Vivid illustrations of a horrifying problem: three stories from recent news. So what’s going on here? Not the obvious, surface situations, but what is going on in the social dynamics? And we can we do to change things?
(Click on headlines for links to full news stories.)
(New York City)
As an autistic savant, Ryan Morales has an extraordinary talent for music — he can play the piano by ear; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway trivia, and he loves to go to his local music store to look at the drums. But the owner of Lane Music Center blocked the 13-year-old boy and his caregiver from entering the New Dorp Lane shop this week because, the store owner said, Ryan’s behavior makes him feel uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry, I’m not going to let you in,” owner Alan Wilcov reportedly told Ryan’s caregiver, Oluwaseun Cole, whose job it is to take Ryan on walks through the community to familiarize him with the social rituals of everyday life. “I just can’t let him in,” Cole said Wilcov had told him on Wednesday afternoon. “I have a problem with his kind,” he allegedly told Ryan’s parents and caregiver later that night, when they went to the store to discuss what had happened; it was a heated conversation that left both parties fuming.
(Kansas City, Missouri)
Cindy Earnshaw said it was her dream job to work as an Overland Park, Kan., Animal Control officer. But after nine years of exemplary job evaluations, Earnshaw was deemed unfit for duty. Earnshaw said it is because of her disability. “I crawled my whole life to get there. When I got there, I was good and gave it 100 percent,” Earnshaw told KMBC’s Lara Moritz. Earnshaw said she felt most comfortable in her uniform, driving her Animal Control truck and taking care of animals in Overland Park.
“I so loved my job, and I was so passionate about it, and was able to serve my citizens and my animals, which kind of compensated,” Earnshaw said. Earnshaw said the job compensated her for what she claims was constant bullying by her fellow Animal Control officers. “I’m there to work, you know. All I got for that was torment and abuse and bullying. They articulated, ‘You are purposely trying to make us look bad,'” Earnshaw said.
The grandfather of a baby taken into care immediately after he was born is accusing social services of discriminating against his daughter because she has a form of autism. The baby’s 21-year-old mother has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition associated with problems concerning social and communication skills.
The grandfather, who lives in South Wales but cannot be identified for legal reasons, said, “Within hours of the baby being born two weeks ago, social workers arrived at the hospital and served papers on my daughter saying they would be applying for an interim care order. She was beside herself. “Two weeks before what should have been the happiest day of her life, we as a family attended a case conference where Monmouthshire County Council placed the unborn baby on an ‘at risk’ register. Their argument was that because she has Asperger’s Syndrome, she is at risk of getting post-natal depression, and that there would therefore be the likelihood of her neglecting the baby. “In my view, all this stress sent my daughter into labour four weeks early.
These are three different stories about three different situations, in three different parts of the world. All three people have been discriminated against (howsoever the local courts may or may not rule), because they are autistic. None of them, as described in these news stories, ran afoul of civic laws because of what they did. Rather, they were harassed by others because they were different, or because of what they might do because they are perceived as being different.
It would be easy to say that these people, and millions of others with their own unpublished stories, were victims of bullying.
But that would be wrong.
A lot of research and media attention is paid to those who are on the receiving end of emotional or physical violence. These people are often referred to as the “victims”. This is unfortunately a rather poor word choice, because the word victim implies that the events were in some part the fault of the recipient. That is, If you didn’t behave in such obviously “weird” ways, or if you learned to chit-chat better, this wouldn’t happen to you.
Being a victim means that you had no choice in the matter, that you were weak and powerless to prevent or to stop things. Being a victim meant that when all was said and done, you lost.
But despite the protestations of attackers, none of the problem is the fault of the recipient of the violence. People do not make their spouses or partners beat them, children do not make their peers bully them, employees do not make their bosses harass them, and people do not make rapists attack them.
People on the receiving end are better described as targets. Being a victim is a passive, helpless role. In contrast, being a target puts one in the position of needing to figure out a strategy, like a chess player who must either move the piece, block the line of attack, or take offensive action.
Targets are often selected because they have some vulnerability, but too often this is over-emphasized, because everyone has weaker aspects of their skills, aptitudes or personalities. Again, having a weakness does not mean that the target is at fault.
I derived the next three paragraphs describing the bully’s mode of operation from the general descriptions available at Bully OnLine. It’s not that most of us haven’t seen these things happen in our own personal realities, but it is in many ways reassuring to see such analyses codified and neatly listed. (“It’s not just me.”) What is especially interesting is that because many of the criteria for good bullying targets are those which are found in earnest employees, especially relatively naïve autistic employees, we are such prime targets for bullying. Indeed, there is no lack of news articles or research evidence to support such. Some pertinent factors mentioned:
1. Surprisingly, sometimes those “weaknesses” found in the targets are the same qualities which make for a person who can work well with others (assuming that the others are sane, rational, accepting people): self-deprecating (sense of humor), willing to defer to other’s needs and opinions, willing to negotiate and play fairly, good at apologising, reliance on other’s perceptions of one’s work for feedback about progress, and the need to be a valued team member. The attacker’s underhanded methods do not always include overt physical violence, but may also include or instead include gossiping, innuendo, and splitting members of the same organisation or class into opposing subgroups.
2. In the work environment, targets are also selected because the attacker feels threatened by them; the target is good at their work (better than those who would denigrate them), and the target demonstrates better integrity or values (which threatens the attackers power plays by not playing into them). The target is usually someone who would rather negotiate or discuss problems rather than resort to antagonistic means. Unfortunately it’s all too easy for the more clever adult attackers to re-frame accusations as nothing more than “personality conflicts”. Attackers are frequently pros at deflecting responsibility for their own behaviour, and will deny what happened by reframing, dismissing and/or diminishing events, will retaliate, or most absurdly, will try to subvert accusations to describe themselves as being the “true” victim.
3. Targets may also be such because they are good at following directions and rules. Bullies for example, are notorious for working behind, outside and underneath the rules and making poorly-designed rules work for them and against their targets. The flip side is that targets are frequently those people who won’t or can’t become part of the social cliques, which once again creates islands of untouchable inaction in the attacker’s power plays. The independent worker who is imaginative, quiet, and more interested in solving problems efficiently than in joining in the water-cooler gossip can easily be a target because they are (in some respects) already an outsider. Sometimes the target is selected because the previous interpersonal dynamics have changed due to people leaving and/or arriving; the attacker needs a new “fall guy” to be the recipient of the “responsibility” for being the “cause” of all the attacker’s problems.
Although the Web site describes bullying at work, the patterns are easily transferable into the many other situations we find ourselves. In other community situations, there are a number of different causes for bullying, many of which stem from fear. The different or disabled person is feared and scorned because they are misunderstood, or because their actions may seem erratic, or are misinterpreted as meaning something antagonistic. Fear of the unknown, or gross assumptions about abilities drive this kind of bullying.
Unfortunately, it’s often hard to advocate effectively, as targets may be pathologised by any number of people, including law enforcement officers and mental health clinicians. Protests are dismissed, ignored, or even turned against the target as further evidence of their perceived “deficits”. The targets’ self-defense measures get re-cast as aggression, in much the same manner of the targets of domestic abuse. The toll of resistance results in nervousness, exhaustion, and confusion, which are deemed to be evidence of “mental illness”, rather than efforts at retaining personal rights. After all, everyone knows that autism is a “horrible mental illness”, so obviously any issues the autistic person has stems from being autistic, rather than from how others treat the autistic person. In other words, the effects of the bullying are misinterpreted as the causes — the bully has deflected responsibility onto the target.
Compared to the suave reassurances and assertions of the manipulative [neurotypical] perpetrator, the beleaguered recipient appears reactionary. Any resistance to the efforts official people make to “help” the two people reconcile is of course, further proof of the target’s mental illness. (It’s such a neat, tidy package!)
Given the bullying that creates the problems, and the results of trying to resolve those problems, it’s no surprise that targets get depressed. The situations create masses of “cognitive dissonance”, the emotional reaction to events that contradict what you know; they make your brain hurt.
So how do we handle this? What do we do about it?
There are no easy answers for preventing and resolving bullying and targeting. This is a large-scale, multifaceted effort taken on many fronts. But the first front we must address is inside. We must begin by changing our own perceptions and actions. It is not enough to recognise bullying; most of us are more-than-familiar with such. Instead, we must be able to recognise that as targets, we are not deserving of such treatment. We must both expect and become co-creators of respectful social interactions.
(If you cannot reliably navigate these social situations due to communication issues or other problems, then you will have to enlist the aid of allies who can help advocate.)
Don’t try to negotiate with bullies by way of that strange shadowy world of unspoken conversational meanings. There’s no real negotiating with bullies, and it’s the rare autistic person who is quick, perceptive and adept at using and manipulating conversations to their own end. Trying to fight bullies on their own turf is an uphill battle, as they have more than just a “home field advantage”. Instead, follow your particular strengths, and use your natural bluntness to be polite and direct.
Describe what you are seeing — so often bullying relies upon the social fiction that everyone pretends they cannot see what is really happening. So use your ability to ignore the imaginary social dramas and cut through the fog of “let’s-pretend” by telling it like it really is. (Don’t insult people — stick to objective facts.)
Explain what you need, not as something “special” that you need because you are some kind of broken, incomplete person, but as something you need simply because everybody has the same basic needs for safety and acceptance. Because everyone is different, we don’t all fulfill our needs in the same ways, and that’s why you do things differently. You don’t “ask” for your rights, you expect them.
Announce what you expect others to do that is appropriate to the situation, useful, and respectful of all involved.
Look, what’s obvious to us is not obvious to others. Not in the understanding or the analysis of the situation, or in the remedying of the situation. This is one of those things where the mind’s eye is blind. But it’s not just autistics — other people have this same problem in relation to us. If other people don’t understand, they aren’t going to see the problem or be helpful.
We must learn to use our natural aptitudes for speaking plainly and turn them into an assets for clarity and assertiveness. When used wisely, our weaknesses become our strengths.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us.”
~ Nelson Mandela