Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions

Title: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions

Author: Nick Dubin
Amazon Rating:
Asin: 1843108461

Nick Dubin’s thorough and comprehensive book about bullying is written from the perspective of children.

It details his experiences of being bullied in a school environment and of other people who have also been subjected to it. He also discusses a number of bullying related factors and how they impact on the individual and its direct and wider implications.

Though there is reference to the work place, it is limited and the text needs to be read with a school environment very much in mind. This does not, however, mean that the book is anything but worthwhile reading for a manager with AS. The principles laid out are also applicable to the workplace.

According to the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) and trade union Amicus, 1 in 10 employees in the UK say that they have been subjected to bullying at work. I know because I am among that number.

For a person with Asperger syndrome (AS) the figure may well be higher. As Dubin investigates in his book though, there are specific reasons for this. There are also strategies for dealing with, or at least ameliorating, the effects of it.

According to Dubin people who are being bullied will “not stay in a job long”. But, as he rightly goes on to say, many do not have the luxury of leaving. For someone with AS, there is the added disincentive of not wanting to leave a company they are happy working within due to the difficulty of facing, and overcoming, change.

The book starts with the author outlining his own experiences of being bullied as a child. Importantly, he makes the point early on about how he entered University with the pre-conception that he would automatically be victimised and how damaging this would be, i.e. how being bullied was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This, for me, is hugely important and a variation of the theme of “what you think about you bring about”. I don’t believe that it is necessarily true that someone with AS will be victimised in the workplace, but if someone thinks they will be bullied, the likelihood is that it will happen. In other words, a positive mind set is the starting point in ensuring that it doesn’t.

An observation is then made with which I can resonate very closely: that the most damaging bullying of all is done by someone in authority; where the goal is not to help someone, but to demean them.

As I will come back to later, being victimised by a superior in the corporate hierarchy is possibly the hardest type of victimisation to deal with. This is especially true where people claim to be friendly or supportive as a way of hiding any personal dislike. However, as Dubin quite rightly asserts, “be clear that you won’t accept it”.

Most usefully, the reasons’ why Asperger syndrome may contribute towards instigating bullying are addressed early: weaker social interaction, different ways of thinking, poorer communication skills and how these manifest themselves – saying strange or odd things for example, inappropriate trust and how people are categorised as either “angel” or “bad”.

As I point out in my own book Managing With Asperger Syndrome, a key objective for any manager with AS is to not trigger or provoke any hostility initially via ones personal disapproval or own reactions.

There are a number of these which Dubin identifies as possible and potentially inflammatory:

• Low frustration tolerance. Or over-reaction caused by disrupted routines, sensory stimuli or unpredictable or noisy environments which induce emotional reactions in others. The end effect may be “meltdowns” that make a person stand out.

• Monotropism – or differences in executive functioning. The key difficulty here is multi-tasking; switching between tasks leads to mental overload causing meaning to be missed or context to be misinterpreted.

• Motor difficulties or gullibility.

• Auditory processing delays which affect the way verbal abuse is handled. There may be an inability to respond effectively as cognition is slower to decode information and find appropriate responses.

• Problems reading non-verbal queues.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and useful insights of all that Dubin identifies relates to the last point – reading non-verbal queues.

It is generally accepted that most people with AS have the ability to process visually but not visio-spatially. In other words, decoding non-verbal cues such as body language is problematic, but pictures or words in a book are not. The former is an abstract way of taking in, and processing, information – detrimental given that 85% of communication is non-verbal.

To these I would personally add reaction to unfair criticism. If someone (I perceive) attacks me unjustifiably in a work context, it has in the past led to a hostile response which has antagonised the other party.

Standing on principle or ethics can also be provocative and both of these issues can, I have found, lead to lasting grievances in others which is particularly damaging, especially if the “culprit” is in a more senior/influential position.

The author then outlines other AS factors which may contribute towards increasing “differentness” and a confrontational approach from others.

• Special Interests which are often unrelated to popular culture. Communication of these will not impress other people and lead to the person with AS being viewed as odd.

This really can contribute towards the “differentness” associated with AS and needs to be carefully guarded against in a work context. Trying to identify common interests to talk about is something I believe can really reduce barriers and distance from colleagues. If someone talks about the same things, then they can’t be “that” different.

• Lack of imagination which leads to difficulties in pretend play or “acting”. Being honest to a fault is a related issue.

Corporate Politics is perhaps the hardest issue that I have had to address in my career. I simply don’t like it, am not good at it and don’t want to engage in it. For me it is in a way unethical and against my principles.

However, I have come to accept that I have to adjust to, and accommodate, it. “Acting” is highly advantageous and not reacting to provocation, hiding one’s feelings towards others and generally adhering to the prevailing corporate line, doesn’t automatically necessitate compromising ones integrity.

• Odd use of language, or using words inappropriate to the context, that others find condescending. Words that are suitable to the audience need to be identified.

For me correct word selection is very important. Using sophisticated verbiage not only sends the impression of condescension, but also that someone with AS is more intellectual than they actually are. The latter has implications in terms of perceived performance capabilities.

The book then moves on to addressing these issues and makes suggestions about how to improve the situation.

It starts by making the pertinent point alluded to at the start of the review. “Children can’t necessarily leave a school and, even if they could, would probably experience the same problems elsewhere”.

Finding a supportive and acceptable working environment for someone with Asperger is not straightforward. When one is found it should be safeguarded and issues of victimisation be dealt with and not avoided.

From my own personal experience, I know how damaging and difficult it can be to work within an acceptable [work] context whilst enduring victimisation from a manager higher up. It wasn’t that leaving meant I would, in all probability, encounter the same problem elsewhere. It was that I didn’t “want” to leave and yet that, realistically, my progression and career were in effect blocked.

Dubin quite rightly asserts that recognising when one is being victimised is the starting point for ameliorative action. Not allowing yourself to apportion self-blame as a result of the AS condition is essential.

Among the specific things he advocates in relation to self appraisal and prevention of victimisation are increased understanding of:

• The need for self-awareness to realise greater self-acceptance. The knowledge of understanding why one is the way one is, and why related issues enable and facilitate empowerment, is important in securing the inward assurance that is important to face the matter.

• Find a role model: someone on the AS spectrum who can act as a mentor; someone that can empathise.

• Re-structured settings: these help to prevent bullying confrontations by avoiding certain environments, i.e. noisy ones or where one is alone with a bully. It is also important to secure time to adjust to transitions between different activities.

• Safe havens: places where one can go when experiencing a meltdown and feeling overwhelmed and which prevent someone from displaying any form of resistance. Vulnerable settings that increase this likelihood should be avoided wherever possible.

• False Victims: a state of mind or mentality where a person feels that they are always a victim.

• Provocative victims: someone who unintentionally provokes others and so who, as a consequence, of being brutally honest, causes offence, i.e. talking badly about other people.

• Catastrophizing: weak mental flexibility or poor central coherence which makes generating a broader meaning out of small details difficult meaning that the “bigger picture” is missed. For example, seeing oneself as the cause of the bullying, rather than the bully’s personal agenda. This causes anxiety and worry about what will then happen personally.

If the perception is that someone dislikes you, you will avoid them. Anxiety can also result when transitioning, environmental changes and social situations where there is no “script” occur. All may increase withdrawal and the risk of being targeted. Ross suggests “thought stopping” as a cognitive technique when worrying about future events.

• The Social isolation Factor: most people with AS lack a social support network i.e. a lack of friends. Finding a special, common interest that can be shared is important as it helps build self-confidence and esteem.

• Hygiene. Making sure one is always presentable.

• Encourage Leadership Opportunities: leaders generally aren’t bullied as they are admired and respected.

Most of these factors are replicated in a work context. I have always believed that changing ones own approach is the starting point for improving ones own situation.

As I have progressed through my career, I have gradually become aware of how many of the factors that Dubin lists and my independence and isolation have sent a variety of negative messages to others: that I am not interested or indifferent to colleagues; that are (unintentionally) am superior; that I share little in common with them. Instead of addressing these factors by changing, I have accepted at times criticism and portrayed myself as a victim. I have tried to address these issues in a variety of ways.

I have quickly become aware as a manager with AS of how having my own work space or “safe haven” could be extremely beneficial. If the environment is right, then chances are many related issues are mitigated. I always try hard to find the right environment initially.

What is more difficult has been finding a “mentor” with AS in a corporate environment. Central to this is the issue of divulgence. This is less important where a manager has been formally diagnosed and has disclosed their AS, as it may encourage an organisation to provide some form of mentoring support. I have not been diagnosed and finding a manager who I feel I can trust has not always been easy.

However, Dubin’s next suggestion about empowering bystanders, and how their role is crucial, is more realisable. For me this has enormous value and should be made a key priority for any manager.

I realise with hindsight that I have not previously satisfactorily built the required support network I need. My natural independence has significantly contributed to this. Having colleagues who are on ones side is hugely beneficial, and I have strived to build bridges with a wide circle of colleagues.

Usefully, Dubin outlines the reasons why bystander intervention is not the norm and why it may not happen. For me, these reasons are even more pronounced in a corporate context.

• Positive intervention involves group support. However, most people are wary of, and do not want to, risk their social standing/position by supporting a targeted, sometimes unpopular person. As a result, most people remain only “possible defenders”.

• Peer mentoring helps with integration into mainstream social environments. A mentor needs to understand what AS is. To form an effective mentoring relationship however involves time spent outside the work environment together, possibly via social activities.

• The invisibility of AS: people with AS are less likely than peers to enlist bystander support from others: a) because they have fewer friends due to social barriers and; b) because AS is an invisible disability – the symptoms displayed are often “soft signs” meaning that the inappropriate behaviours sometimes displayed look purposeful (in other words, the disability is less overt than classic autism). People are therefore less likely to rally round or reciprocate friendship.

In addition, peers expect people with AS to act normally because, outwardly, they appear normal. Differences only appear later meaning a person with AS is judged as NT.

These issues are where the book’s insight, advice and guidance begin to assume less relevance and applicability.

This is not a criticism or the book’s fault; it was written with children in mind. But many of the suggestions do not transfer effectively and highlight, for me, the difficulties faced by people with AS working in responsible, formal corporate positions. They are also, however, the precise reasons why the subject is so important.

I would agree that most people are sympathetic and positively disposed towards helping someone who is being victimised. When one’s livelihood, future and career are on the line I have found, in reality, means openly supporting someone is a different matter. When push comes to shove, I have found that most people simply feel unable to take the role of “possible defender” and risk jeopardising their own position.

In addition, finding someone with sufficient empathy, patience and understanding as an AS mentor is far from easy in a corporate context; one which, unlike an educational establishment, is not automatically geared towards personal development objectives. An AS manager should strive to identify such a person, but cannot rely on actually doing so.

Informing the company of any victimisation is an even more vexed issue. The implications mean that, in many instances, the consequences are simply potentially too damaging – being viewed as a complainer or running the risk of antagonising someone higher up.

Where one can personally self assist, I believe, is by changing behaviours that inflict self damage: looking presentable, not using inappropriate discourse, being amenable to others and not confrontational and, above all, controlling feelings of personal dislike and disapproval (ethical) – which are always likely to be present in a corporate context – towards others.

There are a number of pertinent examples taken from a teaching context here. Managers may be unintentionally agitated by someone with AS by: a) being told that a directive is wrong or – to them – unacceptable; b) refusing to do something unless told explicitly why it is relevant personally; c) acting upset or confused when changes to a set routine occurs or; d) failing to provide constant re-assurance and guidance that exhaust a manager’s mental and emotional resources.

The book’s next point – Empowering Teachers (or Superior Managers) is a variance on the above mentioned difficulties.

As the author quite rightly points out, teaching is a very difficult job. Teachers need to create an atmosphere that is conducive to collegiality; one that suppresses the conditions that encourage and facilitate bullying.

Managing is difficult too, but corporate objectives may mean that collegiality cannot be a priority or be realisable. A teacher working with children is obliged to try and assist the individual; a manager focused on delivering commercial returns may not be necessarily.

A manager with AS cannot expect to assume a superior will allow an (albeit possibly unintentional) challenge to a directive to go unquestioned, or accept someone not doing something they perceive to be irrelevant to them or provide the constant re-assurance desired.

However, the book does make a number or relevant and valuable suggestions about coping with bullying which can be extended into a corporate context.

It begins by exploring how an understanding of bullies can be developed and what their motives are. This is relevant given the political nature of organisations, something that a person with AS may not fully appreciate due to a lower ability to understand human behaviour.

Dubin identifies the imbalance of power as the key element of bullying. For bullying to occur there must be an imbalance of power, an attempt to assert it over a person and intent to harm or damage them. Often it is covert and not actually said openly.

Power is central within organisations. The victimisation I have experienced has been to a degree a result of egos and personal power bases. I have not automatically respected these as my AS has dictated there is no reason why should!

In my case, Smith’s point about bullies having good social cognition and “theory of the mind” skills to engage in anti-social behaviour without becoming exposed themselves is highly relevant. Doing so enabled one manager to locate what Dubin describes as my Achilles Heel – my personal uncertainty about my own character and ability to effectively counter criticism.

According to the author, the underlying or unconscious reasons for bullying often have a fear based, emotional underpinning. I can resonate with that; and also see with hindsight how my reactions exacerbated a response from the individual concerned. The individual concerned was, I believe, insecure and my responses exacerbated that insecurity.

Bullying involves exposure consistently to negative actions and this occurred with me over an extended time period. The mistake I made was not confronting it sooner. This is why I concur totally with Dubin’s assertion that if a teacher (manager) criticises unfairly, it must not be accepted without challenge; they must be confronted.

Out of any imbalance of power comes an urge to exploit the weakness of others. If a person senses they have power over someone they will seek to exploit it as it provides a feeling of greater self-esteem. If left unchecked, a feeling of fear may develop and this is what, with hindsight, I believe happened to me.

The book then goes on to make a number of useful suggestions about techniques that the individual can develop to further enhance their protective armoury.

Comebacks. These involve the acquisition of a basic verbal self-defence repertoire, without which one is virtually powerless to defend oneself from verbal abuse. Impaired (Asperger) auditory processes make it extremely difficult to formulate on-the-spot defences/responses when being attacked.

One comeback that I have developed is asking the question “can you explain exactly what you mean by that” when faced with a specific criticism; in other words, seeking clarification and not taking a statement at face value.

Importantly, Dubin’s key rule of “no matter what anyone says to you, keep your cool” is I feel sacrosanct. Ignoring attacks may not be possible but “appearing” stoic is essential. If one loses control and has a meltdown, it is all over; the ability to self defend is lost. If a bully has to work too hard, they will usually move onto an easier target. Do not tolerate bullying by a superior.

His next suggestion is also important: build a support group. This will reduce personal isolation whilst increasing that of the bully. Try to find someone supportive to be with. If you can, it is generally likely that you will be picked on less when you are with people. For a bully to create an imbalance of power he/she needs to benefit from a base of support; bullying will be less successful if others don’t offer support.

Bullying comes as a surprise for someone with AS, as bullies strike without warning. As I have also found, the surprise is an extra jolt as there is a lower protective emotional shield because of personal sensitivity. Each instance of bullying becomes more cumulatively draining, exhausting and frightening.

Once that fear is created, the bully can act without any consequence of retaliation. Disapproval of peers is the most effective action and the support of bystanders reduces the bully’s self-esteem.

Other techniques that Dubin suggests are certainly worth considering and trying. “Playback Theatre” enables individual’s to see their own behaviour played back for self-evaluation. I have done this and seeing how I come across – which was unsure and nervous – made me appreciate how I could possibly have sent the signal that I was susceptible to criticism.

“The No Blame Approach” is where a teacher meets the victim first to hear their story and elicited effects; next the bystanders are spoken to. The problem is identified and the bully told why it bothers the victim. Afterwards each person involved is spoken to in private. Talking to the bully about the effects their behaviour has on the victim will encourage empathy. A bully cannot argue with how their actions impact upon someone else.

This approach negates the need for the person with AS to speak directly which may be difficult – as would be confrontation.

Speaking, however, is a non-confrontational approach and may not tackle the root problem; it is a reaction to one incident. A manager cannot negate his responsibility. The best approach I have found is to confront the oppressor constructively in the presence of a fellow senior manager. The latter have a duty to listen and bringing the issue out in the open, in a non-personal way, will expose the wrongdoing and undermine the confidence and ability of the person to bully.

The author’s next technique – relating to a common interest – is also useful. If I had educated the manager targeting me more about my personal area of expertise, it would have overcome his ignorance and enabled him to learn to appreciate my talents more closely and get to know them better. It would also have lowered his ability to criticise my ability and performance.

Victimisation and oppression is a regular occurrence in the workplace and something which impacts on a person with AS more than most. However, as Dubin outlines it can be confronted.

Overall, a very useful book. One I would recommend a manager with Asperger to read and build on.


Managing with Asperger Syndrome