[UPDATED to include links to other rebuttals of this piece.]
In a previous post, I said that when people who support the abuse, bullying, and belittlement of autistic people “praise me for my accomplishments … it feels like a slap in the face. You’re proud and impressed because I got here in spite of obstacles you created and that you support?”
Object lesson: a piece posted today at Autism Daily Newscast and penned by Karen Kabaki-Sisto, titled “10 Perks Kids With Autism Get From Bullying.” I won’t link to ADN’s site, but I have saved the article in .pdf format, which you can access here.
As an autistic adult who is spending thousands on therapy per year to treat the PTSD caused by childhood bullying, I’d like to do two things. The first one is to unleash a barrage of swear words not limited to the languages of any particular solar system. The other is to consider, carefully and in great detail, the exact ways in which this article is wrong wrong wrongity wrong.
That is, I’d like to do two things. In this post, I’m just going to do the second one.
Here we go. Trigger Warnings for bullying, abuse, PTSD, and paaarents making it all about them. Because I quote content from Ms. Sisto’s original article, I have placed my analysis below the cut. (Or you can read a different but also completely honest analysis by Wandering Autistic here.)
EDIT: In addition to the piece at Wandering Autistic, here are a few more fantastic takedowns of Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s piece:
- Shain Neumeier notes that Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks
- Cambria shares MY Ten Things I Learned from Bullying, as an Autistic
- Similarly, Feminist Aspie reminds us of the 10 Downsides Kids With Autism Get From Bullying (because apparently it isn’t obvious…)
- And from The Digital Hyperlexic, Ten Things THIS Autistic Kid Learned From Being Bullied
- Angie, mom to an autistic son, lists the Perks of Avoiding Bullying
- In Benefits of bullying? Nope, The Caffeinated Autistic tries to have a Twitter conversation with Karen Kabaki-Sisto (@KarenSisto) …with unproductive results.
- The tireless activists at Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance (PACLA) say it straight: There Are No “Perks” to Being Bullied
1. Promoting Autism-Friendly Programs: Bullying in schools can sometimes be the result of prejudice against the unexpected ways that children with autism speak and socialize. Not unlike other prejudices, this is an opportunity for parents and the school to promote social justice, tolerance, respect, and acceptance.
As an educator, I’d like to say this: Why in corn’s name are you waiting for a child to be abused by their peers in order to “promote social justice, tolerance, respect, and acceptance”? The time for that promotion is all the time, no matter who is or is not in your current classroom. If you wait until after your kids have already picked up on your lack of these basic expectations and started bullying one of their peers, your students will know that your new social justice initiative is so much horseshit.
My husband and I have three classroom rules. The third one is “be kind.” It’s there because basic kindness is not optional in our classrooms. It’s not an add-on. It’s not a patch you hot-glue in place this marking period because, whoops, we’ve got the autistic kid in the back row. It’s all the time, for everyone, or no one.
As a bullied autistic child, I’d like to say this: The bullies know you don’t mean it. They know that if you really saw me as a person, you’d have demanded acceptance from the start and punished them for stepping out of line – not patched in a feel-good seminar after the fact.
2. Team Work: Working together as a team in partnership with you as the parent, the school’s teaching staff, aides, principal, counselors, and psychologists will provide the safest environment for your child to learn and enjoy.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll just point out that this one, like the first, should be a basic requirement you demand because your child is a human. It concerns me deeply that Ms. Kabaki-Sisto, as an ABA practitioner and speech-language pathologist, is highly likely to be on one of these “teams,” yet here she strongly implies that she doesn’t even see this kind of close-knit teamwork as essential until after one of her students has already been abused.
Additionally, I find it exceedingly ironic that “bullying will make you better at teaming up with the school!” is on a list of reasons bullying is totes good for your kid. …If bullying is really so good for your kid, why are you teaming up with the school to stop it? (Hint: It’s because you know it’s hurting your child.)
3. Autism Awareness Every Month: Not just during October’s National Bullying Prevention Month but always, more awareness of the bullying of kids with autism means more awareness of autism overall.
As both a former bullied autistic child and a current autistic teacher, I say to you:
Bullies are aware that autistic classmates are autistic.
The idea that bullies don’t realize the kid is different, and that they will just magically stop picking on the kid once they’re clued into why the kid is different, isn’t even horseshit. It’s fairytale unicorn shit. No bully in the history of ever heard the words “Don’t pick on Johnny, he’s special,” and quit. Ever.
They just get better at hiding it from you. And since they already know that you live in a world where unicorns are real, they know it’s not even that hard to hide it from you.
4. Kids Learn Skills: Teaching your child how to deal with bullies increases her verbal communication with words, nonverbal communication like body language and facial expressions, survival skills, civil liberties, and independence.
I confess: Before I read this article, I really wanted one of author Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s ten points to be “your child learns to throw a punch.” I’d still feel obligated to point out that there are faster, better, and safer ways for your kid to learn how to throw that punch, like a martial arts or kickboxing class, but at least I’d believe Ms. Kabaki-Sisto knew the first thing about either being autistic or being bullied.
Being bullied did not teach me any of these things. My parents “teaching [me] how to deal with bullies” did not teach me any of these things either- especially as my parents employed an ABA-inspired model that assumed that if I wasn’t learning better communication, nonverbals, survival skills, or independence, then bullying must not be a sufficient aversive to motivate me to learn.
Some of these did improve for me over the years, because kids develop: a six-year-old is less good with words than a ten-year-old, and your average third-grader cannot duck or dodge as quickly as your average ninth-grader.
But getting better at these didn’t end the bullying. In fact, it made it worse: the closer I got to ABA’s “indistinguishable from peers” gold standard, the more I got bullied for “faking it” and “trying to pretend like you’re not some r*tard.”
Being bullied taught me that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried to get better with words or facial expressions or “survival” or civil liberties or independence, it wouldn’t matter. I’d be abused if I did and abused if I didn’t, and no one would step in to intervene.
This dynamic set my development – and my academics – back for years. When I finally started proceeding at the pace I should have been running from the start, it was only after three years in a supportive, safe environment where no one bullied me.
5. Builds Strength: As your child learns defensive skills from you, his friends, and his teachers, he is growing stronger connections with everyone.
You know, I identify with Ms. Sisto’s point here – but not as an adult. Oh no. I identify with it as a child whose mother did jack shit about the daily bullying her kid endured, in part because it made her feel better to provide tea and sympathy when her child broke down with daily panic attacks. That was a “stronger connection,” all right. It was also pathological as fuck.
If you need other people to injure and traumatize your kid for you to “connect” with them, words cannot describe all that is wrong with your parenting. Hie thee to therapy. NOW.
My husband, also a teacher (but not autistic), adds: “Yeah, connections with everyone except the bullies. Which just makes it worse, because that means [the bullying]’s not getting handled.”
Ms. Sisto’s sixth point I will quote in its entirety, because it’s quite possibly my favorite:
6. More Friendships: Discussing the communication and social deficits experienced by kids with autism puts greater social responsibility on their peers who don’t have autism. When it comes to a child with autism, being a proactive observer can make all the difference to prevent bullying and protect them. As a result, your child will spend more time with good friends, make new friends, and possibly will want to get involved in different activities with them.
Are. You. Even. What.
If I wasn’t convinced before that Karen Kabaki-Sisto has never been a bullied autistic child, I am now.
Here’s what happened to me. From kindergarten until third grade, I was reasonably well-liked by my classmates: not the favorite, but not the class scapegoat, either.
Between fourth and sixth grades, I lost every friend I had ever made at school – and I never got a single one of those “friends” back. The friends I made in high school came from different elementaries, and they were not friends with anyone I’d attended fourth through sixth grades with.
When the bullying became overt in fourth grade, my so-called “friends” sided with my bullies over me. The bullies had the power. They had the popularity. They had the tacit approval of the teachers and administrators, who did not even pretend to address the problem with lectures on “tolerance” until well after the bullying reached its peak. My “friends” faced the option of siding with me and becoming targets themselves, or siding with the bullies and keeping themselves safe at my expense. After that, every lecture about not picking on me because I was “different” and every attempt by me to “make friends” was treated as incentive to redouble the bullying.
Bullying does not buy your kid friendships. It buys your kid bullies, opens the door for everyone else to abandon “the weird kid” out of self-preservation, and breeds resentment against your kid when adults attempt to intervene to “explain” your kid’s “weirdness” and “put greater social responsibility on their peers.”
7. Overall Well-Being: Monitoring potential bullying activity requires the teaching staff to supervise more and create new interventions to ensure the well-being of your child.
Right. Because teachers don’t have anything else to do.
Good teachers already “monitor potential bullying activity” in the classroom. They don’t wait until someone has been abused, as Ms. Kabaki-Sisto’s first point on this list seems to recommend.
But good teachers don’t pay attention to classroom dynamics so they can “supervise more” or “create new interventions.” They pay attenion so they don’t have to “supervise more” and “create new interventions to ensure the well-being” of their students. They do it so that they don’t have to micromanage their students’ behavior, which frees them up to answer students’ substantive questions about the lesson. They do it so that every member of the class is already invested in supporting the well-being of every other member of the class.
In a Twitter response to another critic of this article, Karen Kabaki-Sisto (@KarenSisto) claims that we can’t stop bullying “100%.” But many teachers do, at least within the walls of their classrooms; many coaches do on their sports teams. We do it by building the culture in ways that defuse the option. “Be kind” is a rule for a reason.
A classroom run right doesn’t need to be micromanaged to prevent harm. If your child is being bullied to the point that they need an in-class bodyguard, you have a problem no ten-point list of ersatz silver linings is going to fix.
8. Healthy Relationships: Ways to deal with bullying also help your child deal with sibling rivalry, ‘stranger danger’, or any other personal threat.
Like learning to throw a punch or to tell a blistering “yo momma” joke, learning to deal with sibling rivalry, strangers with candy, or “any other personal threat” can be done faster, better, and with less trauma in a bully-free environment.
Additionally, I see Ms. Kabaki-Sisto’s ethos in peril with this comment. Although she claims to have extensive experience working with autistic children as an ABA practitioner and speech-language pathologist (SLP), the author’s statement here assumes that autistic learners will generalize lessons learned in fending off bullies to skills available in a fight with a sibling, when approached by a nefarious stranger, or in “any other personal threat.”
Ms. Sisto seems unaware of the significant body of clinical evidence suggesting that autistic brains are particularly ill-equipped to generalize lessons, to carry skills learned in one context to another context, or to retain any learning at all while in a “fight or flight” state (a known challenge for any brain, autistic or not). Instead, she suggests that one “perk” of bullying an autistic child is that that child will demonstrate an ability that even non-traumatized autistic children struggle to demonstrate. It flies in the face of both clinical data and common sense.
9. Increased Life Skills: With your child’s increased communication, survival skills, and independence, she will become more aware of the people around her. This makes your child a conscientious citizen and a good Samaritan towards other people who may be in need overall, not just due to bullying.
Steve Rogers did not beat up bullies in back alleys because he was bullied. Steve Rogers beat up bullies in back alleys because he was compassionate.
Know how I know? Steve Rogers is a Hufflepuff at heart. And so am I.
I’m not a Hufflepuff because I was bullied. I was a Hufflepuff before my first bully ever showed up on the scene.
But. For thirty years of my life, I did nothing with all that compassion and empathy that is endemic to Hufflepuffs. I did nothing because all the trauma built up from years of being abused froze me in place. I needed years and thousands of dollars in therapy (and several suicide attempts) before I began to unfreeze. I’m still working on it.
What good is empathy and compassion if childhood trauma prevents you from using it? Besides, not every kid is a Hufflepuff at heart. Studies show that abused children are more likely to become abusers themselves than non-abused children are. Gryffindors might respond to being bullied by rising above it – Ravenclaws and Slytherins will burn your house down or destroy your Google search engine results.
Why the hell are you taking that risk with your child? Being bullied is THE WORST way to have to learn compassion.
I repeat, incredulously: You’re proud and impressed because I got here in spite of obstacles you created and that you support? You have no right.
10. Self-Esteem: Ironically, and in spite of the bully’s goal to do the opposite, your child will grow self-confidence and self-preservation esteem.
Also, a damned lie.
I made my first plan to kill myself at the age of seven, and I did it because bullying had taught me that I was worthless. Twenty-six years later, I struggle daily with suicidal thoughts, self-hatred, and PTSD flashback episodes – many of which are to the bullying I endured in childhood.
What self-confidence and desire for self-preservation I have today, I scraped out of my consciousness in spite of the bullying I endured as a child, not because of it. That should not be celebrated. It should be mourned. How much happier and healthier would I be today if I had not had my physical, emotional, and mental health damaged for all of my formative years? How much closer would I be to achieving my personal goals?
We’ll never know. Because I was bullied. Bullying took things from me I will never get back – and hearing Ms. Kabaki-Sisto praise me and others like me on Twitter for surviving our bullies is demeaning in the extreme.
Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s article hits a new low in “autism journalism.” I would not have expected to see this piece posted in the darkest, most self-absorbed corner of Autism Speaks’s website, much less plastered in the opinion section of a soi-disant “positive” source like Autism Daily Newscast. I’m appalled that it was ever published. I beg Ms. Kabaki-Sisto and ADN alike to reconsider its existence.