I give a lot of presentations about autism and resilience. Right after the slide about what resilience is, I always add one about what resilience is NOT. There is a reason for this. One of the first presentations I gave about autism and resilience was at a large conference in Queensland a few years ago. Many of the attendees were parents of autistic kids. My resilience talk was in the big theatre and I was on quite a high stage. The whole way through my talk I noticed a woman in the second row on my right. I could tell she wanted to ask a question. I expected her to interject – she clearly had something important to say. As soon as I finished speaking and it was time for questions her hand went straight up. I gestured to her to speak and told me she had enjoyed my presentation but she didn’t like resilience. I was puzzled and asked her why. She went on to recount how her son was being bullied at school. She had seen to the principal about this but instead of him suggesting anything to try and address the bullying he instead told her ‘your son wouldn’t be bullied if he was resilient.’ The woman had been horrified and decided – understandably – that resilience was not a concept she had a lot of time for.
What the principal was talking about was not really resilience at all, but victim-blaming. If the young boy had somehow acquired enough resilience to address the bullying himself overnight it would have addressed the issue but acquiring resilience that quickly is impossible and the principal presumably knew that. Bullying is essentially invalidation – treating a person as if they do not matter and have no rights. To have victim-blaming added on top of that is yet another form of invalidation but it is very common.
Victim-blaming sends messages that bullying is the victim’s fault and that they should somehow change who they are in order to be accepted. This thinking goes against everything I believe. Autistic kids who are being bullied – and any other kids who are for that matter – need support and respect, not being told that they are somehow responsible for another person’s behaviour.
At school I was told repeatedly to ‘go somewhere where the bullies aren’t’, ’bullying is character-building’ or ‘everyone has this happen. You will look back on your schooldays fondly’. I had someone who wasn’t even a teacher tell me that ‘the boys pick on you because they are attracted to you.’ I knew when these things were going on that those statements from the adults who were charged with looking out for me were totally ineffective and wrong. All of them in one way or another came from that idea of victim-blaming.
Victim-blaming is not confined to the schoolyard. I have some ‘good’ examples of it in other settings. A memorable one was when I was in the psychiatric ward in 2013 and another patient attacked me physically for no good reason. I was horrified and upset. I told the first nurse I saw what had happened. She responded ‘You should try to be less annoying.’ By that logic physical violence is somehow the fault of the person on the receiving end of it rather than the perpetrator. How does that work? Being victimised is bad enough but having it compounded by victim-blaming and quite rude remarks by people whose job it is to protect and support you? Not good. However, for many autistic people this is something of a frequent occurrence.
I sometimes think victim-blaming is easier than addressing the actual problem for some people in positions of trust. I think some people even have a similar approach as the bullies themselves – ‘the victim brought it on themselves by daring to be a bit different’, ‘they should toughen up and deal with it’ ‘this is not my problem. Let them sort it out themselves.’ Those sorts of things seem to drive this poor behaviour. The impact on people at the receiving end can range from turning all that invalidation from others into self-hatred and blame, feelings of being powerless, anger – sometimes displaced anger, trauma, anxiety and feeling the need for vengeance.
I absolutely hate victim-blaming as it compounds the original problem and leaves some who should have been supported feeling even more vulnerable. In my own life it has had significant impacts on my mental health and my sense of self and identity. It is hard to come back from those places, especially when the damage started young. Victim-blaming may be almost a throw-away thing from the person doing it but it can be felt deeply for years by the person who experiences it.
A lot of the time, victim-blamers seem to be unaware of what it is like to be the ‘victim’. Sometimes the issue is simple expediency: it is 5:15 on a Friday and they want to go home… the bully’s family are really quite scary so it’s easier not to involve them…. they have eight patients on their shift and two of them need a lot of support but Jeanette is quiet and compliant so no need to spend time with her…We are all human and these sorts of responses are understandable but still not good enough. Bullying can leave lifelong scars and people’s complaints being dismissed is not acceptable.
A complaint of bullying may be the first time the person has raised it, even if the bullying has been going on for weeks or months or years. That complaint may be the tip of the iceberg. if people in positions of trust realise that their support – even if it is a few words of encouragement and validation and being someone for them to confide in – will be infinitely more helpful to them than suggesting to their mum that bullying will be addressed if their child immediately acquires resilience. And I really, REALLY want to be able to retire my ‘What is resilience Not?’ slide.