To Be Seen, or Not to Be Seen?

To be seen, or not to be seen?

I have spent a good percentage of my 36 years of life trying to figure out the answer to this particular question, which has expressed itself as a tug-of-war dialectic in my heart, mind, and soul. And the truth is, some days, I cannot decide which it is that I desire.

I was reminded of this struggle of my own upon reading this post on The Third Glance blog. The author speaks her own childhood growing up with autism and I found some of her account mirroring my own. I’ve quoted some of her post below to illustrate what I mean:

“She knew that if she complained, the consequences would be even scarier at home. When she first told her parents she wasn’t fitting in, she would get ‘talked to’, told she needed to try harder, that she needed to stop using big words, that she was obviously deficient. When that didn’t work, the responses got scarier, so she stopped saying anything…She learned that repeating the big words she heard in books would cause the other students to laugh at her and tease. She learned that no one else cared what happened in her books, or what she had just learned about her favorite things.”

I was reminded of my own childhood and my own struggles. Years before I knew that I was autistic, I knew that I was different. While I’ve said this before, I say it again now because there are people wandering around, like I was, without answers. There are children, teenagers, and adults who struggle with the decision between conformity and difference every day. Some, like the author of Third Glance and me at various points in my own life, choose to become invisible:

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Bullying, Chasing Pavements, and Asperger Syndrome

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
- John Lennon, “Imagine”

Over the weekend, I saw a headline about Lynda Frederick, a 42-year old woman bullied during her time in high school who wrote a poem to her classmates about being bullied on the Facebook page for her high school class reunion. This morning, I investigated further and read this story in the Huffington Post, as well as a few other articles online about her and her poem. Her former classmates were so moved, some coming forth with apologies and raising money for her to travel and attend the reunion.

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Bullying Awareness Week

This week is Bullying Awareness Week.  This week is dedicated to raising awareness about the problem of bullying.

A few things to think about this week:

  1. Bullying is a widespread problem and can affect anyone regardless of race, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or ability status.
  2. Bullying is a common problem for autistic children. Estimates of the amount of autistic and Asperger children who are bullied run anywhere from 40% to as high as 90%. (See this story in the Boston Herald and this citation by the National Autistic Society UK.)
  3. Bullying does not only affect children. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, around 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand.

I’d also like to mention some of my writings about bullying: “Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee” and “Why Me?“, two parts of a to-be-completed series I authored about autism and workplace bullying.

I’ve also had my own experiences with bullying, mostly encountered as a child and teenager. One of my earliest memories of being bullied is from third grade. I attended a school in the district that had more special education offerings than the rest of the schools, and I needed speech therapy due to a bad ear infection which made me mispronounce the diphthong “th” as the letter “d”, amongst other things. Oddly enough, that’s not why I was the target of bullying, and to this day, I can only guess why the kids in question chose to pick  on me. At that age, with less than average experience being around other kids (due to our frequent moves) and no other siblings, I lacked social experience with other kids. That, plus the social foibles and difficulty reading other kids that Aspie children are prone to, were likely a recipe for disaster. I was singled out as the “weirdo” and was constantly asked if I was retarded. I never knew how to answer my tormentors — I simply froze in fright and said nothing. After one disastrous incident where I was teased and provoked until I bit the kid who bullied me, I chose to play alone for the rest of the school year with the exception of one boy, Lance, who I still felt comfortable around (and looking back in time’s mirror, I half wonder if he was also an Aspie too — but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

That summer, we moved to another city, and I encountered bullying again in the schools I attended. This happened again when we moved across the country and I attended yet another new school for fifth and six grade. But the worst of it I encountered during junior high and high school. As I look back, I consider it a bit of a miracle that I not only survived, but that I do not carry more scars than I do now.

After my parents separated, my mother and I moved to Middletown, Ohio, where I attended the last half of sixth grade, junior high, and high school. It is small town with a large steel mill, a small population (I believe in the 40,000 range when I last lived there), and a rather cliquish atmosphere at the time — everyone had known each other since their youth. To make matters worse, I was a multiracial kid in a town which was rather segregated socially in terms of race — white and blacks usually did not socialize together, and the other multiracial kids simply identified as black; but I’d been used to growing up in neighborhoods where whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and First Peoples lived side by side. And I had undiagnosed Asperger’s and displayed many on the laundry list of Aspie traits: social difficulties, inability to read people, narrow interests, and higher than average vocabulary.

It wasn’t long before I was the target of bullies. It mostly began in seventh grade and persisted until my senior year of high school. In my case, it was a few individuals who persisted in making my school life a living hell throughout those five or six years of my life. The black bullies made fun of me for “acting white” or “talking white” because of my vocabulary. The white bullies made fun of me because of my hair (or lack of interest in styling it), my narrow interests, and even my patterns of speech. I was shoved into water fountains and lockers; provoked to cursing one of them out in front of a teacher (which landed me into in-school detention); played tricks on; and excluded. I sought solace in my books, my writing, and my inner fantasy life and tried my best to hold on until I graduated and left.

As an adult, I have tried my best to heal from both the bullying at school and the bullying/abuse I experienced at home. Sometimes, thinking about these memories is like pulling shrapnel out of my skin — it hurts, and I can see the visible wounds that each piece leaves behind. Writing about this pain is one way I try to reckon with it. I am slowly healing, but it has only been recently that I have been able to begin *truly* conquering my suspicion and fear. My goals are to be less paranoid about what people think and say about me and less likely to wonder if tricks or plots are being executed behind my back; these fears generally fall into the “disconnection and rejection” domain of early maladaptive schemas that I discussed in this post (part of a continuing series on stress and anxiety), which include beliefs that the world and most, if not all, people are generally untrustworthy, cruel, and will only purposely hurt or reject.  Unfortunately, the kind of bullying that autistic and Asperger children encounter commonly help form and/or reinforce these kinds of negative core beliefs and the distrust, fear, and paranoia that accompany them.

I offer this poem, “High School Jungle“, as an impression of my experience of having been bullied. I sincerely hope that during this week and beyond, awareness can continue to be raised about the problem of bullying. Too many hearts have been broken and too many lives have been lost to bullying, and it needs to stop.

-Nicole

Why Me? More About Workplace Bullying, Office Gossip, and the Autistic Employee

First off, I want to thank my readers for being patient with me during my hiatus from the WWA blog due to illness and other personal issues. Rest assured, readers, I am back and here to stay. On that note, I’d like to pick up where I left off with this series on workplace bullying and the autistic employee.

Last time, I discussed the basics of workplace bullying: what it is, why bullies do what they do, and the effects that bullying has on employees. This time I’ll be talking about how bullies select their targets, why they may target autistic individuals, and the role that office gossip can play in both bullying campaigns and the everyday work life of an autistic employee. Continue reading

Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee, Part I: The Basics of Bullying

In my ongoing research, I recently found an article from the Workplace Bullying Institute about self-defeating stigmas held by adults bullied in the workplace. While reading the article, I began to think about my own experiences with workplace bullying and recognized some of my own shame about it.

Then, I thought about autistic adults and workplace bullying as a whole. According to a 2010 survey by the WBI, 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. With estimates of autistic children being bullied as high as 90%, it’s not hard to imagine that many autistic adults have been bullied as both children and adults. And if what the WBI call a “silent epidemic” is distressing to neurotypical employees, you can imagine what kind of pain and distress it might cause for an autistic employee.

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