I’m still just 17 and I've been bullied at school for most of my life. If you’re autistic or have a learning difference it's very likely that you’ve been bullied too. In the Annual Bullying Survey 2017 carried out by Ditch the Label, 75% of autistic students and 52% of students with learning differences reported being bullied.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. By far the most unbearable and traumatic experiences I have had involve being ridiculed, abused and ostracised at school by my classmates. If you’ve ever been bullied, you’ll know that it’s a HORRIBLE experience. Being bullied makes you feel alone and unlikeable. You may even feel that you’re somehow to blame. Trust me when I tell you that this isn’t true. No one deserves to be bullied.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is when a person or group sets out to repeatedly hurt, intimidate, scare or humiliate someone who they perceive as vulnerable. Bullying can take many different forms, including:
- being called names, being insulted or taunted
- being teased, ridiculed, embarrassed, put down or humiliated
- having false rumours spread about you
- being excluded from social groups or being ignored
- having your belongings taken or destroyed
- being threatened or intimidated
- having people make things up to get you into trouble
- being pushed, hit, kicked, pinched, slapped or physically hurt
Schools will often deny that you’re being bullied or will dismiss a bullying incident as a “misunderstanding.” I’ve had teachers tell me that name-calling and insults were just 'teen banter'. You may even find that your school focuses on blaming you, instead of addressing the behaviour of the bullies. Sadly, directing the blame at us is common. You may be told that you’re too sensitive and should develop a sense of humour. Don’t listen to them. They’re wrong!
If your school tries to brush off your bullying complaint, remind them that bullying is distinguished from harmless banter by the following four factors:
- The negative actions are repeated and are intended to humiliate, distress and/or harm you
- There is an imbalance of power (in many instances, the bully is supported by classmates, whereas the target is alone or may have a very small social group)
- The incidents are one-sided
- You are being negatively affected, whereas your bully is not
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Bullies are experts at identifying vulnerable people to target. Bullies look for someone who is different and who they think won’t stand up for themselves. It’s tempting to blame yourself, your autism or learning differences for being bullied, but bullies will use any “difference” as an excuse to target someone.
I know people who were bullied for being too tall, for wearing a hearing aid, for being clever, for having a stutter, for wearing glasses, for having acne, for their weight and for having a facial birthmark. In other words, they can target anybody for almost anything. I’ve met many young people who’ve been bullied. The one thing they all had in common is that they were kind, understanding and compassionate. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met have been bullied.
Dealing with Your School
Document, document, document.
Since it’s very common for schools to deny that you’re being bullied, it will be up to you to provide your school with detailed information. This can be problematic for SEND students. Some of us aren’t great at retelling events in chronological order or retelling an event in its entirety. Instead of seeing the big picture, we may focus on one or two details.
Your school may not understand that you perceive and respond to experiences differently. It often takes us much longer to process and express our experiences. If you are autistic, you may struggle to describe a bullying incident, especially since anxiety and distress decrease our ability to express ourselves.
I’ve learned that the best way to ensure that I provide a detailed account of each bullying incident is for me to write it down. It gives me time to process my thoughts and emotions. I suggest you try this approach. Start by creating a template that includes the following prompts:
- the time, place and location where the incident occurred
- the names of the people involved
- the names of any witnesses
- what the bully said to you (including any insults, threats, etc.)
- what the bully did to you
- whether there have been any previous incidents
- how it made you feel
- the effect the bullying is having on you
When describing the event, try to write your account of the event in the order that it happened. You may also want to create a drawing of the layout of your school and mark the areas where you were bullied. (In doing this, you may discover that there are certain bullying hot-spots). A detailed written description will make it easier for others to have a better understanding of what happened.
If you are autistic, another benefit of writing down your account of what happened is that it removes the element of social interaction and communication at a time when you are feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been in situations where school staff have interrogated me about a bullying event in front of the bullies who were vehemently denying that they had done anything to me.
I don’t respond well to confrontations. Being a target of bullying is distressful enough as it is. This is only made worse if I have to endure being interrogated by school staff, while the bullies fake cry and pretend to be sorry. If you are anything like me, you may actually shut down. When I get too overwhelmed, I withdraw and hide in my head. Unfortunately, this means that school staff often misinterpret my “shut down.” Since I appear distant and detached, school staff assume that I’m not upset or hurt by the bully’s behaviour, which causes the school staff to be less caring and sympathetic towards me.
Strategies to Use If You’re Being Bullied
If you’re being bullied, below are 10 strategies you can use that may help:
- Ignore the person who’s bullying you. Pretend not to hear the bully’s words. No matter how tempting, try not to let the bully’s words upset or anger you. Imagine that you’re surrounded by a protective bubble and that the words bounce off the surface of the bubble before they reach you. Not responding or reacting when someone says or does something mean is often the most effective response to bullying. Most bullies are looking for a reaction. If you get angry or cry, it may encourage the bully to keep going. If you ignore the person who’s bullying you, it’s possible that the bully will realise that he or she isn’t getting a response from you and that he or she will eventually stop.
- Tell the bully to stop. Most bullies don’t expect someone to stand up to them. They often target classmates who they believe can be easily intimidated. In fact, bullies rely on finding a target who won’t report them and will suffer in silence. If you feel bold enough to do so, telling the bully to stop in a strong, assertive and confident voice could be very effective. If the bully knows that he or she can’t intimidate you, they are more likely to stop bullying you. You have to judge whether tip one or two will work best in your situation.
- But NEVER suffer in silence. Many people who are bullied don’t tell anyone. You may feel that you’re somehow to blame. You may also be embarrassed or be worried that the bully will retaliate or that you won’t be believed. The best way to stop the bullying is to report it. Without the intervention of an adult, bullying will often continue and can even escalate. Although it takes a lot of courage to report bullying, it is the best way to address the situation. Even if you don’t want to report it, speak to somebody you trust, whether that be a parent, trusted teacher or another responsible adult. Don’t suffer in silence or feel that you have to go through this ordeal alone because you don’t.
- Avoid bullying hot-spots. I have found that a lot of bullying takes place during unstructured and unsupervised social time and in unmonitored areas within school, such as the cafeteria, common areas, hallways, bathrooms, stairwells, playgrounds and changing rooms. If you can, try to avoid crossing paths with your bullies. During unsupervised school time, such as my hour-long lunch break, I would go to the library or the nurse’s office (the only two places at school where I felt safe). If you cannot avoid hot-spots, if possible, buddy up with a friend.
- It’s not your fault. It’s natural to blame yourself and to start to feel that it’s your fault that you’re being bullied, especially if it's happened repeatedly. If someone’s being nasty, it can make you wonder whether you’ve done something wrong. You may even begin to believe that you deserve it. I’ve had to change schools THREE times, because of bullying. I reached a point where I began to think that there was something wrong with me and that I had to resign myself to always being abused and mistreated. But bullying is NEVER your fault. No one should be bullied, no matter who they are, what they look like, or because of their culture, sexuality, race, religion, gender or disability.
- Find inspiring role models. When I was being bullied, I found it comforting to read about celebrities who had been bullied at school. My favourite actress, Jennifer Lawrence was bullied so badly that she had to switch schools several times. Taylor Swift was bullied for liking country music. Rihanna was bullied for her skin colour. When you’re being bullied, it can sometimes feel like you’re alone. You’re not. I suggest that you search online some of your favourite musicians, actors or celebrities to see if they were bullied. It is very likely that you’ll find that some of them were. Remind yourself that they once went through the same experience that you’re going through and that they not only managed to overcome it, but they’re now having the last laugh.
- Focus on a hobby. A good way to get your mind off dwelling about being bullied is to meet new people and find a few after-school hobbies that you enjoy. It could be a sport, an art class, a cooking class, a book club or some other group activity. Not only will you have fun, but you’ll also get to meet like-minded people outside of school who you could become friends with.
- Lean on an anti-bullying charity. There are lots of anti-bullying charities that are there for you, for example The Diana Award’s Anti-Bullying Programme. You may find it helpful to look at their websites and to read some of their online resources. I found it comforting to read some of the stories of young people who had been bullied. It made me feel less alone. Some charities also have a helpline you can call.
- Consider moving to another school. Sometimes the wisest thing you can do is to cut your losses. If you’re at a school that condones bullying by pretending it isn’t happening, or by blaming you, you may be facing a battle you can’t win. Ultimately, a school sets the tone for the way students treat each other. If a school is prepared to allow its vulnerable students to be mistreated and abused, it's unlikely to be an environment where you’re going to be supported and where you will flourish. Although it may seem daunting, consider moving to a different school. You deserve to have a happy school experience free from mistreatment and abuse.
- Is it a disability hate crime? Some types of bullying are a crime. If you’re being targeted because you’re autistic or because of your learning or physical differences, it’s a disability hate crime. If you’re being called derogatory names, are being threatened or are being physically abused, you may want to talk to your parents about filing a disability hate crime report at your local police station.
Getting your life back on track by helping others
Being bullied can knock your confidence and your sense of self-worth. It can also have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health. Overcoming the trauma of being bullied is a hard thing to do. Building yourself back up will take time.
One approach that really helped me was to use my bullying experience to help others who are being bullied. Wherever you live, the odds are that there’s a local or national bullying charity or organisation that you can become a part of. I did an online search for local anti-bullying charities and sent them an email asking how I could get involved. This led to being selected to serve on the 2018 Diana Award National Anti-Bullying Youth Board. It was a very empowering experience. It gave me a platform through which to help others by sharing my autism-related bullying experience. It also gave me an opportunity to become friends with an amazing group of kind and compassionate young people who had also been bullied and who also wanted to help to tackle bullying so that no one else suffered through what they had.
There are many ways you can help others. You could volunteer with an anti-bullying charity, set up a peer support group at your school or write a blog during anti-bullying week (which is this week). You may find that using your experience to help others also helps you to regain control of your life again.
I want you to know that although it may not feel like it, you won’t feel broken forever. Little by little, you’ll find that your life is getting back on track and that you’re back to being your usual fabulous self.
This post is based on Siena's brilliant upcoming book, The Spectrum Girl's Survival Guide: How to grow up Autistic and Awesome. Preorder from Amazon UK here
- Anti-Bullying Week: Change starts with us
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- Anti-Bullying Week: How to help a victim of bullying
- Tips to help a bullied child: Anti-Bullying Week
- “I’ve been bullied at school for most of my life” How Siena’s helping other autistic young people like her
- Anti-Bullying Week: Violent Bullying of SEND children widespread in England’s schools (2014)
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