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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