Bullying is cruel and harmful, and when it is motivated or exacerbated because the victim is disabled then it becomes hateful. But what happens when the abuser is ignorant of particular “hidden” types of disability, such as autism. Are the bullies still accountable for the harm they inflict because they are ignorant of how an autistic person presents themselves?
How do services, such as the police, respond to such hate incidents? Are frontline professionals skilled enough to unpick such dynamics of abuse?
As an autistic woman, by the age of 44 I felt confident that I had left all my years of being bullied behind at high school. It was a shock to my nervous system when I began to be bullied by my adult neighbours. Without going into specifics, my neighbours undertook a deliberate campaign to cause me ongoing upset by restricting my ability to go about my daily, everyday, activities.
Name-calling was rife – on one occasion two adults screamed “you’re a weirdo” and “you’re a f***ing idiot” directly at me, and in front of my already anxious (autistic) children. They qualified this language use because I hadn’t directed my enquiry to them in a neurotypical way, like a “normal person” – “why can’t you act like everyone else?”
Tactics swiftly moved on to them forming allegiances with other neighbours; harnessing gossip, rumour and spreading untruths with the sole intention to isolate and ostracise me from the other neighbours.
For someone who is already set apart from the immediate community because of innate, social communication difficulties, the sense of injustice and pain at being treated so unfairly is still strong. Using social greetings and making polite small talk is not something I naturally excel in. I don’t have a social smile, which I have been told, makes me seem as if I am “stuck up” – I give the appearance that others are beneath me, apparently. (In actual fact, I am quite often so terrified at initiating social contact that I walk on past a neighbour, giving the ground my sole attention instead. I’m not being rude, I am just not skilled at greeting other people.)
Being isolated in such a way leaves few options for self-preservation when bullying rears its ugly head, and seeking support via official avenues becomes imperative for maintaining personal resilience and seeking resolution. But even seeking assistance in this way is not the panacea one would imagine. I recall desperately trying to explain the hurt caused by being called a “weirdo” to a bemused call handler who was adamant that such name-calling was not motivated by hate and could not be classed as such.
Being autistic very often intrinsically sets one apart from non-autistics for a myriad of reasons (put simply, we often cannot understand them, and they often cannot understand us). This doesn’t place one party as being superior to the other – just different. And so ridiculing someone for their difference (whether explicitly naming that difference or not) is still hateful, because it purposefully identifies “difference” as the target.
However, the real injustice seems to me to be the inability of support services to assist in redressing the power imbalance underlying this specific type of hate bullying. In a society where autistic people are still grossly underrepresented within positions of power, the current balance of power swings to neurotypical folk, who are skilled at adapting their communication style to each circumstance and for the benefit of themselves. Without a good understanding of how autistic people may communicate, official services cannot truly support victims of autistic hate crime until they recognise that those conducting the bullying are only able to do so because their “non-difference” gifts them with the power of being in the social majority.
I feel shame at being bullied. I am embarrassed, distressed and intimidated. The hostility directed towards me makes me feels as if I am in the wrong. My natural instinct is to hide and avoid all the additional, complex and conflictual social communication that is intrinsic within reporting hate. But it is only through speaking out – loud and proud – that difference will be understood. Without understanding, difference will always be sought out and targeted.