I interview a young adult who has high functioning autism. Here is her heroic story of overcoming the terrible effects of teasing and bullying. And by using this story of this young woman, we show how a three-step process can help overcome the effects of years of bullying.
Kids as well as adults with Asperger's syndrome often have more than their fair share of bullying and negative social experiences in their formative years. Bullying is hard for anyone to cope with, but for extra sensitive kids with Asperger's syndrome or autism, even mild teasing or exclusion can really change the way they view themselves and their damage their self-esteem. Years later, they may still find themselves affected.
So what can you do to help yourself or a loved one on the autism spectrum recover a sense of confidence after trauma at the schoolyard?
The other day, a friend of mine asked me a question that got me thinking. She had previously told me how her college roommates excluded her and made fun of her, and how she found it hard to talk to anyone now or make friends. She was constantly thinking that other people thought the worst of her, even several years removed from the experience. She had so much anxiety she could hardly talk to people. "How," she asked me, "do I regain my confidence?"
As she talked, my mind wandered back to my own experiences with the very same issue she was having.
What helped me? What would help her? As a person with high functioning autism, what could I do?
1. Surround yourself with positive, accepting people.
Even if you don't know them well, join a church, a hobby group, or a support group, or stick close to any friends you may already have. These groups may not have any members with autism but that does not matter.
Most of my negative social experiences were in junior high and high school. When it came time to choose a college, my only criteria was one with as open and tolerant a student body as possible. Two years after I started college at a small liberal arts college with a very friendly and accepting student body, I noticed something. I was no longer afraid of people. My anxiety and issues with being teased as a child with autism were subsiding.
Overcoming Past Reflexes
I had spent most of the last two years unable to shed my previous reflexes from middle and high school. I was sure everyone was talking about me behind my back, knowing that I has high functioning autism. I was positive if I passed a group of students and heard them laugh, that they were laughing at me.
I scurried away when other kids approached. I kept waiting to hear negative things about myself from others.
And waiting. And waiting.
It never happened.
I never did get any negative comments from others. Instead, people were warm and conversational towards me. Having autism was manageable. We might not have been fast friends, but I had many people who I chatted with, and no matter how much I thought they would, none of them ever walked away laughing about me afterwards.
Two years later, I finally got it -- I was okay the way I was. These people liked me, eccentricities and all. They even admired my uniqueness, wanted to find out more about me. Finally, I felt comfortable in my own skin.
So, the moral of the story is...
Try to replace your negative social experiences with ones that at least have the potential to be good. And then be prepared to wait, because unfortunately, healing takes time. But it does happen -- even for those of us on the autism spectrum.
2. Write about it
I can't count the number of times I sat in my college's computer lab, pouring out the stories of those years to a blank computer screen. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote some more.
I submitted a story about bullying to my college literary magazine, and wrote about in occasional assignments for writing classes. Eventually, I think all that writing got it out of my system, because I finally got to a point where I was sick of writing about it. I was starting to recover and heal from the awful bullying I endured as a child with autism.
I had expressed every emotion, examined every situation from every angle, and finally felt some measure of peace about it.
Writing can be a great way to get out emotions and stories hidden deep inside you that you might not have another way to express.
Suggest to your loved one that they keep a diary about these experiences.
Perhaps model to them how to do it. If you think it will help, buy one of those fancy, elegant paper diaries with pretty designs and a lock to help entice a female loved one to start writing.
Writing tip -- many people struggle with writer's block when they first start. If you can't think of anything to write about, then just write whatever the first thing that comes to mind is. And keep writing, no matter how silly you think it is. Eventually you will access deeper thoughts.
3. Talk about it
There are some pretty strong emotions that go along with being bullied, whatever the situation. Shame, humiliation, self-blame, and lack of confidence in yourself, to name a few. It helps to talk to people about what you're feeling. This can be a friend, family member, or therapist. They can help you process your feelings. They might seem overwhelming at first, but the more times you tell the story, the less power it has over you. Don't give your negative emotions power over you by not expressing them.
Parents, encourage your loved ones with autism to talk about their experiences. Do not judge or minimize anything they say. A counselor may be helpful.
There is hope for those with autism who have been teased and bullied.
I will never forget standing in my guidance counselor's office in high school, and catching sight of an article in a magazine there. It was an article about a girl who had been bullied quite badly in school, and it had taken her six years of counseling to regain her confidence. Six years???! I remember thinking when I read that.
You've got to be kidding me! Six years seemed an eternity. I knew I couldn't take six years more of feeling like this! In the end, it was probably more like three or four (and more life experiences than therapy that helped). But it was worth it to get to the other side. It's worth it to be able to live your life not having to always look over your shoulder. To bask in the simple knowledge that you are liked, even loved by others, is the sweetest reward of all.
So what did I say to my friend when she asked me? I said, "Surround yourself with people who are good to you, make an effort to interact, and the rest will come." Healing has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it, even for those of us on the autism spectrum.