This next post was originally going to be my long-delayed one about Stims. But this morning, Dad and I went out to brunch (Mom’s down in Halifax with my sister’s family, helping out with the new baby, for several weeks), and on our way back, the CBC Radio Sunday Edition had a section on bullying. Specifically, about how one should respond to bullying, and whether at times violence in response is warranted. It made me think. A lot. And I thought it was definitely worth a “Let’s Talk About” post.
Bullying is a problem that seems to be endemic to schools, if not homes as well. And a lot of the time (though not always), it’s those who seem to be “different” in some way (whether “too” fat, tall, short, smart, not smart, with physical difficulties, with intellectual – or apparent intellectual – difficulties, etc.) who are the preferred targets of bullies. There’s a reason why the statistics say that autistics are most likely to be the bullied, rather than the bullies.
Like a lot of us, I was bullied as a child (I was tall, and intelligent, and physically awkward), and the damage still exists. Unlike a lot of people, those who bullied me didn’t often invoke physical violence. (There were a few incidents of what today we would call physical violence, even though it didn’t involve hitting or kicking me, one of which will be described below.) Most of the time, it involved words. Verbal assaults.
Which, of course, made it hard to respond. I may be Aspie, meaning no delay with speech, and fully verbal the vast majority of the time (at least in my case), but that doesn’t mean that replying to verbal assaults was in any way easy or simple. In fact, a lot of times it was extra hard, because I knew I was intelligent, and I knew I had wit… but I couldn’t come up with appropriate responses until about fifteen minutes after the incident occurred.
The worst offender throughout my childhood and adolescence was my middle sister (yes, the one Mom is with right now). She’s extroverted, and equally intelligent (if in different ways), and has a very quick verbal wit. She could score off me easily, push all my buttons, and it didn’t help me feel good about myself that she is also younger than I am (I’m the oldest of four). So she would work me into a rage (which renders me fairly non-verbal), and, when I was younger, I would respond by trying (and sometimes succeeding, I think, though I don’t remember) to hit her. *shrugs unhappily* As far as I was concerned, it was the only way I had to respond.
Luckily, my mother was fully aware of my sister’s manipulative nature, so I was never the only one who got scolded for those fights. I do remember at one point that Mom thought it might be the TV shows I was watching (which at that point included G.I. Joe – yes, I wasn’t the typical girl even then) that were encouraging my violent responses, so I was forbidden to watch them anymore. Now, I’m not so sure anymore; I think it may have also been the fact that I couldn’t respond verbally, and frustration overwhelmed me, and that was the only way I knew to get it out. But that was obviously a bad way – Mom always got upset, to the point where she forbade me a TV show I enjoyed at the time (I was somewhere between 5 and 7, I think), and it never worked anyway (my sister was better at it than I was – clumsiness) – so I finally stopped.
I was told (repeatedly) to ignore my sister when she got like that, that she was fishing for a response. That was the conventional wisdom at the time for dealing with bullies. Unfortunately, I got so good at ignoring her (and so frustrated and tired of her attempts to get a rise out of me) that when we had a family meeting when I was sixteen and she was fourteen to deal with some issues, I greatly upset my youngest sister by saying – with perfect truth at the time – that I didn’t care what happened with her. I was just tired of it all. I had suffered her teasing and taunts for over a decade at that point, and while I loved her as my sister, I didn’t like her anymore. (That has since changed; she grew up, learned about consequences and responsibility, and has become an excellent teacher and a wonderful mother to my older niece and my two nephews. I like her again as well as love her now. But I still have difficulties dealing with her – though less now than five years ago – because of those years of bullying.)
Nowadays we know better; we know that kids need to stand up to bullies to deal with them properly. It’s simply the best way to stand up to them that is argued (like in the radio show above). Most in our “civilized” society argue that violence should never be involved in standing up to bullies, that it should be verbal only. A number of people on the radio show argued (and I agree) that while pre-emptive violence should not be encouraged, if someone is hitting you, you have the right to defend yourself with violence if necessary. We are human, and humans are not as separated from the violence of the natural world as we sometimes like to believe we are. Sometimes, the only thing that will get through to a bully is a fist in the stomach or across the face from someone they believe they can beat up with impunity. (One of the people interviewed on the show was a Newfoundlander who as a teenager was a bully involved in physical violence. She said that in a lot of ways, she wished someone had responded like that; it probably would have snapped her out of that mindset a lot sooner.)
But what happens if the bullying is verbal and emotional, like what my sister did to me? Or the physical assault doesn’t involve violence?
When I was 6, in grade one, a group of girls took me behind the hills in the field that was in our school playground and made me strip. I don’t remember the event anymore. The only reason I still know about it is that at one point (probably the next year, actually, come to think of it), I pointed out the girls who had done it to my mother one day while we were driving, and mentioned that they were the ones who had made me strip behind the hills in the playground. It was the first my mother had ever heard of the situation, and she’s mentioned it to me a couple of times. So I don’t remember whether or not physical violence – or even just the threat of physical violence – was involved. I don’t remember who those girls were (though I think that they weren’t in my grade). All I remember is that I didn’t wear a skirt again for over three years, which leads me to believe that they said it had something to do with me wearing a skirt. But whether or not violence was involved, this was a physical assault. If we were older at the time, it could have been considered sexual harassment, at least.
So, there are situations where the bullying doesn’t involve actual violence, which means that if the bullied person tries to defend themselves with violence, quite often they are the ones blamed. By other adults, even if their parents understand the situation and support them.
What happens if you can’t defend yourself verbally? You don’t have to be non-verbal to be in that situation (though if you are non-verbal, it’s even worse, because you have no chance at defending yourself). If you’re introverted, it can take up to a minute longer to respond to verbal statements (or assaults) than if you’re extroverted, because of the way your brain works. Even a minute can make a huge difference when you’re being verbally bullied. If you’re emotional, even if you’re not autistic, that can choke your voice, especially when the emotions involved are anger or frustration… or shame (which is usually some combination of the aforementioned two, at least in my case). If you have a stutter? Then you’re quite often bullied verbally anyway, because that’s how they can best get to you.
What can we do, as individuals and as a society, to help deal with this issue? With the fact that some people literally cannot stand up for themselves verbally, no matter how intelligent and / or clever and / or witty they are? Education would definitely help. But how do we deal with the fact that as humans, as children, bullying happens, no matter how much we educate people, and society frowns on defending ourselves with physical violence, even when we can’t defend ourselves verbally?
What can we do when it happens even as adults? Bullying isn’t just a schoolyard phenomenon. It happens in the workplace. It happens in medical situations. All we have to do is look at what happened to Ballastexistenz earlier this year to know that! That was bullying, pure and simple. Because that doctor thought she didn’t have quality of life, he was prepared to not treat her, and was telling her to just go home and wait to die. If that’s not bullying, what is? There may not have been anything physical involved, but as I said above, bullying isn’t just physical violence, and it’s not just physical.
So, as this is a “Let’s Talk About” it topic, I would really like to know your thoughts on this. Are there things that we can do as individuals to help with this situation? What organizations do you know of that are involved in working to have bullying recognized for what it is, and end it? Parents out there, what do you tell your kids, allistic and autistic, about bullying? How do you help them cope? I’d really enjoy it if we could get a conversation going about this.
Definitely food for thought, thanks for posting. I didn’t even realise I had been bullied in primary and secondary school until I was well into my twenties, and even now at 36 I’m still discovering new memories that can be interpreted as bullying in hindsight. But does not being aware that it was bullying and that it was /wrong/ mean that I didn’t suffer? Or that I just simply accepted it as the way I deserved to be treated? That kind of internalising can be just as harmful.
That’s why I think the way forward lies with adults. Adults need to be taught what bullying is, that bullying happens even among adults, that it’s not “just a little joking around”. They need to be able to recognise it. Parents and teachers need to be aware. I don’t think it’s possible to expect a child to deal with bullies completely on her/his own, especially with the issues like being (temporarily) non-verbal that you’ve sketched. Adults need to recognise bullying so we can protect those who are unable to stand up for themselves at that particular moment. And sometimes protection might be as simple as saying “I saw what happened, it’s not your fault.”
A problem with reporting school bullying is that action typically requires identifying the perpetrators, often by name.
This is a problem because someone with no memory for names and faces cannot identify people well, especially if they are from another class and never introduced themselves, or if they are moving quickly or throwing objects from a distance.