Autistic people are likelier to get bullied. In fact, almost all of us have to some extent. And if your childhood was anything like mine, there is a good chance the experiences went beyond some schoolyard jerk calling you a mean name or teasing you.
But bullying in any form can be unpleasant.
People commonly say that anti-Autistic bullying is ever-present. But nobody ever really wants to do something about it. At least not something that helps the Autistic recipient in a way that doesn’t deprive us of our humanity, subtly implying that we are responsible for it somehow.
We know that being Autistic, especially openly, can invite trouble for us. We just do not always know what to do about it. And any real help for bullying is practically nonexistent. Institutions are rarely reliable, and their advice is ineffective at best, oppressive at worst.
Anti-Autistic bullying can occur at any point in our lives, at any age, in any situation. Given that there are no real guides on how to address it that are Autistic centered, I have decided to create one.
Why did I decide to make this?
For one, it has been a passion of mine since getting into Autistic activism, to arm Autistics with the knowledge and skills to protect ourselves in a world that is hostile to our very existence. This is necessary until Autistic acceptance and the embracing of neurodiversity on a grand scale takes place.
Even the social distancing mandates of the COVID crisis has not stopped people from wanting to be cruel to us – even jeopardizing the health and safety of themselves or their own friends. In one the examples linked above (obligatory content warning for disturbing violence), in an effort to put bear spray into the face of the Autistic victim, they nearly got one of their own, which goes to show the sheer level of hatred for Autistics that some people do carry. Kids getting pushed in the playground. People going behind your back and planning to engineer entire situations with the goal of getting you into trouble. Will our struggles never end?
But enough is enough. Autistic people need to know that we are not alone, and that we do not have to be afraid of bullies. We deserve to live openly without the fear of abuse.
So, what can we do?
Here are some general-purpose tips:
1. Measure your surroundings.
Take context into account – what kind of bullying are you on the receiving end of? Physical bullying? Social exclusion? Cyber-harassment? How did the situation take place? Was there a background story that led to the events that take place? How many people are involved, and what are their roles?
2. Know your enemy.
It’s an old, but still relevant adage – to defeat your enemy, you must understand them. Autistic people are generally universally known to be great at two things: attention to details, and pattern recognition. Use these. Observe.
Who is bullying you? What methods do they tend to use (Autistics aren’t the only people who love routine – humans are creatures of habit)? What is their motivating mindset? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
If possible, learn more about your bully – about their past, about their current circumstances. This may not only possibly shed light on their actions, but can give you ammunition to fight back.
In short: knowledge is power, and bullying is all about power imbalances – so level the playing field.
3. Analyze the best response.
I wouldn’t be writing this to feed people the same tired nonsense of “tell a trusted adult”, or “be the bigger person, fighting back makes you just as bad.”
Instead, I will acknowledge that there is no one-approach-fits-all response to bullying. Every situation is different. Every person is different. Every environment is different. And accordingly, a response must be tailored to the specific situation.
For instance, a bully that is popular, has a tight-knit group of friends, or seems to be someone who can put up a fight, is probably not somebody you should directly challenge. (And if they’re in a position of authority…. Don’t even think about it. I don’t care how strong, capable or crafty you think you are, it will not end well.)
While “trusted adults” can be scarce, and institutions unreliable, sometimes they can help. I would exercise even more caution taking this route than fighting back, though – because you’re Autistic, and Autistics have our every action scrutinized, and any opportunity they can take to blame you, to take any moment where you might have ‘talked back’ or done something to ‘deserve it’, they often will. However, there may be specific individuals who are good to you. There may be people you can trust. Supportive parents or siblings can also be helpful in some cases.
Sometimes, avoidance can be the simplest solution – which tends to only really work when a bully is not particularly committed toward giving you a hard time. Staying away from them, taking a different path to and from school/work/campus, enrolling in different classes if that is possible (or if not, staying in the opposite side of the room), blocking them online – if these methods work, you may not need anything else.
4. Make a plan.
Another popular saying is that a failure in planning is a plan for failure. So after you have gathered enough knowledge about the situation and decided on a response, go to the drawing board and make a plan that you feel confident in executing. Tweak, customize and personalize it to your liking. Then, execute that plan. Be sure to factor in contingencies and backup plans in case something goes wrong. Particularly nefarious bullies can often be organized and make plans themselves – and some of you may be surprised at just how far some people are willing to go to harm someone. Or, if you’re Autistic, you probably aren’t surprised at all – maybe you have experienced something.
Whether it is reporting the incident to teachers (or reporting harassing online posts), or throwing a witty comeback, planning ahead is important. If you choose to defend yourself from a physical bully, it can be invaluable to plan the environment beforehand – if they are chasing you, luring them to a location of your choice where you feel you have the upper hand, or finding some other way to undermine them can be the difference between getting beaten up and being the person handing out the beating.
In addition to knowing your enemy, know yourself – make an appraisal of your skills and how you can use them to help you get through this situation.
5. Make allies.
When you’re Autistic, this can be a scary thing. Making friends doesn’t always come easy to us. But when it comes to bullying, forming alliances can be easier than you think. Here’s why: in my experience, bullies and abusers rarely have just one victim. There is a decent chance you are not the only one being targeted. Further, if there are more Autistics around you, it is quite possible they are having the same experiences.
This provides an opportunity. Being on the receiving end of bullying, harassment or abuse, is pleasant to absolutely no one. If you can seek out others who have had your same experience – others who may be afraid to stand up for themselves on their own – you can form an alliance, and work together. If your goal is to report them, that is arguably when strength in numbers is the strongest.
6. Reduce your chances of being a target.
Let me be clear on this one – nobody, absolutely nobody, deserves to be bullied. However, it is an (unfortunate) reality for many people. But it doesn’t have to be you.
Bullying, at its’ core, is about power imbalances. Bullies want power over their victims. It is as simple as that. Where there is no power imbalance, there is no bullying. Bullies want victims – not opponents. Giving yourself the appearance of a confident, unapologetic, strong person, or even a person who will not take nonsense from anybody, can reduce your chances of being victimized drastically. Being perceived as someone who is well-liked or has a lot of friends, being someone who appears physically strong, or confident, can help. Consider taking up a martial art or fighting style to further bolster your confidence, and do your best to stay fit.
You do not even need to actually possess confidence or popularity to make yourself less of a target – the illusion itself can be enough. Even being your Autistic self unapologetically, can dissuade some people from trying to harm you – as doing so is an indisputable act of bravery.
All in all, dealing with bullying is something almost every Autistic individual will have to factor into their lives. And these tips, while helpful, may not be sufficient to help you in every situation. This is why, I am working on writing a book that will give more detailed outlines about different hostile situations and how to deal with them. There’s no planned “release date” but you can expect it around the end of 2021. At the soonest.
A quick note on the nature of bullying
Bullying may seem like a complex issue. Many argue that bullying is just a sad reality of life and that people should just suck it up – this is, of course, male bovine manure.
Bullying is ultimately a reflection of broader social ills – specifically, discrimination and oppression. It may not always seem obvious at first – but when examining who tends to be the victims of bullying, they almost always fit into some form of socially marginalized demographic: gender-based bullying can happen. Racialized kids can experience racially charged bullying. LGBTQ children are all-too-familiar with some of the most atrocious kinds of bullying. And people with various kinds of disabilities or neurodivergences may perhaps make up the most frequent victims of bullying. Ableism is, after all, a seeming ubiquitous force – in a world fit for certain types of minds, bodies, and identities, those who do not ‘fit in’ are going to find themselves more vulnerable to various forms of attacks.
Learning how to protect ourselves is a necessity.
But what is an even greater necessity? Working to end these evils.
Then, and only then, will bullying cease to exist – and contrary to what some people attest, it is possible.