Sonia is my first guest on Hastywords in quite awhile. Please give her a warm welcome and help her share her story.
I’ve recently been a target of an attempt at bullying. I didn’t think this could happen to me, so I’m writing because I want to help others feel safer and stronger. I found my experience shocking as it is many, many years since I felt such visceral fear, though with the right support I saw it for what it was – a vindictive sham. Momentarily, it had taken me back to when I was 11 years old and cornered in an underpass outside my school, outnumbered by a gang of girls primed to beat me up. I feel the most constructive way to deal with this is to speak out and share my thoughts on effective autistic self protection.
I’ve known social disdain of a subtle kind all my life, from those who think themselves more socially sophisticated and who remain aloof. I stopped caring a very longtime ago, and sought more genuine interactions.
I’ve also known open hostility – yes of course I have. Humans can be fickle, and relationships sometimes brittle. Autistics get things ‘socially wrong’ a lot. We tend to stick out for ideas and principles, and this can get us into ‘hot water’ with others who want us to be pliable and polite. You learn to deal with it because it’s part of the scenery – an inevitable consequence of engagement with an illogical, and frankly, socially biased world.
It’s easier now that I have my diagnosis of autism and a growing bank of personal truths, honed from lived experience. For example, I now feel it’s a cruel thing to withhold knowledge of an autism diagnosis (an act some people think is best for their child). However well intentioned, this can’t be helpful in the long term. I understand why it happens, and that it may seem ‘kind’ from a certain perspective, but I think it could serve to block native survival strategies.
It is said that autistics are prone to bullying. Aside from ableism, I think there are probably two main reasons. The first being that humans can be incredibly cruel and also self-serving (non-news, I know), the second that we have an important hard-wired disadvantage in areas of communication. Others have written before me, and far more eloquently, on the importance of using our own autistic means of sussing out more complex human interactions, pattern recognition being one such.
Seen this behaviour before? Been down this route more than once? Eventually a discernible pattern emerges, and we can with any luck begin to pre-empt some of the trouble. It’s excellent advice, but not without difficulty. It can take a LOT of negative experiences to pick out the patterns – especially when we are repeatedly told we are wrong, as we grow up and beyond. More subtle sabotage, as we invest our efforts in learning ever changing rules of ‘neurotypical’ social engagement – only to have the rug pulled on our efforts time and time again.
This is why I return so often, in my writing and all my thinking, to the need for autistic spaces, and the passing down of autistic wisdom. We can’t do this ‘your’ way – but we can do it our way if you just let us be.
So what would happen if we stopped being endlessly ‘polite’, and trying to please other people? Might this free us to gauge a person’s intentions through their actions? If we’re free to filter out their words will we see more clearly what they’re up to? I think so. If I had listened to some of my autistic friends sooner (rather than trying so hard to remain polite), I could have protected myself and that’s an encouraging truth. Our wisdom can be very effective – if we are allowed to develop and use it.
There have also been ‘neurotypical’ friends who’ve helped me confront the truth of my situation. In fact one of the most supportive experiences has been to have this manipulation and bullying named by others who could see it more clearly (in the moment) from an NT perspective.
If actions, as the truism goes, ‘speak louder than words’ then we’re doubly disadvantaged by allowing ourselves to fold under the power of verbal communication, or trust to language (especially when it’s so slippery and casually used in the first place). The inner freedom to red flag such dissonance (between action and words) seems important. Won’t we be more alert to subtle manipulation if we can really place our focus where it’s needed?
So if you’re in any doubt and feeling uncomfortable, ask yourself what a true friend would do, rather than what a self-appointed ‘friend’ says. Some bullies seem to come from nowhere, others are brought in through the back door by our so-called friends (the regular wolves in sheep’s clothing).
And perhaps a person who avows their friendship, but looks the other way while the bully acts, is not a friend after all? No. Of course they’re not. They may even be acting in concert and complicity.
But our trouble (rather than lacking empathy) is often that we’re too kind, and too considerate for too long – we’ve been groomed to listen politely to other people despite the obvious damage they do us. We can be prey to hangers on.
So, don’t allow a situation to drift, until you feel the visceral fear of the unknowing autistic child cornered outside the school gates, or menaced in the underpass out of sight of the teachers, quite outnumbered by the bully gang. Don’t wait to be openly threatened for things to ‘become clear’. You’ll soon see, by looking back carefully at the behavioural signs, that they were always there.
Nip it in the bud. Look to how you feel (give yourself time to process), and break it off as soon as you’re uneasy or confused by the behaviour of someone who is supposed to be your friend. I’ll call this (ironically of course) applied behavioural analysis.
Autistics will know what I’m getting at.
A multiform autistic practice, with a focus on themes of exile and displacement.
I specialise in object work, painting, installation, video and performance in an ongoing postmemory project about the Spanish Civil War – BARCELONA IN A BAG
I also develop and lead creative projects, such as the Arts Council funded Through An Artist’s Eye. Recent works includes a film collaboration with Tate Britain about the British artist Felicia Browne.
My new collaborative project is the Arts Council funded Museum for Object Research, which includes a professional development initiative for autistic project leadership.
At The Other Side, I write about autism and art.