A Fine Line Between Autism and Bullying (A Personal Story)

Lisa sent me her story, which has ties to how children that have to deal with autism and special education end up also having to deal with bullying. This has become a common theme in many of the media stories out there today. As more autistic children have been mainstreamed in education over the years, so have the effects of bullying them in our schools. Lisa bravely shares her experience here with us. ~Alan Eisenberg

Growing up, I experienced much bullying that affects me to this day, even though much of what has happened is a blur. And bullying’s profound effect on me has not simply been because I was bullied, but why I as bullied and how it was handled by adults.

Growing up, it was not only my peers I felt bullied by but also adults, who could not understand my differences in learning and behavior and they often would call me lazy, unmotivated, spoiled, bad, unmotivated, immature, self-centered, doomed to failure, and much more. And when I was bullied, I felt that they sympathized with my bullies because I deserved to be bullied or I “got myself bullied” because of how I acted.

I can’t remember exactly when I began getting teased, which is how my bullying experiences started out. I spent two years in a church-based school, where my experiences included being called names, including the unprintable, as well as being teased because I walked differently and thought differently.  Because I was un-coordinated, I was always chosen last in team sports.Though this teasing and bullying was fairly bad, it was not the worst bullying I would experience. I do recall that once I was walking downstairs. A couple of girls mimicked my walking, snickering, “I’m hurt! I’m hurt!” Another time, as she sometimes did, one girl who was praised by our teacher for being a caring girl who wanted to help others, tracked me down in the halls. She hit me; I remember this particular girl managing to hit me or call me names, when she saw that no one was looking but she managed to be “teacher’s pet.”

During this time period when I was in my early teens, I recall two incidents when I was on the opposite side of bullying. One when I was in the church-based schools’ Cadette Girl Scout’s troop. One evening, during a meeting, because I wanted to be “cool” and “fit in,” I joined with other girls in teasing a girl who, like me, was different. I composed a poem that mocked her and I think I threw it out. But that is beside the point. I had participated in bullying. The second time when I was at an all-day camp and the girls were teasing a quiet girl who was sitting at a front table. Her camp counselor had scolded her and while I felt sorry for her because I couldn’t see that she had misbehaved or anything, I said nothing but succumbed to “the bystander effect.”

It was when I started middle school that the bullying grew vicious and grew really physical. My bullies seemed to know when to find me, whether it was walking to and from school or going from one class to another all over the building. My bullies took note of my differences and called me names like retard, stupid, ugly, slow, dummy, and more, including the unprintable. According to mom, though I don’t remember it, there were two girls who did take pity on me and would try, to little avail, to stop the unremitting bullying. My bullies were slick. They knew exactly where they could catch me, unawares and without any witnesses, and they would hit me, kick me, punch me and trip me as well as snatch my money and even my school books. This bullying was so intense and so frequent that the incidents are a blur and run together. I feared reporting it because I was afraid I would not be believed or because things would get worse.

One incident does stand out in my mind, when I was preparing to leave school and two girls pushed me, hit me, beat me, took my money, and snatched my books and threw them on the ground. I finally was able to go home and when my parents later learned about it, they took me to the police station and wanted action taken to hold the two girls accountable. But the cop said no to my parents, citing the girls’ bad home life and that he felt sorry for them. That was fine of him, but the message I got was that bullying was not a thing to be taken seriously because it was considered a part of growing up.

The reason bullying had such a lasting effect on me even to this day, is not so much the bullying itself but why I was bullied and how it was handled. Because of the circumstances of my conception and birth to my then-teenage mom and the manner of her delivery, I was born with a cluster of behavioral, learning  and neurological issues that I believe add up to undiagnosed autism. If the concept of the autism spectrum had been around in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I think my educational experiences and outcome would have been far different. As a child, I was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, epilepsy, emotional and behavior problems and, in adulthood, learning disabilities. Anyway, getting back to my bullying experiences in middle-school, they eventually attracted the attention of school authorities, who, according to mom, contacted her and told her I would not be able to return to public school because they could not protect me there.

The following Fall, at age 15, I found myself in special education. I did not really feel safer there, as I was a withdrawn girl placed with primarily aggressive peers. Growing up, I spent most of my school years in special class settings, but thanks to my severe bullying middle-school experiences, I spent the rest of my teen years in special education. As the setting was such that our deficits were emphasized at the expense of developing our strengths, seeing teachers and educators constantly tell me what was wrong with me, preach to me to “take responsibility for your actions,” to “learn to pay attention,” and to “conform to society,” coupled with all my bullying memories, including constant adult misunderstanding, just instilled in me a profound sense of a shame-based identity, guilt, fear, social anxiety, resentment and a deep sense of distrust of people in general. Having given birth to a daughter who is officially diagnosed with autism and who is high-functioning and currently on the school honor roll, has provided me with some sense of closure and self-understanding. However, I still feel the effects of my growing up years and whenever I experience any form of bullying, rejection, unfriendliness or even perceived slights as an adults, the feelings I grew up with surface and threaten to overwhelm me.

Even today,  whenever I hear one more story after another about children taking their lives because of the bullying they suffer and the way that it seems that bullying is taken seriously only AFTER these senseless “bullycides,” I experience not only sadness over these lives lost so tragically. I also feel outrage that bullying is seen only as a serious matter when such “bullycides” occur; I grow frustrated when I feel that others minimize my own bullying experiences and that of others among us adults who grew up before the digital age. Perhaps if bullying had been taken seriously all along, bullying would never have evolved into forms resulting in “bullycides” either because bullies have become more violent as well as because many of them have taken their dirty work to cyberspace where they can hide behind their computer screens. The effects of my past will probably always stay with me but if through my advocacy, I can help a few people, I feel it will be worth it.

Yes, the effects of my bullying experiences are permanent and I think that this is why I’m passionately motivated to advocate for all kinds of people, anyone experiencing injustice because they are being marginalized or discriminated against. Thankfully, though my daughter and her generation have more to deal with in this digital age, in the arena of bullying and some other issues, because this is the age of many new discoveries and progress and awareness, they have many more resources and supports to deal with it all.

~Lisa D.

Lisa D. is a wife, mother, activist and advocate who considers herself a voice for anyone in need. Because of her own life experiences, she advocates frequently about autism, epilepsy, poverty, social and economic justice and religious freedom issues. She now maintains a blogspot as well as a Facebook page; these are an extension of her passions. Her blogspot can be found at http://ldesherl.blogspot.com/ and her Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/#!/ldesherl.

4 thoughts on “A Fine Line Between Autism and Bullying (A Personal Story)

  1. Having suffered the sort of ostracism and name-calling in grades 3 through 9 that is the form of bullying thrown on kids who are different, I strongly relate to this account and thank you very much for it. My younger son went through years of mistreatment from teachers and teachers’ aides, first in the earliest grades from teachers who considered him “emotionally disabled,” later in special ed schools that were basically de facto prisons/warehousing for kids whom they treated as little criminals, and that taught nothing but how-to-become-criminals and how-to despise-oneself and how-to-think-of-self-and-others-as-criminals. What is amazing is how people can come out of these structures and yet go on to become whole. Thanks for sharing this tale–and thank you, aeisenbe, for running it.

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