I’ve had a tough time getting started on this post. It’s another reflection on the book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by Cynthia Kim, and this time the topic is bullying.
I’m not sure if it’s difficult for me to write about because I don’t have a lot of personal experience with being bullied, or if it’s just because it’s such an unpleasant topic in general.
What’s interesting about Cynthia Kim’s story is that she experienced bullying from both sides. In elementary and middle school, she was picked on by the children in her class– they made fun of her, took her things, and in one case the biggest boy in class cornered her in a coatroom and kissed her against her wishes. For a while, she didn’t know what to do about it aside from trying to hide.
But eventually, Kim found a different way to respond– becoming a bully herself. If she could focus people’s attention on making fun of someone else, it meant that she was no longer the target. She explains that she was able to identify who to pick on, because they looked just like she used to when she was the target of bullies herself.
I thought there was a very Aspie-like honesty about Kim’s account of becoming a bully. She doesn’t attempt to excuse her own behavior– she knows it was wrong and hurtful– even when she was doing it, she knew it was wrong. It just came naturally to her. And then, as she grew older, the bullying behavior gradually faded away, along with her friendships with the other “mean girls.”
When you’re a kid, both you and everyone around you is learning social skills at the same time, and one of the things we all have to learn is how easy it is to hurt others by what we say and do.
It makes me think of how I probably treated others rudely without realizing it when I was growing up, and later I had to trust that God would give them grace to forgive or to forget my mistakes. I don’t think I ever bullied anyone, but there were certainly times when I felt relieved that someone other than myself was being teased.
One good thing that has come out of Kim’s experiences is that she is able to give a helpful list of why people on the autistic spectrum tend to experience bullying, which can be a problem at any age, not just in childhood.
Traits that make autistic individuals vulnerable to bullying (quoted directly from Kim’s book, with my own comments after each item):
- We have trouble reading social cues, especially the ones that tell us when someone is saying one thing but means another.
Elementary and junior high is when kids discover that almost every word can have a rude meaning in addition to its normal one. I usually didn’t understand why the rest of the kids in my class were snickering at something the teacher said, though I would sometimes laugh just because they were laughing. Realizing that the same thing could happen to me with anything I said made me overly cautious about saying anything.
- We have trouble reading the facial expressions and body language that should be telling us, “Danger, this person intends to harm you.”
Thankfully, I can’t recall a time when someone really set out to harm me. There were a couple of occasions when a classmate or another child at church decided to tease me, but I could never tell that was what they were doing until I had thought about it for a while. My reaction was so delayed that I think it made teasing me a very unsatisfying thing to do for a potential bully.
- We’re easy marks for “practical jokes” because we tend to be literal-minded.
I really can’t recall being the target of practical jokes at school either, possibly for the same reason– it wasn’t any fun! The closest thing I can remember is a time at a church activity when a girl sheepishly approached me and said very seriously, “This is for a dare, okay? It doesn’t mean anything,” and then said “You’re sooooo cute!” before running away giggling to her friends. I just shrugged my shoulders and thought “Well, that was silly.” I actually appreciated that she explained it to me so clearly, or else I would have been confused. If anything, the peer pressure had been on her, to get her to do something she didn’t want to do.
- We’ve often been socialized out of saying “No” when we’re uncomfortable with something.
This is one I really identify with, and there’s a very logical reason for it. My entire life, my brain’s default answer has been “No.” I’d rather stay home and stick with what’s familiar rather than try something new that might be uncomfortable, tiring, or a waste of time when I could just stick with what I already know I’m comfortable with. But if I always listened to myself when I feel that way, I never would have tasted cheesecake, rode a roller coaster, played laser tag, seen other countries, made new friends, or done any of the things I’ve found have enriched my life greatly. So I always fight a little bit against that “No” answer which is my first reaction to everything.
Of course, sometimes “No” is the right answer, especially when someone who doesn’t have your best interests in mind is trying to force you into something you don’t want to do. But it takes confidence and experience to recognize those situations, and Aspies often don’t have those in great supply.
- We may not have the language abilities to stand up for ourselves under duress.
Sometimes I don’t have any language abilities at all when I’m under duress. I’ve been in situations where the only thing I could do was cry. Even when I had time to think the situation through and formulate a response in my head, my body wasn’t ready for me to express that response until later. Other times, I go totally silent and just stare, seeming like I’ve shut down mentally. I can’t control these responses in times of great stress; I can only wait until I’ve had time to process what’s happened fully.
- We often don’t have a group of friends to shelter, defend or stand up for us.
I mentioned that I think I avoided some bullying because I just wasn’t much fun to tease. That’s only part of it, though. If somebody had really fixated on teasing me until they got a reaction, I’m sure they would have found a way to get me into one of the “meltdowns” I just described above. Thankfully, I also had a best friend who stood up for me when he saw people were teasing me, something I’m very thankful for. (And he happened to be the tallest boy in my class.) He even took me aside later and patiently, gently explained what I had been doing to draw the attention of the boy who had teased me. I wish every Aspie had a friend like that.
- We tend to care less about social conventions than other people so we make easy targets for mockery based on what’s socially “in” or popular.
I’ve never been “with it” in terms of following the trends, and that never really bothered me, even when I was at the age when kids usually consider that kind of thing important. Sometimes I even enjoyed making my classmates laugh when I expressed exuberance for nerdy things like Star Trek, or childish things like the Kirby series of video games. I felt like, as Christians, we were encouraged not to just follow the trends of what was popular, so it didn’t seem like anybody in my class put a huge emphasis on that. Life’s a lot more fun that way, anyway.
- We can be easy to provoke, making us a reactive target.
I was pretty much the opposite of this; I was in a daze most of the time when people tried to provoke me. I was trying to work out exactly what they were saying and why. It would have been very difficult with all of my other Aspie traits if I’d had this one, so I’m thankful for that, looking back.
- We may be more likely than others to believe that we’ve brought harassment on ourselves due to low self-esteem or being conditioned to think we’re weird, defective or damaged.
This is one of the most important points for people to understand about the victims of bullies or other abusive behavior, I think. It might be clear from the outside what is going on, and that the best thing to do is to ask someone in authority for help, but from the inside, all is doubtful and cloudy. Kim says in her book that she didn’t tell anyone about the times when classmates took her things and destroyed them, or the time a boy kissed her without her permission, because she was used to feeling like she was “failing” at social interaction, and those times felt like some of her worst failures. When you’re self-conscious about your mistakes, it’s very hard not to look for ways to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, even if you are innocent.
Even though I was not the victim of bullying like that, I still caused myself stress by trying to assume responsibility for anything that went wrong– if somebody in the room was angry or upset, it must be my fault somehow. If someone got angry at me, I felt a hundred times worse. So I can definitely see why Kim didn’t feel like she could tell anyone about her mistreatment by her classmates. And sadly, it eventually led to her learning how to bully others as a defense mechanism.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. My classmates grew beyond teasing and either let me be myself, encouraged me, or treated me as a friend they cared about, even when I always remained a bit odd and distant for reasons even I didn’t understand at the time. And I’ll always be thankful for that.