Anyone can become a victim of bullying, but it does seem that a disproportionate number of autistic people experience bullying at some point in their life. There are a number of reasons for this, and most of them are to do with the psychology of the person doing the bullying. There is something about autistic people that makes them appear to be `good victims` in the eyes of a potential bully. Probably the simplest way to illustrate this point is to list a few of the key issues below so that you can get some idea of what I am talking about.
- Autistic people tend to stand out from the crowd – one of the fundamental principles of autism is that if you have it you are not like everybody else around you. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and you don’t even have to be completely different from everybody, but the fact is most bullies will pick on somebody who is even slightly different. This could be somebody who is fatter or thinner, or taller or shorter than average. If somebody has autism they might communicate differently from those around them, or behave differently. It might be something as simple as dressing in a particular way, for example, somebody I knew would wear a suit every day. Or it might be talking in a formal manner in informal situations. The fact that somebody is looking for a victim means that even the slightest difference will make a person with autism eligible for bullying.
- Autistic people may not have as big a circle of friends to stand up for them as other people do – what I feel I have to make clear with this point is that I am not talking about everybody here – I am just using what I have been told by a lot of autistic people who have been bullied to make these points – it won’t be true for everybody. But what some autistic people report is that as they struggle to make friends in school or the workplace, they are singled out within days of arriving somewhere as being that one person who hasn’t made friends yet; therefore if the bully is looking for a victim they won’t be looking for a group, but a mere individual. This is the beginning of a vicious cycle. Because they couldn’t make friends quickly enough they became known as that friendless person who gets bullied – and who wants to be friends with that person? Apparently no one, meaning that they are even more likely to experience further bullying. Of course people should be able to go in to a certain situation and make friend s in their own time and their own way, but unfortunately it seems that a lot of schools and workplaces have social structures almost like prisons; if you are in a group you are much more likely to have people watching out for you, whereas if you are on your own you are much more likely to fall victim to bullying. It should also be pointed out that people who do have good friends can also be bullied, but the majority of bullies will look for the easiest possible target.
- A lot of people with autism are not able to read body language or other social cues, so it can be hard for them to read other people`s intentions – this obviously makes them much more vulnerable if somebody is planning to do something to them – perhaps luring them away to somewhere more secluded so they can be beaten up, or manipulating them in to doing something embarrassing, or illegal. The person doing this might not even be that intelligent or good at disguising what their intentions are, and it may be evident to everybody else in the room – but if it goes completely over the person with autism`s head, then they instantly become a much more inviting target for anybody intending to bully. People with autism may underestimate the severity of what another person is planning. It is also possible that they may be manipulated in to thinking that the bully is their friend. The cues that something is not right when they are being lured in to a certain situation: certain looks, laughs or remarks, may be completely missed. This allows bullies to be able to manipulate autistic people in a way they couldn’t do with neuro-typical people.
- Autistic people also tend to take things literally – this connects to the point above in that it makes them easier to manipulate – But what it also does is lend extra power to the words of the bullies – this comes in two ways: if somebody says `I`m going to kill you` most people assume it means they are going to get beaten up. Now this isn’t pleasant in itself, but if the person with autism genuinely believe what people say to them, and they have to go in to school the next day thinking someone intends to kill them, then the toll that would take on somebody’s physical and mental health must be extreme. To have the pressure of believing every single threat that is given by a group of bullies would put incredible stress on to an individual. The person’s family, and their life may be threatened daily. This might have the added complication of stopping the individual telling somebody about the bullying. It would also make the experience even scarier for the autistic individual. The other way that taking things literally can make things more difficult is when it comes to on-line bullying; threats and verbal abuse are an unfortunately common part of people’s on-line experience. But most people know that in reality the people at the other end of it do it for their own pleasure, and probably don’t feel one way or the other about the people they are sending these messages to; if the bully hadn’t come across that particular autistic individual then the messages would be sent to someone else. I am not trying to say that this makes it easier for the victim, so imagine believing that every random insult thrown up by someone on-line was sent with genuine hate to you personally, then is it any wonder that some people begin to believe these insults and threats, and feel worthless or scared?
- Sometimes, because autistic people struggle to understand how to fit in socially, they may do anything they feel is necessary to attempt to fit-in with their peers –Unfortunately this makes them incredibly vulnerable to those who simply want to tease them. In their mind they might be part of a group and they are all having fun together, but in reality they are just the butt of the jokes. This obviously isn’t the case in all friendships autistic people make, it is just something that can sometimes happen with a bully, or a group of bullies. Because that desire to fit in can be so strong the autistic person may know that what they are being asked to do is wrong or embarrassing, but they may do it any way rather than go back to being ignored. Now unfortunately this can happen with any type of social out-cast, whether they are autistic or not. It is also possible that the autistic person may not know that they are doing something wrong or illegal, and also that they are not trying to fit-in because they want to make friends, but trying to fit-in just to stop the bullying.
- Autistic people often give a better, more rewarding, reaction when bullied – now bullies like to hurt and manipulate people – this isn’t to say that they will be bad people all their lives, but in that moment they are causing physical and psychological pain to another human being – some do this because they enjoy the power it gives them over someone else, but most do it to see what reaction they can get from another person. Somebody who is autistic may obviously be provoked to the point of a meltdown –which is just about the biggest reaction a bully can get. They may wind the person up in subtle ways that will lead to the autistic person having an outburst, and being perceived as the bad-guy themselves. The reason a lot of bullies, or former bullies give as to why they hurt people to provoke a reaction is that they were bored. This doesn’t have any weight to it though, as there is really no reason to be bored in today`s society – the internet and mobile phones give us everything we could ever want at our fingertips, and yet some people choose to use this to bully. People who engage in provoking these kind of reactions do so for their own enjoyment, and unfortunately autistic people often provide the best reactions.
- Autistic people can struggle to ask for help with a problem because of their communication skills – maybe they physically can’t ask or tell because of an inability to speak? Maybe they are too scared and anxious to make an attempt at telling a teacher, co-worker or parent about what has been going on for them? Maybe they believe the threats of the bullies, and don’t speak-up for this reason? Whatever the reason is, autistic people can find themselves suffering in silence at any stage of their life. People say tell a teacher or a parent, as if that solves everything – that`s fine but if you don’t know how to tell somebody, if you don’t have the confidence to approach somebody, if the idea of going up to someone and starting a conversation like this is almost as scary as being bullied, then what are you to do? I am not offering solutions here, but perhaps it is better if the parents and teachers try to notice the problem themselves, and look out for it? It is really important that somebody else knows what is going on and supports the person who is being bullied.
The above are just a few points that occurred to me when I began to think about why autistic people are more likely to be the victims of bullies. I suppose what I did was put myself in to the shoes of a bully, and ask myself if I wanted to hurt somebody and get away with it, what type of person would I target, and why? There may be other reasons, and not everybody who is autistic will be a target for bullying during their life. I hope that the points I made above make some kind of sense to you. I am sure I didn’t cover them all, and if any others do occur to you please comment below, and let me know what they are. I also don’t mean to suggest in this article that only autistic people will be bullied, as bullying is a problem that can affect anyone in society.
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