of 33, it got to the point that I had to hand in my notice and leave: I wasn’t diagnosed at the time these incidents occurred but I feel my (unknown) autism played a part in how I was treated by the bully. The bully was an older man who worked on my team.
We originally got on well but after about a year things changed. He didn’t like another female colleague (they had their own private issues in the past) and I went to lunch with her and he got very annoyed at me about that. But I liked her and she was actually my only friend in the company. I struggle to make friends and suffer from being unable to speak in big groups of people, so I had a tough time in such a large organisation, I didn’t want to give up the one person I had a connection with. She was a bit of a loner too and I find it easier to relate to those kinds of people.
I had to work with this man everyday, he was my team-mate and we had work that needed to be done together. He started ignoring me, when I would speak to him and ask about work related reports he wouldn’t look in my direction and would completely blank me. It was very embarrassing. I’m not very confident so it was difficult to repeatedly ask him the same question, especially when it felt like the eyes of the whole room where on me. And then on the other hand, on other occasions the only time he would communicate with me was to give out or belittle me telling me my work was wrong and I’m not good enough at my job. He would do this with a very sharp and aggressive tone. But he was smart and was always careful to only do that when no one else was around to see.
These incidents continued to occur over a period of months. I ended up suffering from really bad stress related IBS and I needed time off work. I visited my GP and he gave me a cert for the time off that I needed. Every time I went back to work the bully would pick on me again and I would end up sick and needing more time off.
I ended up having to make a formal complaint about his behavior towards me. The company HR team took it seriously but my manager (a friend of the bully, they had worked together in a previous company and she hired him in the current role) told me there wasn’t anything she could do, it was his word against mine and that she never witnessed anything. Her answer to IBS issue was to put a desk out in the corridor beside the toilet so I could have easier access. I was mortified at that idea, everyone would want to know why I was moved out of the office into the corridor beside the toilet.
As it was a large organisation, formalities had to be followed, reports filed in, interviews done, I was also sent to the company doctor who verified I was under a lot of stress in my work situation. This all took months and although I do think the HR team took me seriously, the whole process was dragged out so long, and I still had to work with the man during all of this, sitting beside him everyday, it got too much and I ended up handing in my notice.
I think a stronger or more self assured person may have been able to take him on. But I think he saw me as vulnerable and a bit of a push over. He knew from working with me and sitting beside me that I didn’t have any friends in the company, so I was an easy target.
Starting secondary school was a colossal shock to the system which part of me always expected. . The canteen, its grey stone walls an indifferent observer of the almighty din it contained, like a bee-hive which had been quite deliberately bowled over. I was instantly overwhelmed by the scale of it all – at least a hundred students, more people than I imagine I’d ever been in a room with at once, and the collective noise of their chatter! You cannot begin to imagine the merciless intensity with which that pounded against my eardrums while I, in all my utter bewilderment, regarded the situation before me and tried my utmost to make sense of it.
Nevertheless, God loves a tryer, so in spite of my inner composure crumbling by the second, I pasted on my most cordial smile and tried to make myself agreeable to each group I tried, albeit without success, to burrow my way in. Needless to say, I was subtly, or in some cases, not so subtly, ejected at the earliest convenience on each occasion and no matter which angle I took, no matter which fabricated version of myself I presented to them in the hope it may win me acceptance, the end-result was much the same. I spoke nothing of my obscure interests, deliberately watered down my vocabulary so as not to sound pompous and focused hard on maintaining eye contact while not seeming creepy, but all in vain. It was no good. I genuinely had not anticipated this problem, and my sudden anxiety was all the more intense as a result.
“For the first time in my life, I was tired of being the lone wolf and wished to exist in a pack, and for the first time in my life, I put myself in a vulnerable position only for the pack to spurn me. I didn’t know until that very moment that that was what I wanted, but it was suddenly plain as day to me, and it hurt.”
I was quite desperate by this point. I didn’t even care about friendship anymore; what I wanted with all my heart was merely tolerance. What harm was I going to do anyone, silently eating my lunch without uttering a word to betray my presence beside them, which seemed so unbearable to them? I wanted to tell them all that they didn’t even need to talk to me, that they could act as if I weren’t even there, but dear God, not to leave me alone. But I wasn’t fit for that.
The trouble was, there was no telling where and when a common-sense related issue may crop and until some poorly-concealed sniggers told me otherwise, I could only ever assume that what I was doing was right and hope that it would not somehow lead to ridicule. Even then, all the stifled giggles betrayed was the basic fact that what I was doing was wrong, in the meantime telling me nothing about how I was doing wrong. These were the impossible enigmas I had to sort through daily in my mind, because nobody on earth could have hoped to help me in this respect – even if they wanted to, which they most certainly did not.
I had to very quickly learn new sets of vocabulary which I, in all my innocence, had never heard tell of up to that point. “Frigid”, “pussyfoot”, “lickarse”, “loner”, you name it – I had them all at one point or another (and yes, I really was sheltered and juvenile enough to only figure out exactly what these words meant after repeatedly hearing them in context, usually in reference to me). My pre-existing innocence died a sudden, violent death there and then but was replaced by nothing, for I was too frightened and utterly appalled by the plain ugliness of the world I saw before me to join the fray, for fear of what I may become in so doing. I had ambitions to prove my worth to them all, to reinvent myself as so many are wont to do at this age, and I was long past having any qualms over becoming someone unrecognisable to me in the process.
Despite some later success making a small circle of friends, I made the blunder of disclosing my Asperger’s. A friend poked fun at my ignorance over something which she perceived as common sense and I thought that perhaps if she knew why I struggle so much with such things, she may try to help me rather than subject me to ridicule, even if always in good jest. Instead, in response to any future blunders I made, she’d scoff: “Wait, I know what you’re going to say: ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Asparagus Syndrome’ hahahaha”. So in summary, telling her or indeed anyone was appalling judgment on my part and possibly was the main contributor to the breakdown of the few friendships I had managed to maintain to this point in the school community. Big mistake. Big. Huge.
My friends suddenly “went off” me, I guess, and started to hide from me at lunchtime, doing everything they could to avoid me. I spent quite some time trying to figure out why so I could remedy the situation, but to no avail and by this time knowing where I am not wanted (shout-out to primary school resource for that!), I began taking lunch alone again. This time, I couldn’t stand the whispers. I had done this all before and having not needed to endure it for so long, I was in no position to tolerate it again.
After weighing up my options, of which there were admittedly very few, I found another school which was further away than we might have liked but was otherwise perfect for me and my mother, ever one to support me in all that I do, insisted that if I thought this was where I stood the best chance of happiness, this was the place for me and all practical inconveniences need only be an afterthought..
This time, I made it to the finish line and even made some genuine friends along the way, some of which I’m still in contact with. I was very pleasantly surprised with my exam results and this time, everyone was quite vocal in how happy they were for me. It was a fairy-tale ending to what had been a very trying time in my life and though I went through the world of pain to arrive where I am now and would certainly hate to relive it, I will never, ever be compelled to regret a single second of it.
I’d like to thank everyone who sent me there stories for their strength and honesty. I had to heavily edit down Melissa’s testimony and I encourage you checking out her blog to fully appreciate it. I will be releasing one more instalment on bullying; mainly focused on how childhood bullying can translate into later struggles in life.