Like many autistic (and non-autistic) people, I was bullied at school.
Content Warning – Bullying and abuse by both other children and teachers.
My struggles with social interaction – see second half of Level 1: Requiring Support (aka “Mild Autism” – sic) – result in my being simultaneously very trusting (I don’t see signs indicating that I should be wary) and terrified of interaction, especially 1 to 1. Most of the incidents below stem from being unaware of how others might behave, and being (or feeling) powerless to influence them.
One of the first incidents that I remember was also the most embarrassing. It happened in the toilet block at primary school when I was maybe 6 years old. At that age I remember standard practice was to stand facing the urinals having taken pulled our school trousers and underwear down to our ankles. At least I hope I remember that being standard practice otherwise it was just a weird convention that I had randomly adopted. Anyway, I remember hearing “Pee on his pants!” from behind me and then another boy doing exactly that. The toilet block was on the opposite side of the playground from class, and there was no way I was going to pull up pants soaking wet with someone else’s pee, so I had to waddle back to class naked from the waist down. I spent the rest of the day in “emergency pants” that the teacher had found from somewhere.
All through primary school I was called names by the same two or three bullies. Some of the names weren’t inherently bad; it was the way they were used. “Robbo” can be an endearing nickname for someone whose surname is Robinson. But for me it was used in a negative way and often followed up by morphing it into “Robbo the robot” and then “Square head” (pronounced “Skware’ed” in the delightful diction amongst which I grew up). I don’t remember any physical bullying at primary school, but lots of intimidation and name calling. On one occasion I remember being brave and going out “to play” with two kids who I didn’t have marked as bullies but simply bigger egos than mine. One of the pair was OK, but the other used the opportunity of our being alone in some kind of remote place to pin me down on a pile of wood and intimidate me for what seemed like half an hour. Luckily the other kid made him stop.
On one occasion I remember being chased out of the little park at the bottom of the street I lived on by a gang of other kids who simply pelted me with stones as I ran away. The stones seemed quite large – like small apple size. I don’t know what led up to it but I didn’t ever really want to go back to that park.
After I left that school aged 11, I remember being taken advantage of rather than intimidated or name called. One particular boy used to find me in the queue for our school lunch tickets and ask to “borrow” fifty pence (5 school lunch tickets used to cost £1.25 if I remember correctly, so fifty pence was a couple of lunches). I always said yes, even though he never returned any of the loans, as I was simply too trusting on the first occasion and then too scared to make the pattern stop thereafter. I don’t remember how many times it happened or what made it stop.
I was only at that school for 2 years and then moved on to what was ostensibly a much “nicer” school; an ex “grammar school” that still behaved as if it were still one. But I still remember bad experiences, including one time as I was walking home a group of boys followed me and spat on my legs from behind, simply using me as target practice.
It didn’t happen often, but I was also abused by teachers in ways that would not be forgiven today.
Free time in class
The first incident happened when the class had been given the last half of a lesson to finish their homework. It was “Integrated science” which to me meant watered down science that I could understand with my eyes closed and half asleep, and of course I had conscientiously completed my homework the night before. As a result, I was agitated and anxious about what I should do with the time. There were no iPhones in 1977 that I could sneakily occupy myself with, and the guilt of doing nothing in a situation where I felt I should be working was quite enormous.
So I went to the front of the class to ask the teacher what I should do. I can’t remember his response now but it must have been something that didn’t make sense to me, so I went back to my desk confused. The agitation grew again, and I went back to the front to ask for clarification. This time he shouted something at me that indicated I should go back to my desk, and, as I turned around, to reinforce this message he gave me a double-handed shove on my back that nearly made me fall to the floor.
It might seem mild, but I was already confused and this made me even more afraid of interactions. A professional adult had behaved unpredictably and scarily.
False pretences in the holidays
I had one teacher who had a particular hobby that required him to have a large warehouse-type space to keep his hobby collection in. Over one summer holiday, I got a phone call at home. I remember being very confused by the call, which went something like this (names changed):
“Hi, it’s James. Do you have any spare holiday days?”
My first thought was “This is a wrong number. Someone looking for a travel agent maybe?”
“No, it’s James Frenshaw – your teacher!”
This unsettled me. School was quite strict and I didn’t even know Mr Frenshaw’s first name, and here he was using it on the phone to me!The phone call
It turned out that he wanted to know if I would go with him to his warehouse to use my skills with electronics to help him with his hobby stuff. Of course, I said OK.
So a week or two later he came to our house and drove me the 50 or so miles to his warehouse. It was an unheated, run-down place in the middle of nowhere. I almost instantly felt depressed as we arrived.
Minutes later he explained the help he needed and then appeared with a four-pack of larger which he encouraged me to drink to “Keep me going as I worked”.
So I did the job. I had maybe one can of the lager.
I remember asking if he had any rags to clean my hands (it was quite dirty work) and he pointed to a large trunk at the back of the workshop. It was filled with lingerie. Basques, stockings, bras. I couldn’t process what this meant.
Later, we went to his little office area which had a lit open fire. As the lager worked its way through my body, I asked where the toilets were. He said that there were none and I should do something fun like stand on the table and pee into the fire from there. I said no, and found somewhere outside. I remember him saying “Jammo will be disappointed!”. Jammo was the nickname of one of the other boys in his class, who he seemed to be quite friendly with.
That’s about all that I remember, apart from the fact that I had an overwhelming sense of feeling sad and depressed and wanting to go home.
Again, it might seem like something or nothing. Something that stronger willed boys might have laughed off and even been grateful for as an anecdote about that weird teacher. But for me, it just stuck in my chest like a heavy lump of slime that made me feel depressed and frightened at the same time.
One Reply to “Bullying (and Autism)”
One of my earliest bullying experiences is similar to yours. Instead of somebody peeing on my pants though, I was just confronted by a classmate and told in no uncertain terms that the way I was using the toilet was not normal. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but apparently I was old enough that I should have stopped doing that. I was forever the weird kid after that.
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