(Article for Adam Feinstein’s Awares International Online Autism Conference)
I have always been a huge fan of mythology! I believed in fantastical beings like Santa Claus long after my neurotypical peers naturally moved on to priorities like “girls, sports, and MTV.” Growing up was a sloth-like process and I continued the nonsensical dance far longer than was appropriate. But it feels good to celebrate nonsense and we are all guilty of this guilty pleasure to some extent. How many of us passionately hold onto the urban legend that a Munchkin hanged himself during the Great Depression-era filming of “The Wizard of Oz?” because there is a faint image of something swinging behind the scenery. But there is a form of mythology that is absolutely deadly and hopefully we will let go of its remnants soon enough. This is the mythology of…bullying.
These myths were strengthened because I was part of the last generation when Asperger’s syndrome was unrecognized by mainstream society as a legitimate disability and was treated as a genuine character flaw. Being extremely weird and occasionally acting like a jerk was not seen as a condition deserving of mercy. The brutality of being tormented and/or taken advantage of was viewed as a self-inflicted consequence created by the victim himself. My mother eventually had to take me out of a fifth grade class because I had a teacher who told her, “It has been my experience that if a child is being bullied in my class, it is usually something he is doing to create it himself.” This anecdote pales in comparison to others. Alex Plank, the founder of a popular web page called: www.wrongplanet.net had his grade school principal take him into a room during recess where he was staring into the faces of classmates. Each classmate had to say at least one thing that annoyed them about Alex. These well-meaning, medieval tactics did nothing beyond creating a cache of haunting memories and scars. Furthermore, bullying was viewed as character-building when common sense should tell us that nothing about constant abuse builds anything beyond a lasting trauma. And there was nothing character-building about what happened to me at age seventeen.
As a senior in high school, I was a victim of what we now call cyber bullying. It was flattering when a female classmate contacted me even though I had never met her before. We continued communicating throughout the summer and I even met her at a local diner. I persisted even after she severed contact with me for absolutely no reason. My energy toward “Liz West” peaked when she claimed a man had raped her over the summer and resulted in an aborted pregnancy. It took six months to finally learn that “Liz West” was a figment of someone’s imagination. A group of students had created an online hoax and even went to the extremes of finding a young woman from a neighboring school district to meet me at the diner. There was a human face to associate with the online persona and I had absolutely no idea that I was being bullied for those six months. I thought they were my good friends. Scars do not heal and this incident happened to me twelve years ago. We are only now starting to grasp the magnitude of this deadly crisis.
The great American poet, Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better…you do better.” This should hopefully tell us something….