How to Create a Bully in an “Accepting” Environment

A lot of autistic people like black and white rules.  We want rules that make it clear what is, and what isn’t, acceptable.  Unfortunately, not all the world works that way.  While clear, concise, easy-to-summarize rules are ideal, they simply don’t fit in every situation.  In fact, they can make things worse for autistic people (and others prone to being victimized by others’ abuse).

One of the favored technique of my childhood abusers (the bullies, I.E. those who assaulted and battered me) was to provoke me to violence or meltdown.  They would simply learn the rules of the classroom and manipulate those in a way that was a bit more socially cleaver than I could.  For instance, they might know that a certain sound was nearly unbearable for me, while the teacher didn’t.  They might also know that this sound wasn’t considered a violation of rules (perhaps it was free time or lunch).  And they might know that my reaction to the sound would render me unable to clearly communicate.

So, the abusers, knowing this information, would provoke the meltdown.  When I screamed, punched at the abusers (note that I was much, much smaller than them and couldn’t have done any physical harm to them even if I wanted to when not overloaded), ran from the room, or otherwise responded in the only ways that I could – note I say ONLY ways, and this is important – I would then find myself in trouble, sometimes serious trouble.  And of course I wouldn’t be able to defend myself eloquently (or likely any way other than screaming incoherently).

So what happened?  I stayed after school.  The abusers may have even been seen as victims of my unpredictable violence.

Yet my “violence” wasn’t unpredictable.  The abusers predicted it, and, in fact, sought it.  They were hardly victims of an unstable, mentally defective kid.  No, they were already showing the signs of sociopathic behavior.

Yet, what, objective, verifiable, non-subjective events occurred?  Two did – and this is why a non-subjective, black-and-white evaluation is not sufficient:

  • The abusers made some sounds, which were allowed by school rules (some noise is of course allowed at some times of the day!)
  • The victim reacted violently, loudly, and incoherently, against school rules

To solve this with central authority (I.E. teachers, principals, etc), the central authority would need two things.  First, they would need to have empathy and a deep social understanding of the situation, including the motives that were at play.  Secondly, they would need the ability to articulate that to others in authority and to the abusers.  They would need to show that they weren’t going to be a tool the bully uses to abuse their victim.

Most teachers fail at that.  So do most organizations that claim to be supportive of disabled people.  It’s hard, and true social understanding a rare gift among both autistics and neurotypicals.

I see this behavior online frequently.  Someone will try to skirt the rules of a forum or group, and provoke others.  When there is a lack of moderator or SIGNIFICANT community opposition to intentional provocation, it’s only a matter of time before someone is provoked and violates a formal, black-and-white rule.  Yet the destructive element in the community was not the formal rule violator.  Rather, the problem was the guy (or gal) that walked-the-line and stayed just shy of crossing it.  That person had malice.

When rules don’t recognize the difference between provocation (malice) and response, the bully has been given a true weapon.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to put malice into a black and white rule.  And often when a leader or community stands up to such bullies, the bully will publicly, loudly, and, often, successfully claim to actually be the victim!  After all, they “didn’t violate even one rule, but are now being excluded.”  Particularly in communities where people have been excluded for inappropriate reasons, people will sympathize with the person claiming to be unfairly excluded.

In autistic circles, there’s a further element.  The destructive bully will know the community norms.  He’ll know we want black-and-white rules, because we have trouble sometimes with following, with good, non-malicious intentions, the fuzzy rules.  So he’ll point out that he violated a fuzzy rule, to gain our sympathy.  It’s easy to see his side and say, “Wow, I could have done that too.  It’s hard to know what the rules are if they are fuzzy, and if they are going to throw people out for that…that’s unfair.”  Ironically, this typically leads to a call for black-and-white rules, which are the exact tool that the bully needs to cause even more havoc in the community!

We need to be cognizant of this in our communities.  It’s okay to exclude someone who intends to destroy a community, even if they are clever and able to walk just inside the line of what is covered by black-and-white rules.  We don’t need people operating under malice.  We don’t need, nor should we tolerate, the bully.  But we need to recognize what bullying looks like.  It’s not the autistic child provoked to meltdown who then strikes out at their antagonizer.  Yet, that’s exactly who the black-and-white rules would say was the bully.

We must not enable bullies by immediately sympathizing with them.  We need to recognize that it’s possible to follow the black-and-white rules, yet be a very destructive and dangerous person.  Yes, dangerous.  And we need to agree we don’t want those people in our midst, or at least we don’t want to give them the weapons to inflict damage.

Yes, people are excluded for bad reasons too.  When an autistic misunderstands a rule and unknowingly violates a fuzzy rule, this is not the time for exclusion.  And we need to fight against that exclusion.  But throwing out all fuzzy rules isn’t something that creates an inclusive environment.  It creates bullies.  Intention can be everything.

Zero, Eighteen, and Other Horrible Numbers

Quick, what does 18 mean to you?

Maybe it means the age you get to vote (if you live in the US).  If you drive trucks for a living, it’s the classic number of wheels on your rig.  It’s the atomic number of argon, a very noble gas indeed.  It signifies prosperity in some Chinese culture.  Maybe it’s just a number that comes between 17 and 19.

What does zero mean to you?  I’m not sure, but to the Weld County (Colorado) School District, it means zero common sense.

You see, in addition to a list of bad words, they have a list of bad numbers.  I couldn’t make that up.  13, 14, 18, 31, 41 and 81 are all bad numbers.  Gangs have used each of these numbers as “branding” for their gang or their ideas, apparently.  So, using zero common sense, Weld County Schools ban any use of the number.  Even when that number is worn by a third grader in the form of a Payton Manning jersey.

For people who don’t keep up with American Football, Payton Manning is the Colorado Bronco’s new star quarterback.  So it is sort of expected that a school kid from a nearby town might own a few things with his number on it.  Like a jersey.

While I absolutely believe in keeping students safe from violence, I’m not sure anyone with sense would think an 8 or 9 year old wearing a sports jersey of the local star football player is a gang member (and, no, people aren’t getting shot in Greeley for wearing the number 18!).  And never mind you can wear 88 (a pro-Hitler reference) at school!

That’s the problem when people develop “simple” and “clear” policies.  They both fail to achieve the desired goal (banning symbols of violence or symbols that might incite others to become violent) by not being far-reaching enough (such as not including 88 or almost any other number that can be used by someone for hateful purposes), while simultaneously going too far (and applying to people who are conveying a different meaning than gang membership).

Sure, it’s good to have simple and clear policies.  But blind application of rigid principles ends up hurting people.  There are times and places for exceptions to rules (and common sense).

For instance, we don’t want students to make threats to other students.  But what do you do when you report the severe bullying of a disabled, younger student, and the school does nothing?  Well if you let the kids know you’ll do something about it, you’ll get suspended.  For bullying.

Or, a pool might ban life jackets, water wings, and other flotation devices.  Should they ban them from a disabled child swimming with his mother?

The problem with cut-and-dry rules and policies is that they don’t take exceptional circumstances into account.  People aren’t cut-and-dry.  We’re messy, hard to classify, unique, and have all sorts of oddities that nobody but ourselves may realize.  It’s pretty hard…no, it’s impossible to write comprehensive policies that give a nice flowchart of questions and answers.  Because you won’t always ask the right question.  You need to ask questions like,

  • “Was the number 18 being used as a gang symbol by this third grader wearing the local football quarterback’s jersey?”
  • “Was the threat by this older student disproportionate to the situation and actually bullying behavior?”
  • “Are these water wings helping this disabled student take part and enjoy the pool, in a way that would be impossible otherwise?”

Sure, you could add these types of questions to the offensive policies, and that certainly would improve them.  But it wouldn’t approve them enough.  Rigid enforcement of rules doesn’t do anyone any favors – it will ignore real harms while simultaneously causing harms of its’ own.