Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks

TW: Bullying and victim-blaming

I ran across the following link, or rather a screenshot of it, posted on Facebook by a good friend of mine.  The title itself was enough to get my hackles up, as an autistic adult who experienced bullying: “10 Perks Kids with Autism Get from Bullying”.

I will say this — I was honestly bracing for a lot worse, mostly because I’ve heard a lot worse, as far as blaming the victim and downplaying the impact of bullying goes.  Still, in attempting to for whatever reason find a bright side to bullying, the author, a speech language pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis instructor named Karen Kabaki-Sisto, frames the problem and makes assumptions about how it plays out that don’t do the autistic youth who experience it any favors.

Making bullying about the “opportunities” it provides for parents, schools and peers takes the focus away from helping autistic victims of bullying.  

Four out of the ten points raised in the article are about how bullying can be beneficial to adults and non-autistic peers.  This implies that the suffering that autistic students experience because of bullying is somehow balanced out by non-autistic people becoming more “aware” of autism (which is fraught all by itself), or a child’s parents and school developing a better working relationship out of it.  These developments could benefit the child under the right circumstances, but if so, these aren’t so much “perks” of bullying as they are solving the damn problem.

Meanwhile, I have the sense that exactly zero autistic (former) students will be thanking their lucky stars that they were bullied so that the non-autistic people in their lives could finally get their act together.

The outcomes for an autistic victim of bullying will depend a lot on things that this article takes for granted.  

The article says that kids who go through, or more precisely learn to effectively respond to or cope with, bullying can end up having more friendships, healthier relationships overall, learning social skills and developing better self esteem.  In other words, we’re back to “it builds character.”

Whether what doesn’t kill autistic kids will actually make them stronger, though, depends on a lot of factors that are out of their control.  It requires that the school has an institutional culture that meaningfully prohibits and discourages bullying instead of tacitly condoning it.  It requires that a student’s parents are actively involved and supportive of their child, and/or that a child has another functional support network.  It will be affected by whether the child has an abuse history or other sources of stress and trauma in their life.  And it will depend on how severe and pervasive the bullying is.

By not taking the factors I listed (and probably others as well) into account, Kabaki-Sisto effectively downplays the impact that bullying has on autistic kids who are bullied under less-than-ideal conditions, who I suspect are the rule rather than the exception.  Without awareness of these factors and how they can impact a child’s ability to respond and cope, the idea that bullying can help children to grow gets treated as an expectation — one that many of us aren’t or weren’t able to meet.

The focus should be on bullies’ lack of good social skills, and not that of their autistic victims.

There are three points in the article that discuss how autistic people socialize as being relevant to bullying, and zero that talk about how bullies socialize.  At one point, the article talks about how bullying may lead autistic kids to learn verbal speech, facial expressions and nonverbal communication.  The implication here is that autistic people need to learn to be more like the people who bully them.  Especially without discussing how bullies and adult enablers must also change, this wrongfully puts the onus on bullying victims to prevent their own abuse.

Meanwhile, framing autistic communication and interaction as being characterized by deficits does nothing to dismantle the prejudices that Kabaki-Sisto attributes at least some bullying to.  If as an autism professional you’re going to put a positive spin on anything, it should be on the qualities of the population you work with, and not on the traumatic things that put more pressure on them to pass for normal.

The harms of bullying vastly outweigh any theoretical benefits

The beginning of the article briefly mentions that, yes, bullying is a real problem with real effects before jumping into what Kabaki-Sisto sees as its “perks.”  This disclaimer is woefully inadequate in this context, especially on the subject of something that many people still don’t recognize the true harms of.

Bullying, like more recognized forms of abuse, causes trauma that, contrary to what the article states, often limits someone’s ability to cope and function.  Here’s a few examples that I and many other autistic people have dealt with:

  • Loss of trust in friends and authority figures after people in those roles harmed you or let you be harmed.
  • Social withdrawal to avoid exposing yourself to betrayal in the first place, or because you lose the confidence and self-esteem you might have had before.
  • Tolerating abuse as natural or acceptable after years of being told to not take it personally, learn to take a joke, not be so oversensitive, disregard your own preferences and comfort levels, and otherwise internalize that you’re the problem.
  • Feelings of inadequacy — not necessarily (just) over what you were bullied over, either — as you try to prove to yourself and others that you’re not what the bullies said you were and that you didn’t deserve what they did to you.
  • Having a lower threshold for stress because of how your innate sensitivities and anxiety levels are compounded by internalized shame caused by bullying by peers and victim-blaming by authority figures, which can lead to a loss of or inability to use coping or other skills.

My best guess is that the author didn’t intend this article to be victim-blaming or minimizing, and instead was trying to encourage parents, teachers and other professionals to take steps that would help an autistic child through a bad situation.  However, highlighting or even creating a “bright side” of something that many people still treat as harmless undermines that purpose, and may end up having the opposite effect on people who already believe that it is.

Professionals and experts have an obligation to the marginalized communities they work with, and this article doesn’t meet that standard. 

My biggest concern with this article is that, because Kabaki-Sisto is a professional who works with autistic people, many parents, educators and other professionals will take her at her word, and at her framing for that matter — much more credit than they would give to autistic survivors of bullying.  While many autistic people are working to make sure our voices get heard, non-autistic “experts” still have a responsibility to the autistic community because of the relative influence they have.  For all the reasons I’ve talked about, this article doesn’t do well by autistic people, and in particular autistic children, who have limited abilities to improve their own situations.

Instead, I recommend that professionals who talk about autism and bullying:

  • Be clear on the impact, and especially how bullying can affect autistic kids differently and more severely than it does neurotypical kids.  There’s still a lot of people who don’t understand or believe this, and since you do (or at least should), you can’t afford to downplay it.
  • Put the responsibility where it belongs.  Autistic people’s atypical qualities don’t cause bullying — bullies do.  Schools and service providers have to be unequivocal about this in what they say and how they act, because the belief that autistic people are responsible for making sure they aren’t bullied enables bullying.
  • Highlight our strengths.  Autistic people by and large have many useful skills — even social skills.  We’re honest.  We’re upfront.  We’re loyal.  Talk about these things before you start in on our “deficits,” because that will affect how adults (and thus other kids) see us.
  • Think of things from our point of view.  Non-autistic people who work with autistic people often talk about our lack of “theory of mind,” but it would help if they would demonstrate it towards us more often.  This is no exception.  Think hard about what it would like to be an autistic kid whose peers tormented them day in and day out over sensory issues, special interests or taking things literally, and about what you would want if you were that kid.  Then make your recommendations from there.
  • Seek out information from autistic survivors of bullying.  Fortunately for you — and unfortunately for us — there’s a lot of us.  We can speak not only to what actually happened and how it affected us, but also to what interventions (or lack thereof) worked or didn’t work.  And a lot of us are strongly invested in making sure that what happened to us doesn’t happen to other people.
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28 thoughts on “Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks

  1. Sure we can find a lot of us who can talk about surviving bullying.
    I get my tips from someone who’s been a bully, has been bullied, has been a passive bystander, has had periods of no involvement with bullying, has intervened, and has broken up cybermobs with his magical unicorn.
    Granted, the article in the ADN is rubbish. That does not make your article any less realistic.

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      1. You are missing a definition for ‘bullying’.
        You have described the bully-type inaccurately.
        You have avoided describing the target-type in order to avoid victim-blaming.
        You have taken the prohibitionist stance – all morality and political correctness, no science.
        You claim bullying makes us weaker. The science says that bullying makes us weaker sometimes but makes us stronger twice as often.
        What your group sees as ‘appropriate social sanctions’ may be seen as ‘bullying’ by outsiders.
        Would you even know if you yourself were involved in the targeting of another?

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    1. Citation needed on the claim that science supports the claim that bullying is twice as likely to make someone “stronger” as it is to make them “weaker” (terms you don’t define, despite your own insistence on definitions). A basic Google search for “effects of bullying” or “effects of bullying research” meanwhile, turns up a huge number of results on the harmful effects of bullying. Here’s a few samples, just from the first page of each search:

      NIH page about the effects of bullying, citing 4 studies about the effects of bullying: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/bullying/conditioninfo/pages/health.aspx

      Reporting on a study finding that bullying causes more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies than child abuse by adults: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2015/04/28/study-mental-health-effects-of-bullying-even-worse-than-effects-of-abuse-by-adults/

      The American Psychological Association’s Resolution on Bullying Among Children and Youth, which includes citations to 8 separate studies that show that bullying causes a plethora of problems for bullying victims: http://www.apa.org/about/policy/bullying.pdf

      While I’m at it, here’s a definition of bullying used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” See, http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html. Multiple other sources use a definition that’s substantially similar, and the dictionary definition of bully itself makes reference to someone who is more powerful targeting a person less powerful than themselves.

      As far as defining the target group of bullying… for the relevant purposes of this article, we’re talking about autistic school children. God knows there are many other targeted groups as well, though.

      You seem to have an ax to grind with a community I’m a member of (and based on your user handle, I can guess which), and to be angling to accuse us of bullying. I’m guessing, though, that whatever you’re referencing would fall way short of the definitions cited above.

      Even if every bit of the above research I cited didn’t exist, even if there were two non-overlapping categories of “weak” and “strong” survivors of bullying, and even if the “strong” survivors outnumbered the “weak” ones 2:1 (or 3:1 or 10:1 or 1000:1…) I would still be a “prohibitionist.” Because even the framework you propose still says that 1/3 of the people who experience bullying come out the worse for it. I don’t buy the idea of acceptable losses, especially when we’re talking things like depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide. If that makes me moralistic and politically correct (whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context), then so be it.

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    2. I have no idea who the trolling comment was from or whether it was in any way related to your commenting on my blog. Meanwhile, you came to my blog to make a claim that, based on the context, you had reason to know would (and based on how you wrote it may have been intended to) be inflammatory, so unless someone’s doxxing you or doing something similarly extreme and disproportionate over this — which I highly doubt — it’s rather hypocritical for you to be complaining about being unsafe because someone trolled you even if you do believe it was related to this.

      Also, making this about your bad blood with the (nearly totally adult) autistic community is a total derail when we’re talking about autistic children being bullied in the context of school. And I notice you didn’t respond to back up your claims about the substance of this post either, which I’ll take to mean that you concede on those points.

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    1. Damn right I’m a prohibitionist when it comes to bullying.

      How would I know if I were involved in the targeting of another group? Pattern recognition is a thing. I’ve been targeted based on multiple factors. I’m not a perfect person, but that’s left me pretty good at examining my own prejudices and motivations.

      And like I don’t even care if there’s a target type? Belonging to a target type does not make a target responsible for being bullied.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think if someone told my mother the kids that were bullying my brother and I were benefiting her because they let her develop a stronger relationship with our middle school, she would look at you like you were drinking the stupid tea. My mother had to transfer my little brother to another middle school because his first school was unable to stop the bullying and he was getting in trouble for retaliating. The only reason I didn’t get the same choice was because of logistical problems* and Mom has apologized to me about that.

    Yes, she knew most of our teachers. But she thought that even the good ones were pretty damn useless when it came to autism, and the district specialist on autism was getting sick of going to the school with Mom to try to get help for my brother.

    (As you said, the author seems to be assuming that bullying is light playground teasing that is shut down quickly by authority figures. Which is less terrible than what people like my brother and I actually had to deal with in school.)

    * Out district was switching from grades 7-9 to 6-8 for middle school while I was in school, so it was hard to get a middle school program that would keep my sister and I on the same campus. Having two kids go to two schools at the same time without bussing services was hard for a single parent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having read through the comments section of the main article as well(joy), I think it’s important to document all the responses from Autistic individuals.

    Speaking of using things as a learning opportunity, I think our reactions are a greater opportunity to help shatter misconceptions of Autistic humanity.

    The fact that we were singled out and segregated when it comes to bullying is truly telling. I’m curious how many anti-bullying groups would have responded if it was submitted to them and was simply about the perks of being bullied.

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  4. The site-owner of Autism Daily Newscast has VERY suddenly sold the site (she documented this the other day, in an e-mail to all of her site’s subscribers) — and the new ownership has a substantially revised editorial policy, dated today (read especially the paragraph including the words “Identity First”) — http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/editorial-policy/

    AND the offensive “bully ing perks”‘article has been COMPLETELY REMOVED from the Autism Daily News site. Its link now comes up “404” (nothing there), and it is GONE from where it appeared: the site’s Editorial section at http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/category/opinion/editorial/ — and likewise GONE from everywhere else on the site. There is no reference anywhere to it, anywhere on the site.

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  5. After the site-owner of Autism Daily Newscast VERY suddenly sold the site (she documented this the other day, in an e-mail to all of her site’s subscribers), the new ownership brought in a substantially revised editorial policy, dated today. If you, like me, oppose their previous “professional” worship of “person with ______ ” talk, read especially the paragraph including the words “Identity First”: as this establishes that they now admit a variety of uses but will prefer “autistic person’ to “person with autism” — http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/editorial-policy/

    AND (even more importantly) the “bullying perks”‘article has been COMPLETELY REMOVED from the Autism Daily News site. Its link now comes up “404” (nothing there), and it is GONE from where it appeared: the site’s Editorial section at http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/category/opinion/editorial/ — and likewise GONE from everywhere else on the site. There is no reference anywhere to it, anywhere on the site. What’s next, I wonder …

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  6. Thank you for writing this. My son is autistic and was bullied by a PCA at school. It is beyond my ability to put into words to accurately describe how frustrating and infuriating it is that this is not taken seriously and is not seen legally as prosecutable abuse!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bullying, as an act of ***predation***, benefits the predator at the expense of the prey.

    According to the unwritten laws which govern ‘the theory and practice of Normalism’ ( borrowed from Eugen Kogon’s book-title) – this is precisely as it should be.

    Normies will usually excuse bullies, especially when autists are the targets.

    Why? “It’s their ***Nature*** – both to see ***all*** autists as #subhuman#, and declare us to be deserving of all the abuse which the current laws allow.”

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    1. Good qualities that could counter those tendencies are part of people’s nature too, autistic or not, but certain systems and environments (such as school, which demands compliance and punishes noncompliance, including in the form of nonconformity) are set up to reward or at least not punish abusive and dehumanizing treatment so long as it’s directed at the “right” targets.

      Overall, I would say that power and fear are the drives that allow for the (continued) abuse of autistic people. Power to make things orderly and understandable according to one’s own terms, and to punish things that break that preferred order, on the parts of the victimizers. On the parts of onlookers, fear of having to come to terms with the fact that the people they know and value are capable of abusing other people, and of recognizing that bad things happen to good people, which leads them to ignore, justify and/or allow the abuse they witness.

      All these tendencies have to be countered in order to prevent and address abuse.

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