Trigger warning: bullying, anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts
Many autistic adults have written about the long horrors of their school days. They remember (unfortunately, they sometimes can’t STOP remembering) being poked and prodded, scratched and kicked, punched, doused with noxious liquids, and pushed down stairs. They remember being choked unconscious, set on fire, waterboarded, stabbed with knives. They remember being the one not invited to the birthday party, not picked for the sports team, not wanted as partner for a class project. They remember sitting alone on the bus, sitting alone at lunch, standing alone on the playground. More than anything, they remember the mockery and humiliation, the insults and cruel imitations, the echoes of savage laughter. And this is why there was such a visceral reaction when speech pathologist Karen Kabaki-Sisto published a piece called “10 Perks Kids with Autism Get From Bullying” on the Autism Daily News, in October, 2015. Kabaki-Sisto presumably meant well (something along the line of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”), but her piece was jarringly tone deaf to actual autistic experience. Most autistic adults (and many neurotypicals, including myself) who read “10 Perks” were outraged that anyone would suggest that their traumatic experiences and those of their children had any “positive” side at all.
The Impact of Bullying Internalized
Bullying causes such severe distress in schoolchildren that it may cause or exacerbate psychological disorders, especially what psychologists call “internalizing” disorders (ones that are not easily seen by others because emotional distress is directed inwards). These include loneliness, anxiety, poor self-image, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Prolonged bullying (the type most autistic kids endure) erodes trust in other people, leaving the victims feeling alone and helpless. By-standers fail to help, friends drop away, school staff refuse to believe reports of bullying, or give useless advice. Responding to Kabaki-Sisto, Jennifer reports that her bullying experiences left her with
A complete inability to trust others: This is due to never knowing who is actually your friend or who is setting you up to be the butt of a joke and/or using you for their own personal gain. You also realize your peers don’t give a damn about you enough to stand up for you, when they see you being harassed, made fun of, and physically abused by others.
Kabaki-Sisto had suggested that bullying might lead to increased independence for autistic children, but Purpleaspie did not view that as a positive thing:
In a twisted way bullying did increase my independence, as it taught me that I couldn’t rely on anyone to help me, certainly not the school principal or vice-principal or any of the teachers or counsellors, so I had to depend only on myself.
Lack of trust often leads to increased social withdrawal: “to avoid exposing yourself to betrayal in the first place, or because you lose the confidence and self-esteem you might have had before.” Kabaki-Sisto had suggested that being bullied might lead to new friendships, but this is not what autistic adults remember:
A bullied child will feel isolated from his or her peers, not drawn to new peers. When social interactions – already a situation that makes those with autism nervous – becomes associated with all of the negatives of bullying, a child with autism is more likely to withdraw within himself or herself and not try to make new friends.
Social withdrawal, however, only worsens the situation, as it removes even the tiny amount of social support that might be have been there before, making bullying even easier.
Lack of trust can result in intense anxiety. When Kabaki-Sisto suggested that bullying might make autistic children more aware of the people around them, one autistic adult described the kind of awareness that might result:
. . . she will grow to be afraid of everyone around her. She will be constantly afraid the next person walking down the street will take umbrage with her behavior. She will be afraid of doing anything that isn’t “normal,” and will question her own behaviors and thoughts to the point of near nervous breakdown.
School rapidly becomes a place of terror for children who are bullied. School refusal is a common outcome: Alex Forshaw is not alone in having bolted when being told it was time to go to school. Others, as we have already seen, may act up in school on purpose, to get suspended and thus avoid being there. Even those who can bring themselves to go to school suffer from debilitating fear. In ninth and tenth grade, my own autistic daughter used to vomit every single morning before going off to face the bullies. By the second part of tenth grade, she could only go at all if she took along a tiny stuffed animal, hidden in her pocket, to “be her friend” at school, and her arms were raw from anxiety-induced scratching. IndieSoul used to “shake and sweat from anxiety in school and hide in the bathrooms during recess.” Another victim reports fainting “just out of fear.” Anxiety is already high in most autistic individuals, but years of bullying in childhood ups the ante, laying the foundations for anxiety disorders continuing into adulthood. IndieSoul continues: “I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be completely rid of the anxiety.”
Social anxiety and panic disorders linked to bullying during childhood are very common among autistic adults, but particularly severe or long-lasting bullying may also result in post-traumatic stress disorder. To my knowledge, no researcher has examined how many autistic adults suffer from PTSD as a result of school bullying, but many individuals report having been professionally diagnosed with the disorder, and some describe their symptoms online. Flashbacks, or moments when remembered trauma seems to be happening in the present, are common: “Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of the days when I got bullied in school. They range from the typical teasing, to having things thrown at me, gossiped about, falsely accused of vandalism, being called mentally challenged, ‘roasted’ by the entire classroom when I had done nothing wrong or didn’t say anything at all, and eventually ignore by adults when I complained and after that, beaten up.” PTSD produces many other symptoms beyond flashbacks. Jellybean reports: “I suffer from panic attacks, palpitations, hallucinations, nightmares, physical sickness (rare) and have an overactive responce to potential dangers, even if the ‘danger’ doesn’t really exist. It is absolutely horrific to suffer like this.” Individuals suffering from such debilitating symptoms find it difficult, if not impossible to achieve a decent quality of life.
The most dangerous lesson autistic (and other) children learn from bullying, however, is that they deserve it. This is what the bullies tell them, this is what parents and school staff may inadvertently reinforce, this is what they eventually internalize—that they are somehow less than other people, unworthy of decent treatment, inherently flawed and deserving of punishment. “The assistant principal at my old school told me it was my fault I was being bullied and that I should change what ever it was I was being bullied about.” “. . . when I was made fun of pushed around etc in school I always thought I deserved it because I ‘asked’ for it, not being normal etc.” By high school, Kirsten reports, “my self-esteem had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t even conceive of the notion of self-love. In the back of my mind, I thought I was slow, stupid, ugly, a loser, and any other unwanted adjective I could think of.”
Children who have absorbed these lessons often develop clinical depression: “I got bullied at school and was depressed all of middle school/high school.” “I got a major clinical depression because of bullying. I’m on meds now.” Depression itself is severely debilitating, hindering both social and academic achievement, but it also often leads to thoughts of suicide—one study has found that suicidal ideation is 28 times more common among autistic than among neurotypical children. The problem appears to be not autism itself, but the experience of being bullied: the same study found that children with autism spectrum conditions who have been bullied are approximately three times more likely to think about or actually attempt suicide than children with autism who have not been bullied. A fourteen-year-old with autism who had already made two suicide attempts reported that the bullying “made me feel sad, depressed. It made me feel like people don’t care anymore because when I got bullied I felt like well if they cared about me they would have done something.” Bullies, and especially cyberbullies often encourage suicide with messages such as “you should just go kill yourself” and “everyone would be happier if you were dead,” but some autistic children simply find their lives in school unbearable and look to death as a relief. “I would have killed myself if my parents didn’t take me out of public school. The bullying was that bad.” Not only suicidal thoughts, but also suicide attempts and successful suicides are more common among autistic than neurotypical children. ”If I had not been bullied at school I would have had a refuge. Not having that? I tried to kill myself a few times and failed. I didn’t get found or helped, I just didn’t do it right. I am glad of that but telling me that I am stronger because of this [as Kabaki-Sisto did] is an insult to my intelligence, common sense, and every autist on the planet.”
Ultimately, after years of bullying, autistic children—like other bullied children—may simply lose their sense of self. However happy, engaged, and enthusiastic they may have been as young children, their experiences at school have turned them into angry, fearful, depressed and bitter adults. As the author of one response to “10 Perks” asks
Am I a better person for [the bullying]? How would I know . . . the girl you are talking about died thirty years ago and again and again yet she never gets to rest.
 It was later pulled from the Autism Daily News website because of the outcry against it.
 Jennifer, “A Response to the Ten Perks Children with Autism Get From Bullying,” on the Autistic Giraffe Party Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/autisticpartygiraffe/posts/429266380617441.
 “There Are No Perks to Being Bullied,” on the Purpleaspie blog: https://purpleaspie.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/there-are-no-perks-to-being-bullied/. See also Ian Nicholson, “Ten Things THIS Autistic Kid Learned from Being Bullied,” on the Digital Hyperlexic blog: https://thedigitalhyperlexic.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/ten-things-this-autistic-kid-learned-from-being-bullied/.
 S.M. Neumeier, “Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks,” on the Silence Breaking Sound website: https://silencebreakingsound.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/bullying-is-abuse-and-abuse-has-no-perks/.
 TechyDad, “Perks From Being Bullied? I Don’t Think So!” on the TechyDad blog: http://www.techydad.com/2015/10/perks-from-being-bullied-i-dont-think-so/.
 On the high levels of anxiety among autistic children and adolescents overall, see J. Wood, and K. Gadow, “Exploring the Nature and Function of Anxiety in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 17 (2010), 281-292.
 J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 “Perks” for bullied autistic kids is bull.” Medium magazine, 10/16/15: https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.
 Alex Forshaw, “Bullying: Resurrecting Buried Trauma,” on the My Autistic Dance blog: https://myautisticdance.blog/2015/10/18/bullying-resurrecting-buried-trauma/.
 We home-schooled her for her junior and senior years, because we just couldn’t watch her suffering anymore.
 IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder,” on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798.
 Iknewyouweretrouble, in the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=231102&start=15; see also franknfurter’s contribution to the “What Were You Like in Elementary School?” discussion: “i also had panic attacks a lot, and was bullied, it was not a time i care to remember, only emotions about elementary/primary school i remember feeling was anxiety” (https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=226220).
 IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder,” on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798; see also Oten’s contribution to the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=231102; NerdyKid’s contribution to the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; Feminist Aspie, “10 Downsides Kids With Autism Get From Bullying (because apparently it isn’t obvious),” on the Feminist Aspie blog: https://feministaspie.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/10-downsides-kids-with-autism-get-from-bullying-because-apparently-it-isnt-obvious/. See also NerdyKid’s contribution to the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.
 School bullying has been identified as one potential cause of PTSD in the general population: T. Idsoe, A. Dyregrov, and E. Idsoe, “Bullying and PTSD Symptoms,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 40 (2012), 901-11; T. Gumpel, “Prolonged Stress, PTSD, and Depression Among School Aggressors and Victims,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma 25 (2016), 180-96. Little research has been done on school bullying and PTSD among autistic individuals; see only C. Kerns, C. Newschaffer, and S. Berkowitz (2015). “Traumatic Childhood Events and Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45(2015), 3475-3486. The authors include bullying as one of the potential sources of traumatic stress.
 Ameriblush, in the “Remembering years of bullying” discussion on the Aspies Central website:
 Jellybean, in the “Complex PTSD As Result of Severe Bullying” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=47533&start=45.
 This_Amoeba, in the “People Normalizing Bullying You Got As A Child” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=336587.
 Daedal, in the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165. See also J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 “Perks” for bullied autistic kids is bull.” Medium magazine, 10/16/15: https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.
 Kirsten, “Bullying . . . The Real Problem . . . An Aspergian Woman’s Perspective”: http://wrongplanet.net/bullying-the-real-problem-an-aspergian-womans-perspective/.
 IHaveAspergers,” in the “Is Suicide Common In People with Aspergers?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.
 hello07, in the “People with Apergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.
 S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013.
 Cyberbullying Research Center, “Helping Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder When Bullied or Cyberbullied”: https://cyberbullying.org/helping-kids-autism-spectrum-disorder-bullied-cyberbullied.
 Autistic students are often targeted with such messages: see the “Why Are People Telling Me to Kill Myself?” and “I Was Jus Bullied, Called a Retard & Told To Go Kill Myself” discussions on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=341134, and http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=299688.
 PunkyKat, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165 .
 O. Shtayermann, “Peer Victimization in Adolescents and Young Adults Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome: A Link to Depressive Symptomatology, Anxiety Symptomatology, and Suicidal Ideation,” Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing 30 (2007), 87-197; Benjamin Zablotsky, Catherine Bradshaw, Connie Anderson, and Paul Law, “The Association between Bullying and the Psychological Functioning of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 34 (2013), 1-8; S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013; Danielle Ung, et al., “The Relationship between Peer Victimization and the Psychological Characteristics of Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 32 (2016), 70-79. See also the personal accounts of Hello07, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; IHaveAspergers, in the “Is Suicide Common In People With Aspergers?” discussion on the same website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.
 Kateryna Fury, “Why Bullying Isn’t Healthy for ANYONE,” on the Textual Fury blog: http://snip.ly/oLlW#https://textualfury.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/why-bullying-isnt-healthy-for-anyone-a-post-intended-for-karen-kabaki-sisto-trigger-warning-for-everyone-else-also-i-cussed-a-bit/.
 “On the ‘perks’ of bullying . . . ,” on the Antigenic Self blog: http://theantigenicself.tumblr.com/post/131203829795/on-the-perks-of-bullying.
2 thoughts on “The Impact of Bullying: Internalizing Disorders”
Thank you for writing this. I didn’t know so many other autists suffered this hell. Sometimes I forget I’m not the only one who barely survived growing up autistic. Ironically, the adult autistic community online is not as inclusive and accepting as one would think, considering… 💜💜
I was hardly ever bullied in school because it was a girls’ school and because I didn’t want to have anything to do with the other girls. I stayed away from them and went to the backyard by myself during recess. I was barely noticed.
I was bullied at home by my own parents. It made me not trust anyone, including myself. But it made me learn marshal arts and it made me rather fearless.
Homeschooling is an option, as is teaching autistic children self-defense, involving the authorities, threatening to go to the media with this, a lawsuit.
So tired of hearing bullying’s no big deal when it ruins lives and leads to suicide. As long as no bones are broken, it’s nothing. In cases of severe bullying, bullies should simply be thrown in jail, I don’t care if they’re eleven years old. And in less severe cases, they should still be punished properly.