By Quinn Dexter of Autistamatic
I identified several key categories of bully in the recent Autistamatic Report on “Autism & Bullying” (linked below). There are bullies who seek to increase status and those who use intimidation to consolidate existing high status. I also detailed bullies with specific grievances and spiteful or indiscriminate bullies.
In all those models the bully is completely aware of their intent and how their actions will be received. They have made a value judgement that deems their gains to justify their means. They may lack empathy or be selective in who they empathise with. What I didn’t mention were unintentional bullies, those who bully us without even realising that they do so.
How does such a thing exist? Can someone really be a bully without realising it? How do we as their victims recognise them as different to those who intentionally hurt us?
Most autistic people, possibly all of us, have encountered at least one unintentional bully in our lives– people who have browbeaten us, insulted us, disadvantaged us, and caused psychological or even physical harm. They left indelible marks on our lives, yet they had no intention of doing so. Not in the way they actually did at least. The harm they did was the result of misguided attempts to do good.
For many of us, our most significant unintentional bullies are our parents. Those diagnosed after the spectrum was accepted by the establishment in the 1990s know of the tragedy narrative. They have a personal perspective on the bleak future dictated to them by the powers that be. The prospects of unemployment, no friends, no marriage, poor educational outcomes, lifelong parental dependence, ill health, poverty, and shortened life span loom overhead. Predictions vary but share a common theme of hopelessness.
Parents faced with this will inevitably feel disheartened and wish to fight back, but they lack a well defined and constructive direction to aim their efforts. If they follow the establishment lead they may think in terms of therapy, medication, or special education programmes. If we’re particularly unlucky they may fall into the path of quack cures and charlatans. They may also ignore all outside influences and rely on “common sense” to guide their hands.
The shared thread that runs through most of those approaches is that they are “well meaning”. The parents don’t embark on such actions with the intent to do harm. The results may be a different matter, but by taking action they are demonstrating unequivocally that they care about their child’s future. How it is received might be a different matter.
Educators are another common form of unintentional bully we encounter in childhood. Although there has been significant progress towards autism awareness in recent years, autism acceptance still lags behind by some distance. Whilst there is training about autism for teachers, it is seldom enough and may rely on out-of-date information.
An informal survey of educators conducted recently by Pete Wharmby (himself an autistic teacher) made the paucity of autism training for teachers abundantly clear. Most had not had any training in the last year, some very little training EVER and barely any involving an autistic adult as trainer. The results are linked below.
Many unintentional bullies are in positions of authority or responsibility. Whilst parents and teachers are most obvious, the list includes doctors, nurses, and law enforcement. Add to that youth group leaders, clergy of all faiths, government officials, and in adulthood, our employers. All have a responsibility to treat us appropriately, but unfortunately few have a clue where to start.
The knowledge many possess may come from the same sources as anyone you might stop in the street. The media, stories they hear through word of mouth, and possibly someone they might know of who somebody else said was autistic. In short, their knowledge of what makes an autistic person different or how they might need to adjust their communication is unlikely to be very broad.
All they have left is guesswork since they don’t know how to treat us properly. They become unintentional bullies because they guess wrong. They don’t WANT to hurt; quite the opposite, but hurt they do, nonetheless.
Their mistakes stem from not knowing how to communicate with us. People make assumptions based on how they would interact with non-autistic people or conversely they may infantilise us. Their limited understanding might include harmful stereotypes that have been long disproved but still persist on the internet. Unless they are properly taught about our differences and how to communicate with us, there will inevitably be misunderstandings.
Ignorance is a reason, but not an excuse
I’ve had extensive personal experience of unintentional bullies in my life. They had an excuse back in the 1980s when I was first diagnosed. Ignorance was their reason and since information about autism and Asperger’s was next to impossible to find, it was understandable.
That doesn’t mean it hurt me any less, but the adult I now am can look back and be objective about my past traumas. My teachers hadn’t a clue how they might need to treat me differently, so they just did what they did with other “wayward” kids – only more so. They subjected me to ever harsher discipline & exclusion. They badgered me to take part in silly group activities and suppressed both my need to stim and my thirst for learning.
My family did the same. They’d been told for years that I was some kind of prodigy. I was described as “gifted” and a glorious red carpet embroidered with my supposed future achievements was laid before them. My lack of integration into the secondary school system saw those predictions unravelling in no time.
They backed the school up in everything they tried. When my diagnosis was delivered, they simply stepped up the pace and the pressure. The only reason they could fathom why such a bright kid as I might not be performing as expected must be laziness or lack of focus.
They thought that strict discipline and removal of distractions like stimming or special interests would “do some good.” I protested over and again, but it fell on unsympathetic ears. In their minds there was nothing else to do because there was nobody, other than me, telling them different.
I can allow some leeway for the unintentional bullies of my own childhood. Their ignorance was a symptom of the times. By the time the autism spectrum was formally recognised, I was an adult and in the job market.
The intervening years were filled with tentative diagnoses of people like me, and it was those early cases that paved the way for the spectrum to be acknowledged. We may not have pioneered understanding of the spectrum ourselves, but we were certainly passengers on the same metaphorical train.
We cannot make such allowances now that we’re a couple of decades into the 21st century. Whilst there is much still to be learned by the establishment about autistic people, there is plenty already known and freely available.
On top of the formal guidelines, the diagnostic manuals and the equalities legislation, there are thousands like me– autistic adults with a voice, a decent understanding of our differences, and the desire to see others like us treated fairly. We give our knowledge willingly and openly.
There is no excuse in claiming ignorance any more. That escape route from blame has been closed forever.
The distinction that separates an unintentional bully from those described in the video below is that their actions do harm, but they are carried out with good intent. They usually think that they are acting in our best interests. All that changes once they have been made aware of the consequences of their actions.
Ignorance is not an excuse forever. With information so freely available, if you carry on with harmful behaviour even after it has been protested, then you are just a bully. Nothing more. An intentional, malicious individual who puts their own needs above those of their victims.
In my life, the most significant unintentional bully was my father. He caused no end of pain, both physical and emotional, in his efforts to change me. I can’t blame him for not knowing how much harm he was doing, even though I spent my whole life telling him.
He thought I was lazy, antisocial, and contrarian– even after diagnosis. His refusal to even believe the diagnosis itself and insistence it was wrong, even when it was confirmed a couple of decades later, hurt deeply.
He criticised and cajoled, pushed and punished me throughout my young life. My behaviour was seen as “unhealthy” based on values that most people had abandoned in the 1950s.
“Don’t play with Lego, go out and play football in the streets. Put that stupid sci-fi book down and make some friends. Stop talking to people so formally – be friendly. Stop crying over those horrible things people said to you – it’s banter – it’s how boys talk!” and so on.
One year he spent hours arguing that I should have a radio instead of the cassette player I wanted for Christmas. On a radio, I’d hear different music all the time but on a cassette player I’d only have the few tapes I could afford or got as gifts.
After that he got angry because I would play the same tape – the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back – over and over. He wouldn’t believe that it was all I wanted to listen to.
Worst of all, he would never believe me. I was only ever candid and honest, but he couldn’t accept it. He would always read between non-existent lines to find a hidden agenda or a crooked scheme afoot. He was incapable of understanding that someone could be 100% honest and true, never telling a lie.
Not long ago, something happened, though. He reached a turning point in his life. His health had been failing for several years, and he found himself the victim of lies and betrayal from other family members. Those he had described as “normal” and the example I should follow had not only turned their back on him, but had cruelly defrauded him, stealing from him for years.
Thousands upon thousands of pounds lost. I had warned him of their ill intent for decades, but he had insisted I was trying to score points. He’d say I was jealous that they were popular while I was a loner. He still thought I had a hidden agenda, despite a lifetime of honesty and candour.
I tried to help him when he was down. It was me – the “lazy, antisocial, unemotional one” who was there when he needed someone to take the reins. After years of criticism for lacking overt demonstrations of affection and (faked) loyalty, I was the only one who did the decent thing, the human thing. I gave my time & energy to regaining what was stolen from him so he could live in peace and safety.
Then one day in the midst of all this he said,
“Quinn…. I’m sorry.”
It was the first apology I heard from him in nearly fifty years.
“I’ve been thinking over the past…all that I said and did to you when you were younger…”
He listed events from the past five decades. Times he’d doubted me, times he’d punished me for my sibling’s misdemeanours, the ways he’d ignored my attempts to show affection because they didn’t fit the mould he expected…
“I’m sorry, and I was wrong. I know that now. You deserved better…”
Is it possible for a bully to redeem themselves? That depends largely on the extent of the pain they caused and their willingness to make reparations. Someone who knowingly caused others pain for personal gain or worse, for amusement, may never be able to atone for their wrongdoings.
It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. One doesn’t need to be religious or fear the judgement of a wrathful god to know right from wrong or to have a conscience – even if that conscience takes a long time to surface. Some damage can never be overcome or forgiven, but kindness can help restore the balance.
For the unintentional bully it’s less cut and dry. They did not intend to hurt, so in a manner of speaking, the pain they caused was in innocence. Is there redemption for them? Perhaps if they apologise with full conviction and without qualification.
When they make it clear they know what they did caused unnecessary pain and don’t attempt to justify it. If they can accept that you know they acted only because they thought it was the right thing, without reminding you as they apologise. When they honestly demonstrate they have turned a corner and are now ready to listen and take your lead… Is it then possible to forgive them?
I know it is.
Because I forgave my father.
Below is the Autistamatic Report on Bullies & Autism.
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