I have found that the worst thing about being autistic is not about being on the spectrum, but rather how allistic (non-autistic) people treat you. I experienced awful forms of ableism, emotional abuse, and bullying directed towards me simply because I am an autistic person. Upon reading the experiences of my friends and peers on the autistic spectrum, this is unfortunately a common experience, making bullying and autistic childhood experiences go seemingly hand-in-hand.
Unfortunately, bullies do not go away when you get older: their tactics just change into something more insidious and covert. The type of bullies that I encounter tend to be thoroughly aware that autistic people will not immediately pick up on subtler forms of bullying, and use this to their advantage. As a result, autistic people may leave a conversation feeling hurt but with no ‘justifiable’ reason to explain these emotions. After all, the person we were just talking to did not say anything really hurtful to us, and they were smiling and putting on the big ‘friendly’ face that means the person is nice and honest. But every time you talk to that person, you find yourself feeling crappier with each encounter, even though you cannot determine the cause for this feeling.
From my experience these bullies want to punish autistic adults for existing in public spaces and wanting to interact with their peers. They are aware that our prowess in social situations is considerably lower than the average person, and use this to their advantage. We are essentially the easiest target in the room, without any potential backlash from claims of discrimination, since ableism towards autistic people is something most people do not recognize.
While this bullying comes in many forms, one of the most hurtful versions of this is when bullies mock or belittle the specific interests that autistic people have. For those who do not know, one of the most common traits associated with being autistic is our ability to hyper-focus on particular topics or subject matter. In the most extreme cases of this it may mean that we are unable to focus on topics that are not within our area of interest, while in other cases it just means that we enjoy having a “deep dive” on learning about whatever topic holds our interest. From my personal experience my interests tend to be enjoying particular types of media (animation, comic books, video games), and specific themes present within those works. I find them to be particularly relaxing as the ways characters communicate in any of these media tends to be much more straightforward and accessible to me; animated characters have a very strong emphasis on body language in order to express their feelings, comic books have thought bubbles present while the character is having an important internal monologue, and video games can allow a player to talk to non-player characters multiple times to receive confirmation without judgement. Due to all these factors I find I am spending less time with the work of deciphering body language and more time enjoying the story and its characters.
Researching things is one way autistic people express their interests, but the other major way is to talk about those interests with others. Unfortunately, it is very rare to find someone in your local community who shares the exact same interests as you, let alone is willing to let you talk about them in great detail. This is probably why many autistic people find themselves gravitating towards online communities dedicated towards specific subject matter; because there is more of a guarantee that someone there is willing to hear what you have to say, share in your enthusiasm, and perhaps even help it flourish.
Still, I have found there are some scenarios where people are able to talk about things they enjoy, usually during the moment of small talk when people discuss what they have most recently read or watched. These instances I find, can be a difficult conversation to navigate as they can potentially allow me to share information on an amazing movie I just watched, but they could also lead to confusion as I try to explain why a graphic novel was exceptional and worth a read. In the best case scenarios, even if a person does not entirely understand what I have found appealing by a film or book I discussed they can still walk away with the knowledge of learning about something they normally wouldn’t have (which I have learned is one of the better outcomes of small talk).
But in worst case scenarios you may encounter a bully who just wants to shut you down and ruin your mood. I recall on one occasion where I was sitting with my peers, enthusiastically sharing details about this amazing animated film I had just watched, only for one person to pipe up “Patricia, don’t you watch films that aren’t animated?” In that moment it felt as though the happiness I had been building up by discussing my topic of interest, which filled up like a balloon, was popped by a malicious needle. In place of my gradual happiness new emotions rushed in: shock at the unexpected comment and the sudden disappearance of my happiness leaving me stunned, shamed at the implications of the bully’s comment (that I only watch animated films, which makes me immature and childish), and sadness at having a once happy moment taken away from me. My mind, once vibrant with new aspects of the movie I wanted to discuss, was now blank. I no longer wanted to talk about the film that had brought me so much joy before. No one came to my defense or joined the bully in their assertion, but the silence of my peers was enough to prove that this was what they all had wanted.
To this day, I do not understand why there seems to be a subsection of people who take joy out of crushing positive feelings of other people, simply for enjoying something they don’t. I have found in my experience that people, whether they are neuroatypical or neurotypical, enjoy sharing the things they love with others. So why is it acceptable to crush this joy, especially when it comes from specific groups of people? The bully I mentioned before was not the first person who made me feel terrible for enjoying something rather innocuous as an animated film or a video game, nor were they the last. These type of bullies know very well how to shut up and shut down an autistic person for expressing their interests, and made me feel small for daring to raise my voice and express my opinions.
Sometimes I want to ask these bullies why they do this to us; why is talking about something we love causing you to feel so much discomfort that you feel compelled to shut us up? Why do you get to talk incessantly about your favourite subjects every time we meet, but I can’t get more than a few sentences out? Why is it that the other people in the conversation don’t want to stick up for me after I have been silenced?
Of course I realize these questions will never be properly answered, and if it was it would most likely be an ableist ‘justification’ for the bullying they enacted on. Even so, I feel the general sentiment behind the questions is still important. The bullying I have encountered from discussing my special interests has made it difficult for me to open up to new people I meet. I wish that I could speak freely with my peers and forge connections and friendships with them, but the underlying fear of potential mockery and exclusion still lingers. I have, thankfully, been able to develop friendships with others because of my interests, which has greatly impacted my self-confidence. I only wish that I would not hold onto this fear within me, or that I never had to experience it at all. But above all I wish that people would realize that being dismissive of other people’s interests is extremely hurtful, especially when it’s targeted towards those of us on the autistic spectrum who use them as a means to relax in this overstimulating world.
So if you notice that a person, autistic or not, is being bullied for enjoying something inconsequential, ask yourself how you would feel in that situation and try to show support to the bullied party in some way. A world where people don’t experience this form of bullying, and the emotional repercussions of it, would be a wonderful thing to see.
Image Citations (in order of appearance):
“Fallen Teddy Bear Free Photo” by Ryan McGuire via Gratisography
“White Teddy Bear Reading Book” by Pixabay via Pexels
“One Against All” by Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay
“woman in black, blue, and red shirt lying on surface while reading magazine” by Joe Ciciarelli via Unsplash