Confessions of a Mean Girl

Here’s something you probably won’t hear a lot of aspies say: I was a bully.

Being teased and bullied is a painful reality for many young (and some not so young) people with autism. So it’s no surprise that I was teased and bullied as a kid.

Just a few of the many humiliating experiences I remember from childhood:  In first grade, I offered to share my kickball with the kids in my neighborhood and they promptly gave it to the German Shepherd who lived across the street and laughed when ripped it apart. A few years later, the kids at the swim club flushed my favorite t-shirt down the toilet. It had my name on the back in sparkly letters so when it was fished out of the clogged plumbing everyone knew exactly who it belonged to. In sixth grade, the biggest smelliest boy in the class trapped me in the coat room and kissed me.

Each time, I took what the bullies doled out and told no one. Like a lot of kids who are bullied, I assumed that I had done something to bring it on myself. If it was my fault, I figured it was up to me to fix it.

My solution: becoming a bully. It didn’t happen overnight and it certainly wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided that from now I’m going to torment other kids. It wasn’t fun or gratifying.

It was an act of self-preservation.

When you’re an aspie, especially an undiagnosed aspie left to fend for yourself, school takes on a survivalist aspect. You’re the antelope and the bullies are a pack of hungry lions. That may sound drastic, but when you’re a kid who has little idea how social group dynamics work, it’s easy to feel like the whole world is out to get you.

For years I put up with the bullying because I didn’t know how to stop it. It never occurred to me to tell an adult or ask for help. Aspies aren’t very good at asking for help. On top of that, I was a little perfectionist and keeping quiet seemed easier than calling attention to my failure to stop the bullies. Because that’s what it felt like to me: a failure. When I looked around, I saw lots of kids who weren’t getting bullied. I didn’t know what magical attribute allowed them to skate through life without being tormented. I knew I didn’t have that ability and I blamed myself for not knowing how to get it.

So I kept trying to figure it out and the bullying continued, on and off, through elementary school. I had a small group of friends in school, which granted me some immunity, but the playground, the bus stop, the walk home from school and playing in my neighborhood were often sources of outright terror.

After that big stinky boy kissed me in sixth grade, he told some other boys that he was going to make me his girlfriend. When one of the boys ominously repeated this to me, I had no idea what it meant. It definitely sounded bad from the way he said it. I could tell by the way he laughed at my stuttering response that he enjoyed seeing how scared and confused I was.

For the rest of the school year, I made sure that I never went in the coat room alone. I waited–often hiding out in the girl’s bathroom–until I was certain the stinky boy had left to walk home before I left to walk along the same route. I constantly watched my back and spent that whole spring living in fear. The school year ended uneventfully and looking back, I think he forgot all about his idea of making me his girlfriend. But at the time, it felt like a very real and scary threat.

At some point during that year, I started to realize that there was an alternative to being afraid all the time. Or maybe being afraid all the time made me desperate. Whatever the cause, one day, when one of the mean girls in the neighborhood said something nasty to me, I said something nasty right back.

It felt good. Maybe too good. That’s how a bully is born.

Soon, instead of just saying mean stuff back to the kids who teased me, I was the one doing the teasing. I developed strange “friendships” with other girls that involved getting along one day and cutting each other to shreds with insults the next. Soon, all of my friends were other mean girls.

When we got bored with harassing each other, we went looking for easy targets. If you’ve ever wondered how a bully recognizes an easy target, I’ll let you in on the secret. She looks for the kids who are just like she used to be. Kids who are loners and outcasts, afraid to fight back, too shy to stick up for themselves. Kids who stand out because of their looks. Kids who don’t have allies to defend them.

It’s easy to spot a victim when you’ve been one yourself.

Within the first few weeks of seventh grade, I found myself sitting across the principal, a grave looking old nun who told me that if I didn’t shape up, I’d be kicked out of school. I was shocked. Didn’t she know I was a good girl? My self-concept hadn’t quite caught up with my behavior. In my mind I was still the shy little brainiac who got picked on all the time.

The principal also told me that every time I pointed one finger at someone else, I was pointing three fingers back at myself. I found this fascinating from a kinesiological point of view but had no idea that she was making a metaphorical point. Kids with Asperger’s don’t do metaphor.

What I did learn that day was not to pick on kids in my grade who had older cousins that would go to the principal. We aspies are nothing if not quick adapters.

Seventh and eighth grades turned out to be one long battle. I was constantly involved in arguments and confrontations. I ruthlessly made fun of weaker kids. If someone else was the butt of the joke, I made sure I was seen laughing at them. I had become a mean girl.

Why? If I knew how painful it was to be bullied and teased, why was I inflicting it on other kids? I’m not sure I could have explained it at the time.. As an adult, I can look back and see that if I got everyone to laugh at another ‘weird’ kid, they weren’t laughing at me. If I made another ‘dorky’ kid the center of attention, for a few minutes I was free from worrying about what everyone was thinking about me.

I’d like to say something happened to make me realize how hurtful my behavior was or some wise adult took me aside and set me straight, but my life as a bully ended more gradually. As time went by, being mean felt less and less good. I started to hate the mean girl I’d become. Being mean became painful and exhausting.

I grew up. In high school, I found interests I could pursue together with people who didn’t tease me. The other mean girls drifted away one by one. I had fewer friends, just one close friend, but I wasn’t so afraid. I no longer needed to wrap myself in the armor of bullying to get through the school day or walk through my neighborhood.

Am I making excuses for my behavior? No. I was a mean girl and maybe the best thing that old nun could have done was to kick me out of seventh grade. That would have been a wake-up call at least. Instead I drifted through three more years of tormenting other kids.

Am I blaming Asperger’s Syndrome for my bullying behavior? No. I was smart enough to know that what I was doing was bad, even if my AS prevented me from grasping all of the ramifications.

Am I sorry? Of course I am.

I’m sorry that I made life miserable for other kids who were just doing their best to get through the day. I’m sorry that no one ever stepped in and stopped me. I’m sorry that I didn’t know I had other options.

If you’ve read this far hoping that I’m going to provide you with a solution to bullying, well, I’m sorry that thirty years on I still have no real answers.

All I have is one aspie girl’s experience–a glimpse of what it’s like to be both the bully and the victim.

When All You Can Draw is a Blank

Right before starting my freshman year in high school, I spent a week visiting my college-age cousin in Brooklyn. It all felt very grown-up, with her living in the studio apartment she shared with a roommate and me on my first extended trip away from home.

She was my favorite cousin–someone I thought was smart and cool and funny–and I assumed she’d have all sorts of exciting things planned for us. Once I got settled in, she asked me, “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” I had no idea. The city seemed impossibly big and, being from the suburbs of Connecticut, I couldn’t imagine what city people did.

She looked disappointed at my answer and that made me a little annoyed. She lived here. Shouldn’t she have a plan? What kind of person invites someone for a week-long visit with no plan?

“What kind of things are there to do?”

She looked at me like what kind of person doesn’t know what there is to do in New York?

We went for a walk around her neighborhood, then we went to paint a room in the brownstone owned by her boyfriend’s medical school professor. The professor was on vacation so we got to cook out in his miniature garden after we’d finished painting.

Throughout the day, the what do you want to do conversation came up a few more times, and each time I could tell she was growing more frustrated, while I grew more panicked.

I truly had no idea what I wanted to do. She couldn’t believe this was possible.

I couldn’t even come up with the simplest suggestion like ‘I want a cheeseburger’ or ‘I want to see the Empire State Building.’ Every time she asked what I wanted to do, my mind went completely blank and then flooded with panicked variations of what’s wrong with me?

Because she–and now her boyfriend and roommate–obviously expected me to know what I wanted to do.

Finally, as we were finishing up dinner at the professor’s brownstone, my cousin handed me the current edition of The New Yorker. “Here,” she said, “look through the events in the front and find something you want to do this week.”

“Like what?” I asked, still not getting it.

“Anything,” she replied.

I flipped through the pages, reading the listings for movies and art shows. Choosing still seemed impossible, even now that I had a finite list to pick from. Comparing each option with all the others was overwhelming, and what if I picked the wrong thing and they thought I was weird? I’d learned by then that I had weird interests for my age and gender.

I eventually put the magazine down and the three of them looked at me expectantly. “What do you guys want to do?” I asked.

“Do you like comedy?” my cousin’s roommate asked.

“Yes!” Yes, I did. I loved sitcoms and stand-up comics. In fact, before my cousin moved away, we used to spend hours in her room listening to her Steve Martin albums.

“Why didn’t you say so?” the roommate asked.

Because even though I like comedy and it was a favorite way to spend time with my cousin, it just didn’t occur to me. For an aspie, this is a familiar occurrence. It happens when someone asks me what I want to eat or what my favorite color is or where I want to go on vacation. In my head, these questions have an infinite number of possible answers and I don’t know how to begin narrowing the possibilities down.

The same is true if someone hands me a piece of paper and says “draw something.” My immediate reaction is “but what?” I’m an avid writer, but I never sit down at the computer unless I have a firm idea of what I want to write. To open a blank document with no idea of where I plan to start writing is unthinkable. It terrifies me and would be completely unproductive. I’d be better off taking a nap because at least then I wouldn’t be beating myself up over how bad I am at coming up with spontaneously creative ideas.

“Just think” is a common phrase of encouragement when someone draws a blank. But for aspies, the harder we try, the more elusive the answer becomes. The biggest problem is that when I “just think” in those situations, I’m devoting 90% of my thoughts and energy to the fact that I can’t think of an answer and how stupid that must be making me look.

I there’s a relatively straightforward explanation for why aspies have difficulty with things like deciding what to order off a menu at a new restaurant. The thought process involved in these types of decisions requires us to apply emotional discrimination to arrive at a choice.

For example, in choosing what I want from a menu, I’ll first eliminate the things I don’t like. Then I have to decide what I’m in the mood for. Pasta or soup? A burger or a salad? This usually involves considering what I’ve had for other meals that day or even in recent days, because I like to balance my meals.

It also takes into consideration what the other people at the table are having. I don’t like to order the same thing as anyone else. If possible I’d like my entree to be complementary to my husband’s so we can share. If he gets steak, I’ll get a vegetarian dish or seafood. Finally, I’ll factor in what the restaurant specializes in, giving those dishes more weight based on the reasoning that a steakhouse isn’t going to have good fish (which is probably faulty logic in many cases).

This process of elimination usually leaves me with a few choices, any of which I’d be perfectly happy eating. I could ask the waitress to bring any one of my “finalists” and whichever showed up, I’d be content with it. But restaurants don’t work like that, so I often end up choosing at random. The waitress is standing by the table and everyone else has ordered and I’ll simply pick the choice I was thinking about last or the one my eyes happen to fall on when I look back at the menu.

At restaurants that I’ve visited more than a few times, I don’t have this problem. I order the same thing every time. Olive Garden? Spaghetti and meatballs. Cleopatra’s? The al meriam plate. Rooftop Pizza? The number 6 pizza with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.

A lot of aspies have food sensitivities, which lead to eating a limited range of foods. But for others–those of us with few or no issues about with what type of foods we can eat– the tendency to eat the same thing over and over may have something to do with how hard it is to choose, how much work we have to put into identifying what we like and want at any given moment.

As an adult I’ve learned some strategies that make me look less clueless. If I’m visiting someone’s house and they ask me what I want to drink, I’ve learned to ask, “What do you have?” This has the dual benefit of narrowing down my choices and giving me a few extra seconds to process the choice I’m going to have to make. Same thing with “what do you want to do?” The easiest reply is “what are you in the mood for?” or “what’s fun to do on a Saturday night around here?” NTs have lots of preferences, often strong ones, and are generally happy to lead.

I’m not suggesting that aspies need to be wishy-washy followers, but when you have trouble making choices, a little help from NT friends or relatives helps shorten the list of possibilities and take away those long terrifying moments of your brain chanting I don’t know over and over again.

How did the rest of that vacation go? My cousin and her friends took me to an improv show in a dark little basement comedy club the next night and I loved it. We went to the Museum of Natural History (I fantasized about living in a museum a kid), a street market, an old art film, and an erotic bakery. Her roommate let me help her conduct a phone survey for her sociology class, counting to every tenth name in a random section of the phonebook and dialing the numbers for her. My cousin’s boyfriend took me to spend a day at the psychiatric facility at Bellevue Hospital where he was studying as part of his medical school work at NYU. His professor (whose house we had painted) showed me the film “Everybody Rides the Carousel” about Erik Erikson’s eight stages of life.

Then I got a tour of the massive medical library and the human dissection lab which had actual corpses in various stages of dissection. There was even a cross-section of a penis in a jar, which was morbidly fascinating for a teenage girl. For an entire week, nobody looked at me like I was a weirdo for enjoying picking names out of a phone book or staring into the chest cavity of a corpse or being fascinated by Erik Erikson. It was one of the best weeks of my teenage years.

And a post-postscript: When I searched for “Everybody Rides the Carousel” I found this clip and was reminded about why I was so fascinated by the film. It has a certain nonlinear, demented quality to it that I still find hard to unravel.

Literally Speaking: I Just Need a New Pair of Shoes

This weekend I decided to buy new running shoes. Normally I go to a store like Kohl’s where I can just pull the boxes off the shelf and try on as many pairs as I want and stare at the choices for endless minutes without the distraction of a salesperson wanting to chat me up.

But I’m living in a new city–one without a Kohl’s nearby (yes, change is hard)–so off to the mall I went. After some bitching and moaning about not finding exactly what I wanted in the few stores I grudgingly walked through (it’s not like Kohl’s! everything’s different!), I discovered that Under Armour sells running shoes. I always wear Nikes but in the spirit of being less rigid, I decided to try something new.

The first pair of shoes I tried on weren’t right but I was determined to give this trying-something-new experiment a fair chance. I was studying the other choices when the salesdude came over to see if I wanted to try another pair.

salesdude: Did those not feel good?
me: They felt too stiff.
salesdude: What are you looking to do?
me: [slight pause while I try to process this apparent non sequitur then give up and go with the obvious] Buy shoes?
[nervous laughter: salesdude because he’s not sure if I’m joking, me because I know by his reaction that I’ve missed something obvious]
salesdude: I mean, like, are you going to use them for crosstraining, running–
me: Yes! Running! [and off I went on a dissertation about what I like in a running shoe]

The pause, the uncertain answer, the literal interpretation of an unexpected, off-script question–these are things that unmask me to strangers. One minute I’m the average customer and the next I’m the oddball who can’t answer a simple question and cares a little too much about how the soles of her running shoes are constructed.

But overall, in spite of the mall-induced crankiness, the shopping was a success because I got a new pair of these and I love them:

That’s What Love Is. Thoughts . . .

Are aspies capable of love? Maybe it depends on how you look at it . . .

In the reimagined version of TV series Battlestar Galactica (yes, I’m a geek), two of the main characters have the following conversation:

Adama: Did you love her?
Tyrol: Thought I did.
Adama: Well, when you think you love somebody, you love them. That’s what love is. Thoughts…

If love is thoughts, then it’s the expression of those thoughts that separates aspies from neurotypical people. Aspies tend to express love through practical actions, whereas NTs are more likely to express love through words or symbolic actions.

What do I mean by practical versus symbolic actions? In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Dr. Tony Attwood tells a story about a diagnostic interview question that he uses with young children. He asks the child what she would do if she came home to find that her mother was standing in the kitchen crying.

Neurotypical children will suggest solutions like giving their mother a hug (symbolic action) or asking her what’s wrong (love as words). Children with Asperger’s will suggest solutions like leaving her alone (being left alone is comforting for aspies) or bringing her a box of tissues (practical action).  Continue reading That’s What Love Is. Thoughts . . .