Like many on the spectrum, I was not a happy child. Having supportive and loving parents, I was luckier than some. And I have seen some photos of me, as a very young child, smiling. But my abiding memory of the camera was always the gentle encouragement to stop frowning, to look happy. I was rarely happy.
My primary school years were a particular trial for me. Infant school is peppered with memories of solitary play, of watching from the corner of the playground or imagining wild jungle scenarios in my own little world. Quiet, strange, a little lonely, but mostly harmless. But in junior school, surrounded by peers becoming more and more aware of the social world, my strangeness could no longer pass unnoticed. Articulate on paper but slower in words, I was bullied mercilessly: first by older children, and then by my peers. The saying, oft quoted by my parents, that “words can never hurt me” provided no comfort. Sticks and stones I could have dealt with – those I could learn to fight – but somehow I could never get to grips with words. I remember my mother hugging me, telling me I had to try to be less sensitive: don’t let them see they’re hurting you and they’ll go away. I couldn’t hide it.
I was around 10 when I realised I could hit people to get them to stop. I learned it by accident one day: overwhelmed with the rage and shame of constant public humiliation, I just lashed out. This, I later found, was particularly effective against girls. Since I’d had a growth spurt by this point and was one of the tallest in my class, the verbal bullying I’d been defending myself against carried little weight with teachers faced with a cute little sobbing blonde pleading I’d hit her. But it was the only way to make them stop.
I don’t like to think about where this path would have taken me. Thankfully, my secondary school was focused on academic achievement and had an excellent anti-bullying culture. Having flared up a couple of times, and been met by peer behaviour of surprising emotional intelligence, the brutal lessons of junior school were quickly scrubbed out. But it’s sobering to realise the full impacts of being in an unsafe environment. However strong you are, eventually all you are left with is how to survive.
The lessons of childhood have a strange habit of popping up again in adult life. It’s easy to get cocky, thinking you’ve outgrown the vulnerability that pushed you to anger and violence. I thought that chapter of my life was over. I was wrong.
These past few months, I’ve been in a terrible place. From what is now a safer space, with hindsight, I can’t describe it as workplace bullying. But even though there was no conscious intent, the actions of this person and their treatment of me had pushed me into a place of desperate terror. Held ransom to social and communication abilities I did not have, there was nothing I could do to take control of my situation. Whatever I did, I couldn’t win.
As the months dragged on I grew to hate what I’d been turning into. I’d regressed into that space of desperation: of lashing out at the tiniest thing, seeing every challenge as a threat. On the surface I kept fighting patiently for support, trying not to scream the urgency while my self-care and home management abilities crumbled. But the constant performance took its toll. Work became the subject of my nightmares. With the threat of retaliation for autistic behaviours always poised over my head, fuelling the very distress that makes those attributes more difficult to mask, my position was precariously unstable. I felt – I was – unsafe. And all of the unhealthy attitudes and mechanisms I’d used as a child came back in full force. The positive lessons of my adolescence protected me in part: I didn’t hit, I didn’t shout. But I couldn’t sit still. I paced in meetings. I couldn’t make eye contact when the bully was in the room. I physically shook with adrenaline, with the effort of suppressing my anger and fear.
It’s been a few weeks now since the situation was diffused. This person and I no longer work closely together, and my line manager has been wonderful in helping me get back into a healthy routine. I’m no longer pacing and shaking in meetings. Things are settling down.
I’d like to say I’ve learned since I was 11 years old. And I have: I’ve learned many things. I’ve learned the importance of trusting my own lived experiences over the voices of authority. I’ve learned that nothing can be taken for granted. I’ve learned that patience through pain is the only way to get what you need. And the most powerful positive lesson of all: I’ve now learned that eventually, patience can work. Experiencing the outcome of patience and perseverence can only feed my confidence in pushing for future outcomes.
But I haven’t learned how not to be a monster in between.
Compassion, I think, is the main thing to take away from all of this. A deep understanding that behaviour and attitudes, of myself and of others, are often much less about the person and more about the environment they’re living in. A hostile environment makes monsters of us all.