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.