It Takes a Village to Raise a Bully–or Stop One
Bullying. You’ve heard the word, maybe you’ve even been a part of the experience. But what does it really mean? I have some tastey link salad for you, some musings on my own relationship with this whole bullying concept and some questions to ask. A theme that has come up regularly in last week’s volley of Autism Awareness vs. Autism Acceptance internet dialogue has been the idea of bullying–often coming from the most unexpected sources.
The thing to remember about bullying: it can’t happen in a vacuum. It takes a village to raise a bully, and it takes a village to stop the behavior. Check out this blog post by Lynne Soraya, where she talks about finding bullies even at church. Unfortunately, a pretty common experience. Bullies are everywhere.
What is bullying? According to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line bullying can be defined as: “persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and much more. In the workplace, bullying usually focuses on distorted or fabricated allegations of underperformance.” (Check that site if you need some help recognizing bullying behavior and need some tips on how to end the torment–it’s chock full of good stuff that isn’t just aimed at kids in the schoolyard.)
What bullies are allowed to get away with is defined by what the community sees or accepts or denies about their behavior. I’ve been bullied by supervisors, my husband, even my own students–I still fight these battles every day. Bullying didn’t end for me when that 4th grade girl scratched my face for being too dark for her liking. It didn’t end when that 6th grade boy blacked my eye with his baseball glove for just being there. Nor did it end when that 8th grade boy pinned me to the ground and forced me to kiss him while a bunch of other kids jeered. Yet, both those boys stopped tormenting me after the community around us voiced distaste about their actions.
My protests and fighting back simply fueled the fire. My tears and struggles simply ramped up their own violence–it was the others brought into the situation, their voiced distaste and public disapproval that ended the game. One thing a bully can’t stand is humiliation and having to fight a public battle with more than one opponent.
It takes people who have your back to stop the behavior: people who believe what you tell them and support your right to be free of the abuse. Sure, you have to be willing to stand up from your own victimhood and renounce the bully and his/her behavior–but you’re headed for dangerous waters if you try that on your own. Someone needs to have your back. This video, made by a beautiful human with a powerful autistic voice, captures how isolation feeds the bullying problem.
People on the spectrum have such a lifelong struggle with this issue. From my own experience, I have a hard time recognizing when someone is treating me unfairly; the behavior has usually escalated by the time I “get it”. Top that off with the fact that I don’t have the strongest connections to other people, and also don’t recognize when the bully has isolated me from people who could actually be my best allies in the fight.
Sometimes these isolating and bullying individuals have been my most trusted, intimate relationships. Someone who takes your voice, does not let you express your feelings and acts to de-legitimize any and all of your values is bullying you–even if you happen to be married to them, Ladies. When they fight back harder the more you seek to speak, the situation becomes very clear. Drop off the key, Lea; get yourself free.
Still, some of us won’t have that opportunity, because the very people who are the worst offenders in our lives are the ones we rely upon as caregivers. I want to be careful here. I do acknowledge that parenting a spectrum child, particularly one who is severely autistic, is not an easy job. Good parenting is pretty much impossible no matter who the parent or child is, though. It’s the holy grail of humanity, like a lasting marriage, a clean house and being too rich or too thin in Hollywood.
What I’m saying is that conscientious parents find the job impossible no matter what the circumstances. The lack of information, understanding and acceptance in our community about spectrum issues does succeed in isolating many of these parents as well. They feel bullied by autism, they see it as an enemy, and they fight back.
Unfortunately, many of them don’t realize that putting autism in their gunsights actually leads to the bullying of their children. There are too many stories, like the recent murder-suicide in Sunnyvale, California, where George Hodgins was killed by his own mother before she shot herself. Check out this great post on NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman to read more about the advocacy aspects and the response of the local autistic community to George’s murder and the media/internet portrayal. Silberman notes that: “sometimes his name wasn’t even mentioned in the ensuing discussion, as if the young man was a bystander at his own murder.”
This isn’t the only story of murdered children. They are extreme situations, and thank goodness they are not commonplace, but what does bring a person to this level of despair–and allows them to come to the conclusion that offing another human, particularly their own child is a viable solution? Seeing the autism as enemy is certainly a part of it. Another part is disallowing the humanity of the child–not only by the parent, but in our community at large. That’s at the heart of any bullying, whether the bully is in a schoolyard, in the workplace or whether the bully gave birth to her victim. It needs to stop, but it will take all of us changing the approach and dialogue to make that happen.
That’s not going to happen as long as those who see us as diseased and in need of fixing are allowed to run roughshod over our human rights as a matter of course. Yes, I can’t leave a post about bullying without mentioning the Judge Rotenburg Center in Massachusetts. They call themselves a “school”, and have delivered “shock therapy” to autistic students for years. They consider themselves successful in this because they produce children who are far more compliant and “normalized” socially thanks to this “therapy”. They continue this treatment today, despite complaints and documented cases that shocks were delivered to the point of burns–results that even our Post-911 government would consider constitute “torture”. Perhaps they should switch to waterboarding? It doesn’t leave marks.
My humor gets dark when I am greatly appalled, please forgive me.
We do not need to be silent any longer. Do not talk about us as if we cannot hear you, as if we do not exist. Do not assume we are incapable of understanding, just because our words are slow, or we stim or we spin or we clap our hands when we’re happy. Let’s have each other’s backs on this.