Exploring Bullying with Adults Autism and Asperger Syndrome

The subject of bullying is both a sensitive and a vexed one for those with Asperger syndrome, (AS). Because of the “differentness” inherent within the condition, it can make people with AS the target for some people of what I usually describe as oppression or victimisation.

For this reason I have studied the subject quite extensively as a manager with AS. I found Exploring Bullying with Adults with Asperger Syndrome and Autism by Bettina Stott and Anna Tickle invaluable though, perhaps, not entirely for the reasons I expected!

Due to my own experiences I know that bullying often manifests itself in a work context. However, what I have usually found is that the bullying” is typically subtle: because of legislation, most bullying is not overt, it certainly isn’t physical. As the opening text states: bullying can happen in many different settings and in many different ways.

The structure of the text takes a relatively standard approach: it outlines what bullying is, why it can happen, who can bully and who the likely victims are. It then goes on to provide exercises that encourage the reader to consider why they are being bullied and – interestingly – why a person with AS may be prone to bullying themselves.

The book adopts a relatively simple, straightforward discourse, mainly because it is targeted towards a young audience. However, the underlying themes explored are undoubtedly applicable for an adult audience and – also – of strong relevance to a work context. Its first piece of advice – seek help and support if being victimised – is worthwhile it itself.

From a work perspective, the description of bullying as sometimes emotional which results in unwanted feelings such as unhappiness or fear is, from my experience, highly relevant. Perhaps more so, however, from being in a corporate setting, is how some individuals engage in “mind games” to undermine someone or their position.

I know from my own experience how damaging this can be. Subtle tactics such as writing memos with unjustified criticism or placing me away from key players and with junior staff members at executive dinners come to mind. Nothing illegal about doing so, but the [negative] message gets through all the same.

The authors describe scenarios which may make a person more vulnerable to bullying: being alone, wearing unconventional clothing or divulging sensitive information to untrustworthy people for example; conversely doing the opposite can provide protection. Usefully, the importance of a person with AS improving their communication is highlighted and emphasised.

The next discussion point got me thinking. Namely, that anyone can be prone to bullying – or become a bully themselves without realising it. As the authors rightly assert, being aware of this is beneficial and the starting point for addressing bullying related issues. Valuing yourself as a person is also important as is being aware of what makes you different and having supportive people around you.

Why having AS “may” make you more vulnerable to bullying is then investigated: being different, unintentionally excluded, seeking re-assurance excessively. Understanding these issues makes one more aware of ones’ feelings – especially emotional feelings, as these are experienced differently by people with AS. How strong the emotional feeling is will affect how you deal with it.

Thoughts may also be influential. These differ and can change depending on how you are feeling or what other people say or do – or perhaps more pertinently what other people think of us. Thoughts may not be facts: instead, they may be personal beliefs, judgements or perceptions that may not be commonly accepted as true. If you think something for long enough, you may begin to think it is true even when it is not.

These types of thoughts may be unhelpful and need to be stopped. This section of the book is extremely useful as it investigates some of the reasons why this may be the case with a person with AS: viewing things as “black and white” or 100%; personalising – making your thoughts all about yourself; catastrophising – overly dramatising things so they get out of proportion; “shoulds, coulds and musts”: which lead to unrealistic expectations such as “I should have done better” (perfectionism); ignoring the positive: negating positive thoughts and focusing on the negative only; “mind reading” – assuming that you know what the other person is thinking without evidence ; “predicting the future – assuming something IS going to happen when it may not and; “labelling” or stereotyping – I can’t get on with people.
Our behaviour can change and depends on other people as well as our thoughts and feelings. We need to think more before we do. As the authors say, we are all responsible for the way we behave and what we do. Doing so can be hard: people may pressurise us to do things we do not want to for example. However, we all DO have choice and we CAN change our behaviour and do new things to change situations that are unacceptable. What we do and how we behave towards others will also affect them.

Assertiveness towards other people is important for someone with AS. Expressing your feelings directly in a way that is not threatening or aggressive is essential and involves knowing your rights and expressing them respectfully towards other people to prevent victimisation are all important.

The next point was particularly relevant to me personally: assertive behaviour lies between passive and aggressive. Passive is where the needs of others are always put first. Aggressive is where ones’ own needs are expressed without consideration of others. Assertive is where you express your own needs whilst acknowledging the needs of others.
Which position we adopt may depend on circumstances or who we are interacting with. One way of behaving may work well in one situation, but not in another for example. If being passive when confronting a person/issue is required, or if you do anything to placate them, it may result in them taking advantage of you.

Learning how to be assertive takes time and also for other people to appreciate you will not be passive. However, learning new ways of how to behave towards others usually leads to people adopting new ways of behaving towards you. Remaining passive can make one vulnerable to bullying, especially if you do anything to avoid confrontation. As a manager with AS, I believe this is critical advice.

The key point to confronting bullying is to stand up for yourself’ assertively whilst respecting the needs of the other person; this – usually – results in reciprocal respect: bullies pick on people unable to defend for themselves. Being assertive also helps you build relationships with other people that can be the source of protection.

Being assertive involves knowing your rights and also asking for help when needed in a confident, respectful way. It is not always easy. If someone is being aggressive, they may ignore your attempts to be assertive but, as the book correctly points out, it is important to persist.

In such situations the authors suggest some useful techniques: i) the “broken record” approach of repeating your point (using scripts) whilst listening to the other person; ii) manage criticism: do not accepting critical or hurtful comments as automatically true. Nobody has the right to insult you. However positive criticism can be the source of learning, so being seen as receptive to this is advantageous. If you do disagree, stay calm and state that you do so; iii) saying no when you absolutely have to; iv) not apologising when it is inappropriate; v) saying no but letting the other person know why and that you have heard them and, importantly; vi) saying no aggressively when you have to.

The importance of the relationship between feelings, thoughts and behaviours is emphasised. What we feel and think can change and so, in addition, changes our behaviours. If we assert internally we will not be bullied it assist enormously in preventing it. Changed thoughts lead to other beneficial factors following!

The text then looks at how we might feel, think and do when we are being bullied. Remaining positive in mind is important. Bullying may not always be recognised by the target meaning we can be bullied but we do not realise it. It also affects people if different ways and it is the emotional affects which may be most damaging: it makes one feel bad about oneself’ – “nobody likes me” for example. As someone affected by AS, I believe the latter point is highly significant.

Change the above and also the way we behave is a beneficial starting point. Do not avoid a bully to prevent the situation building up over time and getting worse; do not respond aggressively to make you appear the protagonist. However, as the authors also rightly point out, there is no one way to deal with bullying but adopting these and other approaches such as confiding in someone you trust can all be beneficial as well.

However, it is also important to recognise when you are not being bullied. Just because someone is saying something that you do not like for example, it doesn’t mean that they are bullying you. If in doubt question the person as to why they are saying what they are.

The book then makes what I believe is a very important point in relation to bullying and having Asperger syndrome: being bullied can make you act in unhelpful ways. You may not act because you are afraid of your ability to deal with the situation or it may make you overly-aggressive as a means of compensating.

Remedial measures advised start off with conventionally sound advice which is worth repeating: the way you deal with bullying depends on the type of bullying and who is doing it. Remembering that you do not deserve to be bullied; only confronting bullying if it is persistent; keeping notes and building a record if you are; confiding in someone you can trust; challenging the person positively in the first instance if it happens. Above all, ensure that you feel “right” emotionally for the reasons why you challenge and why you are doing so.

Ultimately, however, there are times when the bully simply will not stop. Here, as Stott and Tickle rightly in my opinion assert: you need to keep yourself’ safe to protect your health. Remove yourself from the situation. As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, there is a chapter entitled If You Meet That Person which is about a manager whom I simply could never have worked with and, because of his extraordinarily bullying approach, caused me extreme mental anguish. My advice – which mirrors Stott and Tickle – was to extricate oneself as soon as possible.

The authors then investigate an area which is why I found “Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome” so thought-provoking, useful and why I would thoroughly recommend it for any manager with AS: why a person with AS bullies themselves’ and why they may be perceived as a bully.

At first I was slightly taken aback by this, but the message is one of the most important and beneficial I have assimilated in my readings recently!

The starting point for understanding this is appreciating why a person with AS reacts when they are being bullied: when they feel angry, anxious – it leads them to feel under pressure and adopt inappropriate coping strategies. In addition, it may not be understood how these resultant behaviours affect other people. As Stott and Tickle importantly emphasise, it is vital to take self-responsibility for our own actions and behaviours.

Unintentionally offending others – by using direct and blunt discourse for example – may be construed as bullying by others. Not being able to communicate effectively and so establish effective inter-personal relationships, leading one being regarded as deliberately ignoring others if they appear aggressive can result in being seriously misunderstood. This was certainly the case with the aggressive manager mentioned previously: my passive-aggressive stance (with an emphasis on aggressive in terms of my demeanour) towards him was undoubtedly the catalyst for his subsequent – vicious – victimisation and bullying.

Other examples that resonated to me – and which from reading this book have become more apparent – are not considering sufficiently other people’s views or simply speaking without giving them opportunity to respond. I can see now more readily how this may be regarded as “arrogant” or wanting to “just get my way”.

The key point, as made in the book, is that others will not understand why you are acting in the way you are. Smiling when inappropriate is one example cited and which, in turn , results in damaging responses by them.

A really relevant example cited for me was approaching people in an inappropriate manner. With retrospect, I realise I have done this on a few occasions. Looking back my demeanour was “passive-aggressive” and emanated from having to ask or confront third-parties about an issue about which I felt very uncomfortable. Another analogy – which was put to me by my boss at the BBC – was the way I approached people, which was too intrusive and insufficiently subtle – basically butting in! As the authors say, the rules in these types of scenarios can be quite complex.

The same point relates to relationships and associated, unwritten rules. This is an area where I personally have experienced great difficulties. I can be too open and trustworthy or have, unintentionally, affronted authority because of my propensity to literally interpret. As Stott and Tickle assert, relationships are often defined by how much we know about someone and what has been shared by them with you. Very useful – and thought provoking advice!
Because they are so complex, it can be easy to misunderstand the purpose of any relationship. This can lead someone with AS to behave in ways that are inappropriate or uncomfortable towards the other person: regarding someone as a friend or an ally for example.

You need to be aware of the relevant rules and what it is appropriate to talk about, as well as the ways of behaving towards other people. Not being aware, or breaking, these may be misinterpreted by the other person. It can also lead to non-reciprocation by the other person which, for a person with AS, can be hard to understand and appreciate. This can then lead to frustration and anger.

The point of constantly or excessively seeking reassurance is then revisited. I can resonate with this strongly from my own experience. Asking for reassurance may lead the other person to feeling pressurised or obliged to say things they regard as undeserving. I can see why, on reflection, why this may make people feel uncomfortable and colleagues wary of me. Instead, trust yourself and acknowledge internally when you have done something well.

Failure to fully understand the feelings and intentions of others can also result in detrimental outcomes. Being overtly worried about negative occurrences can make one appear apprehensive and confrontational. At times this may be justified. The key is to be aware of these feelings, challenge them and adopt a positive approach to avoid coming across as susceptible or aggressive.

The importance of understanding why one feels the way they do is then explored. If you feel affronted it can lead to actions such as withdrawal or bluntness that other people may not understand or react to. Here it is important to inform the other person why you are feeling this way to prevent misunderstandings arising and mitigate the propensity to want to do something back to them.

Avoiding difficult or inappropriate environments such as noise or heat can also be beneficial to avoid development of tension. Feeling powerless is also damaging or “where there is nothing I can do” which can induce a negative reaction.
However, the book then moves onto looking at certain facets which I believe can certainly antagonise people as a result of having AS and which I have, perhaps, unintentionally demonstrated in a corporate context.

The first is superiority. I have never intentionally set out to project this of course, but by assuming command when I am insufficiently prepared or overly asserting my authority when under pressure I can see how, with retrospect, I have come across as adopting a bullying demeanour.

Another example is “curiosity”. I am interested in people and like to know about them. However, I can see that there have been times when I have enquired too much into people’s private lives which is inappropriate in a corporate context. This has caused in a very few cases some disgruntlement.

Perhaps the most important AS related characteristic that the book alludes to however is fear. When under pressure – and as a result of my Asperger syndrome – when feeling anxious as a result of being unable to say what I truly feel for example – I can become and appear aggressive. In extreme examples, I have been simply unable to communicate my needs or have struggled to respond appropriately. Though doing so may make me feel better in the short run, in the longer term the consequences invariably are detrimental. It is also likely that you will regret how you acted later and appreciate that it is inappropriate. Getting back at others will come back to haunt you later. I have certainly learnt this to my cost on one particular occasion, (though I was not responsible for provoking the discord initially!).

Commenting about the other person or judging them personally can also be construed by others as bullying. The key point that the authors make is that we can bully people in a number of ways. Most of them are subtle which makes it particularly hard for someone with Asperger to recognise them. It is this point that I found most insightful and why Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome was so invaluable.

The starting point is to admit to how you may be – unintentionally – bullying yourself. Apologising or not responding aggressively, for example, can have many benefits. It shows the other person you recognise the effect you are having and that you care about them. This can significantly help reduce anger on their part.

Finding other ways to feel good, rather than bullying, is also recommended: remaining calm, taking time to relax, talking to somebody about your concerns, exercising or reminding yourself that other people have the right to respect. Thinking of past successes is also advocated and is advice that I have personally found very beneficial.
Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome really opened my eyes a little. It alluded me to the way that I, as both a person and a manager, can be construed as “bullying”; not overtly of course, but in ways that result from my Asperger and which other people are unlikely to understand and appreciate.

By looking at the causes of bullying as emanating – not always but at times – from an AS related source, the authors have provided a new and somewhat unique insight into the causes of bullying and how to avoid and prevent it.
One of my personal mantras that I have adopted, and which I believe has really enabled me to develop as both a person and a professional with AS, is that: if you want to change others, you need to change yourself first. It involves demonstrating things like empathy of course, but putting (or at least trying) this into practice has brought me enormous benefits and greatly assisted in building my inner self-confidence.

Try to read Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome if you can: Stott and Tickle have written an extremely important and invaluable text; one that deserves to be read and its key messages considered and assimilated.

Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome,
Anna Tickle and Bettina Stott
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
ISBN: 978-1-84905-035-7

Managing with Asperger Syndrome