Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part II: Stopping Bullies

No doubt about it, bullying is a serious problem. Especially for us Aspies and autists, and those who love us. For example, Tanya Savko feels it necessary to homeschool her 14-year-old autistic son, Nigel, because some other kids bullied him. Meanwhile, Sharon daVanport - herself an Aspie - discusses what happened when her Aspie son Ty was being bullied. I myself was bullied until maybe 9th or 10th grade, and it only stopped because I proved I was willing to fight back.

Marc "Animal" MacYoung, whom we met in my last post, gives a wealth of advice on how to avoid being bullied. Let's look at the dynamics of bullying:

To start with, many people end up getting bullied and assaulted due to the very behavior they hoped would prevent it. Confrontational tactics disproportionate to the situation, or even before there was any situation, combined with obvious nervousness (especially repeated quick glances at the bully), make clear to a bully that you are all hawk and no spit, and that you can start fights easily enough but you can't finish them.

As MacYoung points out, people who really are confident they can take on a bully don't go out of their way to try to show it. They either ignore him/her when s/he walks in, or give him/her a single momentary glance and then go on about their business. "Heavy hitters," as MacYoung terms them, do pay some attention to the bully moves - subtly; they devote the majority of their attention to what they were doing and keep their observation of the bully under wraps. And they know how to look at a bully in a way that really shows him they can wipe up the floor with him/her if need be - and that if not need be, that is if the bully doesn't start anything, there will be no confrontation and everyone can go about their business.

Whereas victims may bluff, may force a confrontation...and show weakness. Any bully who knows his (or her) business can sense whether you really believe you can take him/her on, and whether s/he's having an effect on you and if so what kind of effect. Remember that bullies enjoy scaring people: that's why they do it! If you were, say, a coin collector, wouldn't you be able to figure out quickly where to find coin shops and fellow collectors? Bullies can figure out victims just as quickly.

Bullies (and criminals, and many other folks) understand that most people have a very good idea of whether or not they can take them on, and that their behavior reflects that. Really confident people show their abilities without trumpeting them. Blowhards show their weakness. This is true whether the bullying is physical, emotional, political (as in either government politics or workplace politics, apartment-building politics, etc) and so forth.

Btw, when I say take on a bully, I don't just mean defeat the bully. If a bully figures there's a significant chance of actually getting hurt, s/he's going to find someone else. That's why many periods of bullying end with a climactic fight between the bully and the erstwhile victim. Win or lose, the victim can likely get rid of the bully after that since there are always easier targets.

Easier targets provide endless fun for bullies by showing how scared they are even before a blow is landed. Scared people don't resist since they don't think in terms of being free of the bully (although of course they would like that) so much as avoiding the worst possible treatment the bully can possibly give them - and bullies love to let their victims intimidate themselves by letting their imaginations run wild. It takes confidence, calm and short-term guts (not to mention pain tolerance) to stop a bully.

Bullying, like crime more broadly, generally doesn't start out of the blue - though it may seem that way to the victim who didn't see it coming. Bullies usually test potential victims, much like criminals, in MacYoung's word, give "interviews" - that you want to fail. The idea is to test you, starting out with very small impositions, things that can easily be denied or explained away if need be - maybe repeated "accidental" pokes, or jokes about your name or other nasty teasing, or a little kick to the shins when the teacher's back is turned.

If you give a measured response, the bully knows that you know the rules, you may well have the self-discipline and coordination which translates into good fighting skills and in any case you probably have the social competence to have friends who will help you out. S/he's likely going to decide there's no percentage in trying to mess with you, and move on.

If you overreact - or don't react at all, or cringe and beg, or ask the bully why s/he's doing this - the bully has hit pay dirt and will keep upping the ante to see just how much s/he can get away with.

This process might sound familiar. As MacYoung points out, acquaintance/date rapists do the same thing. So do blackmailers and extortionists - "[I]f once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane". The victim, thinking only of the here and now, sees only the small imposition compared with the much worse things the bully/criminal could do, and misses the not-so-long-term effects of signaling that s/he's afraid - namely much greater impositions. And of course giving in once makes it easier to do so again the next time.

When I was young, I read a magazine article about a child pornography - really teenage girl pornography - scheme. The girls had originally agreed to model, fully clothed, for money. How did the criminal get them to perform sex acts on camera? Not by coming up to them one fine day and saying "Here, now take it all off and do it with these boys while I take pictures." They would have been out of there like nobody's business. And just using physical force would have taken more muscle than he probably had - just putting guns to their heads would likely have resulted in their calling the cops as soon as they got out of there, unless he could somehow have either held them captive or kept them under surveillance to credibly threaten them with harm if they called the police.

Rather, he started out by offering to pay more for bikini photos - after all, what their parents didn't know wouldn't hurt them, and what teenager can't use some extra money?

After some bikini photos, he would suggest nude shots - perhaps first without full frontal nudity, then with it. The girls (that is, those who had accepted his offer instead of heading for the door) had shown they were willing to break the rules for money and that they didn't have a good sense of their boundaries and a willingness to defend them. Perhaps most important was the threat of blackmail - what if the photographer sent their parents the bikini shots?

And of course, the pressures were multiplied when it came time for actual sex on camera. The girls (the ones who remained, that is) had compromised themselves, both under the threat of blackmail and in their own minds; turning back now would also mean admitting to themselves how deeply they had fouled up. Also, they had been desensitized to sexual overtures from the pron kingpin. They were too demoralized to resist any longer.

It takes long-term thinking - the ability to see it coming and to make short-term sacrifices - to prevent bullying and to stop it in its tracks if it does occur. Among other things, you need to show self-restraint in how you interact with others. You also need to be willing to obey the rules (both the rules other people impose on you and the ones you set for yourself) as much as possible. If and when you do break them you need to be able to reverse course and admit to yourself - maybe even to other people as well - that you were wrong, and take your lumps. You may need to be able to actually fight once in a while.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

These are all very good points - especially the part about needing self-restraint in how one responds to bullying. That is a huge hurdle for Nigel - he doesn't self-regulate very well, and that is why he was constantly targeted. I'm hoping that as he gets older, he'll be able to self-regulate better, and this will make his interactions with potential bullies be less of a problem.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, thanks for this, I really needed it...

I'll reply to your email soon.


mama edge said...

Rocky, like Tanya's Nigel, is also struggling with self-restraint. I've tried giving him new responses to replace what he does now (a combination of grunting/teeth gnashing/screaming like a girl). Example: The kids all know he loves the band, The Doors, so they say "The Doors suck" to get him to do his girl-scream. I've suggested using humor ("I think the word you were looking for was 'rock', not 'suck') or offering to share his favorite CD so they can hear how great they are. But he still goes "Eek!" every time.

You noted that in 9th or 10th grade, you "proved [you were] willing to fight back." I'd love to hear the details. Maybe you hold the key to replacing his screeching with a more appropriate and productive response?

Stat Mama said...

Excellent series so far. There are some very good points here. The info schools often provide on how to deal with bullying seem to cause more bullying if kids actually try those tactics. What you have written is a very practical look at the problem, things that can actually be implemented successfully.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Mara,

Thanks for your acknowledgement.

Well, I did what I said might need to be done in the last sentence in the last substantive paragraph of this post: I actually fought.

It wasn't my first choice at the time and it wouldn't be my first choice if I had it to do over again (though I'd like to think that if I had a do-over, I'd get into somewhat fewer such situations). But it worked.

Hello Tanya, Chapati and StatMom,

Thank you very much also for your kindness.

Also best of luck to Nigel and Rocky. Yes, a bit of self-restraint really helps. There is something to teenagers' well-known emphasis on being "cool," in the sense that you keep calm and don't let someone's provocations get the better of you. If they get you mad, they've got you.


Jeff Deutsch