When I was first talking to my psychologist about possibly being autistic, I mentioned kids and school and she said sympathetically, “Yes, kids can be very cruel to those who are different.” No wait, back up. I was the bully.
My bullying came from several places. Most notably was seeing the behaviour in other children, and mirroring it myself – but not realising what the limits were. I would always take things too far, whether that be things I said or practical jokes. I remember tying my friend to a post at lunchtime, and then when the bell rang to go back to class leaving her there because I thought it was hilarious she was stuck. When the teacher asked where she was, I just shrugged and said I didn’t know (while desperately trying to keep down my laughter), while she was crying because she couldn’t get free.
Around the time of being diagnosed, my housemates and I were re-watching Community, and I found it entertaining and gratifying in light of this new knowledge about myself to see many of my behaviours mirrored in Abed. Just before the aforementioned conversation with my psychologist, we’d watched s02e17 “Aerodynamics of Gender”, and Abed’s experience of being a mean girl made me realise that I had had a similar experience.
I just didn’t have the same social filter that other kids had. I mimicked their behaviours and I went too far, likely also because I didn’t have the recognition that what I was doing was hurtful to other people. I remember in primary school, there was a girl who everybody picked on, and I am ashamed to say that I was probably the worst culprit. I don’t think I was particularly sneaky about it, either, and yet I remember one occasion when our teacher sent her and me on a (retrospectively, made-up) errand to the school office. I was irritated at being made to go somewhere with her, and was mean to her there and back. While we were gone the teacher told the class off for bullying her. The teacher never said anything to me, but afterwards I had a conversation with my friends where they told me about what happened while we were gone, and I laughed about the fact that I was probably the biggest bully and yet didn’t get told off. (I am very, very sorry, girl from primary school). A similar thing happened in high school, although at that point I wasn’t the worst offender, just one of the many people who bullied this particular girl.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t bullied at all – I was, but they were isolated incidents and nothing unusually bad. I think it would be unusual for a kid to grow up without being bullied at all. I remember at kindergarten, not being one of the “cool” kids, and when the cool kids were playing Captain Planet they’d tell me I could only play if I was Wheeler (literally the worst character), which made me very upset. I’d usually play alone instead. Apparently at my first primary school, I was the only white girl in my class and got bullied and didn’t make any friends. My family was privileged enough to be able to send me to a more diverse school, and I don’t have many memories of this first school. There was a girl in my main primary school who used to tell me constantly I was going to hell because I didn’t believe in God, and her intolerance upset me. Early in high school a girl threw me across the desks because I was sitting in what she considered “her” seat, and called me a smart-ass white girl. The next year I sat next to her and her friend in French and they thought I was funny because I was a smart-ass white girl. That was pretty much the attitude towards me in general (that I recall) – people recognised that I was a bit odd, and while this gave me an abiding sense of “not fitting in”, I wasn’t bullied for it. Rather, it was tolerated as amusing.
Rather than deliberately bullying people, I also tended to say ‘truthful’ things that weren’t appropriate, and hurt other people’s feelings unintentionally. One girl in high school was talking about her younger brother, and how at seven he still didn’t read. I said in surprise (without any malice) that that was unusual, that I could read at four and had he been tested for a learning disorder? She burst into tears and said that not every kid was smart like me, and the other people present told me to leave, while I protested that I didn’t know why she was so upset because it was true. (Later on she did approach me and when I apologised, she said he was being tested and what I said was true, just not appropriate). Another time, I noticed that a girl had really tiny, pretty ears, and when I commented she got upset because they were a feature she was insecure about. I was told that you just didn’t comment on things like that, and I didn’t understand why because I thought I was complimenting her on a delicate, unusual feature.
I also engaged in bullying behaviours because I didn’t “get” the connection between the words being said and what their meanings were. Around the age of twelve, my father started dating a woman with kids my age. They had a thing of poking each other in the belly and shouting “porkie”! The older sister, who had illnesses that caused her to gain a lot of weight, would get upset when I did this over and over, and at the time I thought it was just the poking of the tummy that she was upset about. It wasn’t until years later that I made the connection with the word “porkie” and the stomach.
Lastly, I was also a bully for the rather typical reason, and one that Hilary Duff’s character in “Aerodynamics of Gender” states – “The rest of us feel ashamed about ourselves, so we act like bitches to make ourselves feel better.” I was confused about feeling weird and not fitting in, so I was mean to other people so they would feel as bad as I did and I wouldn’t feel so alone. I would get upset at my friends and be mean to them, because I didn’t understand why they were happy when I was sad. I would physically hurt other children because I didn’t understand limits, and maybe didn’t even make the connection between what I did and the pain it caused, yet for whatever reason no child ever reported me. I would even say that I was generally well-liked throughout my schooling years. I remember one girl who was bullied so much that she had to change schools (I am so sorry, high school girl) and I wonder why that wasn’t me, because I was just as weird, if not weirder than her.
I also recognise that I tended to, and still do, monologue about an opinion, particularly a controversial one, and people, for some reason, won’t call me out when I say something inappropriate or something they disagree with (even though I’m totally down for being called out or hearing someone else’s point of view). And then people just don’t talk to me again, and I don’t get why.
These things have been on my mind a lot recently, as I am reconsidering my words and behaviours as an adult. I get so frustrated at my mouth. It runs away from me and I say things that afterwards, I recognise as totally inappropriate, but at the time just doesn’t occur to me. I love my job, but I worry that I’m going to say something totally inappropriate and get fired. We have a culture of joking at work, but as I did when I was a child, I’ve been taking that too far. Last week I said some things about an absent colleague that were definitely bullying, and I said them loudly… to everyone. My manager took me aside and reminded me that that wasn’t kind, but I shouldn’t have to have been reminded. I get frustrated that I have to add things to my mental list of “stuff not to say”, and then monitor that constantly, and then get exhausted from doing so which makes it more likely that I’m going to slip up. I forget that things that are appropriate with this group of friends are not appropriate with that group of friends, things that are appropriate at home are not appropriate at work, etc.
I worry constantly that HR will receive a formal complaint about what I say, and that I will have to explain myself and it will just seem like I am making excuses. “I’m autistic, so I don’t really “get” what’s appropriate, and I try really hard but sometimes I can’t control what comes out of my mouth.” Hmmmm. I get frustrated because I am intelligent enough that I “pass” as normal, and therefore people expect me to know better. I am intelligent enough that I recognise that things I say are just not cool, but socially inept enough that I don’t realise it at the time. I don’t read other people’s reactions in the moment, it is only after reflection that I realise that they probably didn’t like what I said, and that I should never have said it in the first place. Book-smart intelligence does not equal social or emotional intelligence.
It seems like such a cop-out, like I’m trying to shift the responsibility onto something I can’t control. But I feel out-of-control at times, and I also feel a lot of regret, guilt, and shame at what I say. Not just because of how it affects other people’s perceptions of me, but because I genuinely do not want to hurt other people. I really, really don’t want to offend other people, or make them feel bad or bullied or like they can’t, for whatever reason, tell me that what I have said is hurtful or wrong. Sometimes I feel like I should just never talk at all, and then I wouldn’t have a problem. I really, really want to make this job work, and I am simply terrified that my silly mouth is going to fuck it up for me.