Ten anti-skills I learned from being bullied

So, there’s a thing out there causing a shitstorm.

I need to write about it. Need to.

  1. How to smile as your insides scream and you bite the inside of your cheek bloody to keep from running out the door. Bullied kid meant scared kid. Always, always scared. Always. Still, as an adult, always scared. Often a few heartbeats away from running screaming out the room. Only thing keeping it in check? Bigger fear of what will happen if I do. But can’t show you’re scared – bullies are to fear what sharks are to blood. So smile, smile, smile. And if nice fails, act tough and apathetic. Maybe you’ll even fool yourself. And then it’s your fault when adults around you refuse to see what’s happening. “You should be an actor, you’re so good at pretending nothing’s wrong!” they’ll say, as if it’s a compliment. As if they didn’t make you learn to pretend nothing’s wrong. As if it’s your fault you had to learn that skill to survive. As if it’s your fault they refuse to see past the facade they forced on you in the first place.
  2. How to shut down and lose words to avoid screaming exactly what you think about someone at them… because if you do, then you’ll get the shit kicked out of you, and then the school will suspend you for instigating, and then you’ll go home and catch hell from your parents, too, and then they’ll all wonder why you throw up at the thought of going back, and make fun of how school isn’t anything to cry over.
  3. How to accept bad advice with a smile and an I’ll try that next time. How to try something you know won’t work just to satisfy someone who’s convinced it will.
  4. How to restrain yourself from blowing up at them when they tell you that you’re just not trying hard enough, and maybe you just want the attention. How to hurt yourself to prevent yourself from hurting someone else.
  5. How to find a place where you can fall apart safely.
  6. How to hate yourself, your life, the world and everyone and everything in it. But mostly yourself. How to use that hate to power you, how to make hate into a lifeline which keeps you from drowning.
  7. How to bury your emotion in a superhuman workload. Can’t feel if I’m too exhausted to think. Stab of adrenaline just lets me finish the next assignment or shift.
  8. How to act happy when all that is going on in your brain… because anything less is “letting them win” and “being a coward” and “being selfish” and not being resilient enough. Also how to know deep in your hear that the happy mask is walking a tight rope made of knives in a heavy crosswind, if you slip, you fall, and if you don’t, you bleed. And spectators will call it your fault whichever way it turns out.
  9. To not trust anyone. Ever. To assume malice before incompetence, because a pattern of willful incompetence often hides malice, and because people who have a vested interest in not having to do anything would have you believe that ten people who have a combined work experience of more than twice your grandmother’s age are all so staggeringly incompetent that they can’t see a kid getting beaten up right in front of them. Because nobody is that incompetent. Because often the ones bending themselves into pretzels to excuse malice as “innocent” incompetence are the most malevolent.
  10. To isolate before you can be isolated. Because if it’s self-imposed it doesn’t hurt as bad. Because you can’t be betrayed by stuffed animals and books and the walls of an empty room.

Tell me, O Great and All Knowing ABA Person: Where is the “perks” in this? Tell me.

Maybe one of your “perks” can make my brain stop screaming. No?

I didn’t think so.

Presuming competence goes both ways

Hat tip to Michael Scott Monje Jr for writing the line that led me to this train of thought.

The title sentence is something that’s been ringing in my head ever since I first read the linked poem, and it was hard at first to find the right words to explain why. But now I think I have.

Autistic and disabled people in general do others a grave disservice when we assume they’re ignorant in spite of evidence to the contrary. We do them the same disservice we protest against when it’s done to us. We presume them incompetent. We presume others incompetent of knowing and meaning what they say.

It’s wrong of us to do that. And we hurt ourselves to do that. By educating a brick wall over and over and over again, we waste our own time, energy and spoons. Those of us with PTSD have triggered flashbacks in themselves. People with mental and chronic illnesses have triggered flareups. Others, myself included, have triggered meltdowns.

We need to stop.

We need to accept that someone might know that what they say is harmful, know that it’s hurtful, know that it’s wrong, and not care. We need to accept that someone might know the full impact of what they’re saying, and mean it. We need to presume that others are competent to form harmful, bigoted opinions and to act on them in bullying and abusive ways. Even if they are otherwise seemingly-nice people.

We need to presume competence. We need to presume that others are capable of educating themselves, capable of thoughtful self-evaluation, and capable of changing.  And, as a corollary of the prior, we need to presume that if they do not after being given ample opportunity and in the absence of some reason why they can’t, it is not because they haven’t been educated enough, but rather because they choose not to.

I will no longer presume that people who act in abusive and bullying ways after being asked to stop have simply not been asked in the right way. I will have more respect for them than that. I will presume competence, and realize that they mean to hurt, they mean what they say, and they are choosing to behave that way. People can choose to be mean.

Presuming competence must go both ways.

Yet more counter-productive antibullying efforts.

So. Yeah. I’m sure those in the autistic community are well aware of this, but an autistic boy recently was humiliated in a very specific and degrading manner by bullies in his community. His parents then decided to compound the humiliation by going to the news and sharing the story – and the video of the incident – internationally.

Neurodivergent K already has a good take on this incident, and I direct you to her blog. The gist of her post is basically this: If you’re trying to counteract bullying, then for the love of all you hold dear in this world, don’t do what the bullies want.

In my post, I’m going to say: if you’re trying to counteract bullying, don’t amplify the bullying. By which I mean: This boy was already humiliated. He was already going to be the subject of gossip at the school for the next approximately until he graduates (judging from my experiences growing up). Then, his parents – assumably with he best intentions in the universe, wanting to raise awareness of bullying – share the video internationally.

Do you thing people in the region (they gave their region, by the way) are not going to talk? Holy flying hell in a handbasket, people. From experience in my school: I was humiliated in a very specific and very embarrassing way by some bullies as a kid. I will not detail the experience, but suffice to say it happened (in more than one way, actually – bullies are terrible people). One time, I made the mistake of telling an adult when they asked about some jokes kids were making. Then an assembly was called at school, and the principle lectured the entire school on how it’s not at all okay to do [very specific thing that happened to me] to another person.

If it was possible to melt into my seat or burst into flames on the spot, I would have. Instead, what had been an isolated incident of bullying where the bullies hadn’t told anyone because they were afraid they would get into trouble became the talk of the school. And my humiliation was compounded.

That’s what those parents did to that boy. Except, instead of it being just the school, they humiliated him in front of their entire community. People will talk. They’ll find out who and how and where and when. That’s what they do. And if his parents think he was dealing with bullying before this happened, it’s got nothing on the number of pranks that will be done to see exactly how gullible and bullyable he is in the coming months. His parents just gave the fucking green light to every single nasty prank anyone in his school thinks of, and they painted a hugeass target right on his back.

And they probably don’t realize it.

But that’s not through this being an impossible-to-anticipate consequence. Even though autistic people are supposedly the ones with empathy deficits, it’s because the parents are displaying an extraordinary lack of empathy for their son.

Parents, think of it this way: Think back to when you were a teenager. Think about something someone else did to you that you found very hurtful and humiliating. Think about that. If it’s not an incident of similar severity to what happened to this kid, amplify the humiliation accordingly. Now, ask yourself, “When I was a teenager, would I have wanted my parents to share this incident internationally?”

I am pretty much certain that the answer to that question is “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not in a million years. No.”

Parents, your kids have thoughts and emotions and feelings, and not just about what their bullies do to them. They also have thoughts and emotions and feelings about what you do to them. Think about how you would have felt as a teenager about your parents doing something to you, then decide whether you want to inflict those feelings on your kid. Think about whether or not you would’ve wanted something shared before you share it. Better yet, ask your kid’s permission before you share something concerning them. And let them have the final say. Because you’re not the one who has to live with the fallout. They are.

The Case Against Stupid

TW: Discussion of ableist language & bullying





“You’re S-T-U-P-E-D. Know what that means?”

“Stuped? It’s not a word.”

“Yes, it is! Stupid, do you know what it means?”

“That’s not how you spell ‘stupid’. It’s with an i, not an e.”

“It means you’re r******d.”

Stupid first entered the English language as a word back in the early 1540s. According to current current usage and definitions, its most common usage has to do with describing a lack of ordinary “quickness or keenness of mind” and describing things characterized or proceeding from “mental dullness”.

In other words, it is a word that exists to belittle those based upon their perceived mental acuity. If you doubt this statement, look only to its accepted list of synonyms, which includes such words as “dull,” “dumb,” “unintelligent,” “dim,” “doltish,” “half-witted,” “idiotic,” and “moronic”, all of which are words with well-defined ableist history (several of which were once ableist medical terms). This belittlement of perceived mental acuity is harmful to those with cognitive and developmental disabilities – we who, due to those disabilities, are often perceived as having lower mental acuity than our peers.

So, we’ve established that it has an ableist definition. Now I’m going to talk about my case that it constitutes a euphemism for one of the most vile ableist slurs out there. The first part of my case is to look at the synonyms of that slur. It includes many of the same words as the list of synonyms for stupid, and even includes the word stupid itself. If you look at the definition, a common slang use is as a synonym for stupid or foolish – this is the ableist slur usage we’re so familiar with.

In other words, even dictionaries, which are notoriously slow to accept changes in language usage, recognize that stupid is synonymous with that slur. Dictionaries exist to document current language usage patterns, not to stay on top of slang fads. Hence, for something to be placed in a dictionary as an accepted definition, it must be both 1, common usage (technical definitions almost never make it into general English dictionaries) and 2, old enough for the dictionaries to recognize it’s not a one-year fad like the neologism “ruly” was in my childhood.

On the more personal side of this argument: That’s exactly how it was used against me. The exchange I wrote at the start of this post actually happened to me, and I learned very quickly that the other kids couldn’t get away with calling me a r*****d in public, but they could get away with calling me stupid. So they used stupid as a euphemism for r*******d, probably just like their parents told them to.

But, you see, kids possess less ability for self-deception than adults. So they didn’t try to rationalize that they were just going around the social condemnation of the use of the word retard by saying that wasn’t really what they were doing, they were actually just saying it was a bad idea or I was annoying or made no sense or what have you. They said it like it was: When they said stupid, they meant r*******d.

As people get older and they learn the why of why retard is so very offensive, many of them don’t want to give up other ableist insults while they’re at it. After all, how can they express ableist sentiments without ableist words? So they rationalize. Stupid doesn’t mean r*******d, it just means dull-witted and dumb, amirite? Some get angry: How dare you tell me that stupid is a euphemism for retard! That’s offensive! I don’t use it to mean r******d, I use it to mean [insert other ableist word here]!

But the kids are more honest. They say it like it is.

That means you’re r******d!”

On juxtaposition

This post made me realize why people who were the adults in my life when I was a kid don’t understand why I feel they blamed me for being bullied, for being sexually harrassed on the school bus, and for myriad other things that happened to me as a kid.

“We never said it was your fault,” they say. “We’re just trying to help. If that’s the message you take from it, that’s your problem, not ours.”

What they fail to realize is the effect of juxtaposition. When you put two different abstract things close together, that creates an implied compare and contrast. It’s used everywhere: In literature, in news articles, in scientific papers, and in daily conversation. If you’ve ever seen someone say, “If you do that like this, it works.” after you’ve tried and failed at something, you’ve experienced the effect of juxtaposition. Your way doesn’t work. This way does. Implied is that you’re doing it the wrong way.

Likewise, when they chose to talk about boundaries after I’d been sexually harrassed, or to talk about social interactions and how not to be so damn weird after I’d been bullied, the juxtaposition of the two things creates the implication that the bad thing was my fault.
Even if it wasn’t. Their protests that they were trying to help only further this implication because in a dispute, you in principle should try to resolve it by getting the person in the wrong to change their behavior, not by trying to get the innocent party to change theirs.*

Because of that, when they were trying to get me to change my behavior and refusing to even try to get the bullies to change theirs (“kids will be kids,” after all), I got the message that it’s okay to bully, and that I deserved the bullying for being so damn weird. And, by extension, I got the message that adults’ condemnations of bullying were just so much bullshit, and that adults were liars and untrustworthy, however nice they might seem.**

So, parents and mentoring adults of bullied kids: I’m not saying you can’t work social skills, but for the love of all that is good in this world, consider what you’re juxtaposing your advice with and the implications that creates. Working social skills after a kid makes a faux pas that hurts someone’s feelings? Fine. Working social skills after they were jumped and beaten up at school, came home in tears over teasing, or were rejected from a group of kids playing? Not fine.

Think about juxtaposition. Think about the message you’re sending.

*I get that this is not always the case – victim blaming is often a thing. But this is how adults teach conflict resolution to kids, and this is the social rule I had back then regarding conflict resolution – if the adults are yelling at/lecturing/coaching me over it, it’s my fault. A modified version of this rule still exists for me: If I’m the one getting yelled at/lectured at/coached, the person doing the yelling/lecturing/coaching thinks I’m at fault. Difference is that now my social rule makes allowance for the fact that they might be wrong.

**This was a common theme for me. When adults said one thing and then did another, I felt they were dishonest. As a kid, my view was very black-and-white on the issue. They say Y. They do X. X and Y are mutually exclusive. Therefore, they were lying about Y, was how my reasoning went. Now, I see that there are shades of grey – maybe they have no idea where to start with tackling bullying and think it’s easier to teach me to pass. Maybe they think they’re protecting me. Maybe they had no idea just how bad it was because everyone else was minimizing it. Who knows? I’ll say this: The pain, fear, and distrust these actions by the adults in my life instilled are very real, and lasting.

Something in the news

TW: Bullying, victim-blaming, complete indifference on the part of the people supposed to protect the victim

So, this happened. And it doesn’t sound familiar at alll. */sarcasm*

Short version: Kid gets bullied in class by classmates while teachers are in the room, sometimes while teachers are watching. Teachers ignore it, turn away, pretend they didn’t see. Kid has autism and ADHD, and therefore it’s his fault his classmates videotaped themselves hitting and teasing him.

And people say as much in so many words.

And the school seems to be backing up the perpetrators, because they say that videotaping yourself hitting and teasing someone, and videotaping their stimming for the purpose of ridicule isn’t bullying and therefore isn’t covered by their antibullying rules.

This hits very close for me. Because I allegedly brought bullying onto myself, too. And when kids slammed my head in my locker and beat the crap out of me, that wasn’t bullying. It was me not trying hard enough to avoid them. And when kids jumped me on my way home after school, it wasn’t bullying. It was me not trying hard enough to fit in. When kids stripped me at a birthday party, it wasn’t bullying, it was me provoking them by yelling at them for asking me if I was a “real girl”. And it takes two to tango, and if you fight back, it’s your fault because you hit, too, but if you don’t fight back, it’s your fault for sitting there and taking it and if you run away, well, that’s just being a coward and you deserve a few slaps to teach you bravery, amirite? Everything. Is. Always. The. Victim’s. Fault.

That’s how these things work. It’s your fault. Even if you had no way of predicting it. It’s your fault, even if you tried to avoid them. It’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault.

Very familiar. And not surprising. And I’m sad for Levi and angry at his school and his classmates and his teachers. And I’m angry that only one of the news stories I’ve seen on the issue thought to interview the kid in question, because, y’know, he’s just the kid living through that shit, who wants to hear from him, amirite? It’s not like autistics can speak for themselves or anything. He needs his mother to speak for him. Ew. 

But mostly, I’m sad for Levi and angry on his behalf. I’ve been there. And, as a member of the class of fuck off we made it, I hope he makes it, too. 

So what’s okay to teach kids, then?

I realize that with all my focus on what not to do, what doesn’t work, how taking situations at face value isn’t necessarily a good idea because kids might not report what’s going on, and the harms of expecting kids who have a hard time with social stuff to act normal, it might come off like I’m saying don’t do anything.

I’m not. It’s just, as I said before, I’m not entirely sure what does work since I never found something effective, but I can talk about the stuff that wasn’t harmful to me growing up, and that’s what I’ll do now.

So what should you teach to bullied kids and to kids who have a hard time with social stuff? In no particular order:

  • Basic etiquette. Please and thank you. Not interrupting unless it’s urgent or an emergency (make sure that you allow that exception, because literal-minded kids might wait until you’re done talking to tell you the fire alarm in the laundry room is going off and smoke’s coming out of the drier and it’s really hot, I say from personal experience), that sort of thing. Important for letting others know you care about them and also for not accidentally pissing people off as often. Also important for teaching the difference between a request and a demand. Finally, important because it gives them the tools to choose to be rude on purpose, and contrary to what most adults think, kids getting to choose to be rude is actually an important and good thing: If someone’s being totally unreasonable at you, you have to be rude sometimes to get them to back off. Teaching your kid how to do that is important.
  • Basic hygiene. Wash before you smell bad. Brush your teeth regularly. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Sneeze into a tissue or into your arm. Etc. Important for personal health and for preventing stuff from spreading to others. However, don’t confuse teaching hygiene with teaching hygiene the way everyone else does it. For example, if your kid finds a fine spray showerhead painful like I do, try switching up to a more potent jet (I know, seems counter-productive, but it works for me), or suggesting your kid take baths instead. Hygiene shouldn’t be painful or traumatic.
  • Basic aesthetics: If someone else has sensory issues, fluorescent-green-on-fluorescent-orange might be literally painful to look at (sez a person who does find it literally painful to look at – see also fluorescent pink on white). This is just a consideration thing: don’t wear stuff that makes other people feel like their eyes want to burst.
  • Responsible use of scents: Again, a consideration thing. Scent sensitivities are becoming increasingly common as allergies and asthma become more common. People with sensory processing disorders also may have difficulty with scents. People who are pregnant often find scents overwhelming, and this hypernosmia is implicated in morning sickness. Don’t wear stuff that makes others sneeze, cough, wheeze, itch, get headaches, or throw up. On a personal side: Many scents make me do the first four, so I’ll appreciate it if nothing else.
  • Fashion basics: Care needs to be exercised with this, so that it’s not presented as something the kid has to do or as a “fitting in” thing. But teaching kids about what cuts are flattering to which body types and rules of formality for clothing will help them later on for stuff like job interviews. Best to present it as a “here’s something you can use if you want to, when you want to” type of thing.
  • Exercise basics: How to exercise safely (i.e., how to avoid overtraining injuries, dehydration, etc) and responsibly (clean up your equipment when you’re done, don’t put others at risk, etc), and why it’s important to exercise. Important for health and wellness – exercise improves control of many chronic illnesses, for example. Care needs to be exercised so it’s a health and wellness thing, not a body shaming fat-phobic thing. Care also needs to be exercised so it’s not a “fit in” thing, so if your kid doesn’t like group sports like baseball, hockey or basketball, teach them stuff they can do alone (calisthenics) or get them in individual sports like gymnastics, weight lifting, or martial arts.
  • Healthy eating basics: What makes a balanced meal, how to plan meals, etc. Also important for health and wellness, in addition to being important for independence later on. Again, as above, need to present it as “wellness” not as body shaming. The stuff I got in school was much better than the stuff I got at home on this front (long story there). As well, if texture is an issue with your kid, there’s nothing wrong with showing hir how to blend hir vegetables, and what things blended veggies really do well in (most soups, for example). Personal note: I ate no solid veggies (with the sole exception of raw mushrooms) until I was about 16 due to texture issues, but I avoided malnutrition thanks to purees and mashes. There are still veggies I can’t eat due to texture (tomatoes  and celery, to name two, so I puree stuff with them).
  • Why small talk is a thing: to those who don’t get small talk as a thing instinctively, we can get aggravated or upset by others’ insistence on following what appears to be a boring and inane social ritual. While my mental jury’s out on whether kids who have trouble with small talk should be taught it, teaching kids why others do it is good for helping them understand that, while, yes, everyone who’s outside can feel that it’s bloody freezing out, people like to complain at each other because it breeds a sense of camaraderie, not because they like filling the air with pointless noise. Knowing why it’s done helps make it less baffling and annoying. Analogy here: I used to have a throat-clearing stim I’d do when my throat was scratchy, because clearing it had the same soothing effect as scratching an itch. It used to annoy the hell out of my parents – to the point that in frustration they once locked me in my room until I’d “stop making that damn noise”. When they put two and two together that I’d only do it when I was coming down with something and started offering throat lozenges instead, I had a soothed throat so I didn’t do it as much and they felt far less annoyed by the sound because they knew I was doing it for a reason. For some autistic people, myself included, small talk is like my throat clearing – it’s aggravating if you don’t know that there’s a reason for it.
  • Conversation skills: Stuff like how to change the subject when you’re uncomfortable, etc. Careful here, because it can seem like pressure to emulate normality. If it’s presented as  skill to help effective world interaction and/or a sort of verbal self-defense, rather than Something You Must Do Always, it’s okay – my parents telling me kids would make fun if I talked too long wasn’t really helpful and made me feel like it was my fault I was bullied. My coworker telling me that I needed to insert pauses during my explanations so others would have time to ask questions if they didn’t follow me on step 2 rather than waiting until I’d gone through to step 20 and they’re totally lost? Helpful. Get the difference? One is “you must do this to fit in,” the other is “here’s how to be more effective at what you’re trying to do.”
  • Non-violent conflict resolution: If hitting is the only thing that ever works for your kid, they’ll keep hitting. I say that as someone who used to be a violent kid. So, if you want your kid to quit being violent, you need to give them strategies for nonviolent conflict resolution, and even more importantly, you need to support them in their attempts at non-violent conflict resolution and make sure they’re supported in it wherever you’re not. Because if hitting is the only thing that works, they’ll keep hitting, and they’ll be annoyed with you for telling them to use strategies they probably tried and weren’t supported in.
  • How to stand up for yourself: As above, they need support from adults for this to work. This includes stuff like when you need to walk away from a conversation, how to assert boundaries, how to ask for accommodations (if the kid has a disability), how and when to be defiant (I know, not something most parents want their kids to do, but as with choosing to be rude, it’s important to have the option of being defiant for anyone) how to ask for help, and when to get help. I haven’t fully mastered a lot of those skills, but they’re good skills for everyone to have.

Second-to-lastly: Consider what you’re teaching your kids with your actions. Kids learn a lot more from what adults around them do than what adults say. So, if you say, “It’s not okay to shout and hit just because you’re angry,” but you shout when you’re frustrated with some housework and you spank your kids, what do they learn? Not that it’s not okay to shout and hit. Rather, that grown-ups are hypocrites. At least, that’s what I learned when my parents taught me that way.

Lastly: Set reasonable standards for your kids. Parents of a kid I know hold hir to an unreasonable standard when xe’s upset – they demand that xe explain verbally what’s wrong in a calm tone of voice and without “showing an attitude” – i.e., facially expressing hir upset. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any adult that can do that.  How is it reasonable to expect that of a kid? I don’t think it is. Think about what you’re expecting of your child and whether or not it’s reasonable.

An addenum to the last point: Neurodivergent K has a great post on why expecting a kid with language issues to “use their words” even when upset is unreasonable. Read it. Think about it. I can’t add anything of substantial to it.