Bullying is a behaviour pattern that anyone can fall in to without realising it, usually because they are feeling insecure about themselves. A person who bullies might as well hang a giant neon sign over there head that says ‘I HAVE SERIOUS PERSONAL ISSUES’. Making other people feel bad or look bad satisfies an emotional need that they have. I have a limited amount of sympathy for bullies. Of course, everybody probably does something at some point in their life that could be described as bullying, and a lot of it could be unintentional or at least deeply regretted, but there are some people, serial bullies, who either refuse to accept that their behaviour is unacceptable or who know the harm they do and like it. Bullying for them is a working solution to their emotional problems, so they never bother to seek one else where.
Some people like this bully everyone they meet in almost every context so they are easy to spot, but the majority are perfectly nice and normal toward almost everybody, but they single out a specific person or small group of people as targets, sometimes subconsciously based on emotional criteria, and sometimes consciously using social criteria.
Emotional criteria would be characteristics about a person that make them emotionally rewarding to bully:
Social criteria would be characteristics about a person that make them ‘safe’ to bully:
As I’m sure it is clear, people with Asperger’s Syndrome are potentially very easy targets. Not conforming, high intelligence, social independence, and/or appearing weird mark us out as victims, and our naiveté and sensitivity make us particularly good sport for the cruel and vicious.
What is worse, we are the least able to defend ourselves or get help. Bullying is a very complicated social game and teachers, employers and authority figures are not immune to its rules. In my experience and in what I have heard of the experiences of others, one obstacle for people with Asperger’s syndrome is that asking for help is an even more difficult and potentially dangerous social ritual than handling the bullies alone is. Until this is addressed, no amount of anti-bullying policy will truly protect people like us to the extent it should.
We have different values, perceptions, and reactions, to what people often expect and consider appropriate. We may be accused of overreacting or trying to get attention. If something someone is doing confuses, hurts, or upsets you and they are doing it even though they know it confuses, hurts or upsets you, then that is an issue, regardless of how people think you should or should not react.
The other thing about AS is that imagining what is going on in other people’s minds, their motivations and intentions, isn’t always easy. When I was a kid I believed all the nasty things the bullies said because I couldn’t imagine any reason they might have for not being honest. I couldn’t imagine their emotional needs. I thought I was to blame, I thought I deserved it, and I grew up hating myself.
Even as an adult I have been a target of bullying… I get singled out over and over and over again because I am both a safe person to bully and an emotionally rewarding person to bully. I can’t do anything about either of those things because that is just the person I am. However, you might be a sweet target and you might not be able to hide the fact that you are a sweet target, but you can make sure that when they get their teeth in to you that you taste like a lemon. If someone gets in the habit of bullying of you, you might not be able to stop them doing it, but you might be able to make it as un-rewarding for them as possible…
As well as being potential targets of bullying, people with AS can also sometimes be mistaken for bullies. I say mistaken, because bullying is a social/emotional activity and I find it hard to see how anyone who genuinely had AS could be motivated in that way. However, people with AS can seem tactless, insensitive, bossy, and pompous to some people, and if this makes them feel bullied then it is just as important to do something about it as it would be if it were bullying. Avoiding misunderstandings like this is a two way thing… people with AS can try their best to learn how to effectively interact with other people in a way they will find acceptable and other people can do their best to understand why people with AS are like we are and that we don’t have the same hidden motivations that most people do.
On a final note, I get e-mail from time to time about bullying, and from what some people have told me, if a kid with Asperger’s syndrome is bullied and teased and they complain about it, it is taken less seriously than if a neurotypical child does because people blame the Asperger’s syndrome for being the cause of the bullying and the cause of the child’s reaction… the bullies themselves are seen to be just behaving like normal children and get away with it. You can’t really ever stop kids from being nasty and you can’t protect kids from each other all the time, but for goodness sake… take their feelings seriously. I really do think that would make a big difference… it would have done for me.