Needless to say, that was a long, long time ago. I still see the bully on Facebook and she doesn't look nearly as menacing now as she did back then. The scary Schoolyard Bully still exists today, but, she has brought her friends, the Backseat Bus Bully, the Gym Class Bully, the Lunchroom Bully, and the meanest bully of all, the Internet Bully. It's a tough crowd that all kids hope they never draw attention from or run into alone.
Unlike the bystanders who laughed and encouraged the bully on my school playground all those years ago, kids today are taught the difference between being a hurtful bystander and a helpful bystander. They are taught that encouraging the bully or doing nothing is hurtful and that standing up for the victim (the bullied) or reporting the bully is helpful.
But what if the bully strikes quietly and alone? What if the bully is careful not to have any bystanders or witnesses by choosing a victim who is always alone thus decreasing the chance of a helpful bystander being near by? What if the only bystander for the bullied is....autism?
Autism keeps quiet. The autistic victim may be unable to ask for help or defend himself because autism prevents the bullied from effectively communicating what is going on.
Autism is unaware. Autism does not try to be hurtful by just passively accepting the bullying, but, it brings to the fight a lack of awareness about what is a good friend or a bad friend, so the bullied may not even know they are being treated badly.
Autism does not act. Autism may have stood by silently so many times that the victim starts to believe that being bullied is just the norm for him or her and that there is no alternative. Worse of all, autism may cause the victim to feel like they "deserve it".
According to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, "63% of children from ages 6-15 with an ASD have been bullied in their lifetime". Most autistic kids struggle to fit in, they may exhibit different behavior, they may be socially isolated, all of which makes them very, very vulnerable to the Schoolyard Bully, the Lunchroom Bully, the Backseat Bus Bully, the Gym Class Bully and the Internet Bully.
Autism wants to be a helpful bystander, but, the various complex neurodevelopmental disorders that go with it, make it hard for autism to stand up and shout, "Help!!" Some of the bullied may have such limited language skills, so they are unable to tell. Other children, who may have better language skills, may feel different enough already and telling a grown up or someone they trust that they are being bullied is the ultimate proof that they don't "fit in", thus they keep quiet, as autism stands by and the bully wins.
As a mother of a child with autism, I have feared the Schoolyard Bully, the Lunchroom Bully, the Gym Class bully, the Backseat Bus Bully and the Internet Bully for my son so much more than that bully who took my food and pushed me around as a neurotypical child because I was able to finally fight back. It took weeks, but, finally I thought to myself, "enough". One day I told my mom about the lunch and the next day I didn't show up at the swings. I took away the bully's power and caused it all to end.
My son would not tell. Although Ryan is completely verbal, he sometimes struggles to "find his words", especially if it is something causing him anxiety or discomfort. He would not be able to effectively communicate what was happening to him and if the bully was not outright punching him in the nose, or calling him horrible names, I don't know that he would recognize the bully in the schoolyard, on the bus, in gym class or on Instagram.
I will continue to educate my son and keep a look out for bullies, but, the best thing I can do is what we all can do to combat bullies, remind our child that there is one place they will always be safe, one place they can always find comfort, one place they will always be accepted and loved and that I will never stand by and do nothing. I will also assure him that although it feels like autism is a hurtful bystander, autism or no autism, he, like all kids, deserves to be treated with respect, kindness and acceptance and that he does NOT deserve to be bullied by anyone.
Then maybe I will show him a picture of my schoolyard bully on Facebook to prove to him that bullies aren't as scary as they seem once we realize that in the end, if we take away their power by believing in ourselves, bullies are just middle aged moms sitting in beach chairs drinking beer.