September 6, 2014
I watch a lot of documentaries that show children playing.
It doesn’t matter where the documentary is set. It can be any country in the world. The children are laughing, dancing around, prancing, playing games, looking idyllic and utopian as can possibly be. And I can tell it’s supposed to create a reaction in the audience. We’re supposed to feel happy and uplifted by this universal fact that children play and laugh and are happy, if we only give them the opportunities they need.
But I remember being a child.
I am always looking, but I never find it, because they usually edit them out. I am certain they edit them out.
I am looking for the child who plays by hirself.
I am looking for the child who tries to play the games the other children play, but sie never quite fits in, and may be reduced to crying or melting down.
I am looking for the child who is crying or melting down or shutting down.
I am looking for the child that the other children deliberately drive into a meltdown, and then they run away to let hir take the consequences and get in trouble with the adults for ‘starting fights’.
I am looking for the child hiding in the bathroom, pulling all the paper towels out, pulling all the soap out, smearing the soap on the walls and mirrors, in an almost ritualistic way, every day.
I am looking for the child who hides in the library.
I’m looking for the child who actually reads the rules for handball and four-square and tries to make people follow them and melts down when they don’t.
I’m looking for the child who gets teased the moment sie walks onto the playground, no matter what sie does or says, everyone can spot hir instantly, even kids who’ve never seen hir before. And they act like sharks on a feeding frenzy.
I’m looking for the child who can’t walk onto the playground without being bullied.
I’m looking for the child who was sent to therapy because sie was being bullied, but hir bullies were not sent to therapy.
I’m looking for the child who always got blamed for hir own bullying because, in the favorite phrase of her first fourth grade teacher, “It takes two to tango.” Who is forced to sit there and “talk it out” with a bully who does nothing more than create crocodile tears. Teachers love crocodile tears, they are sweet and wholesome, unlike real tears which are babyish and messy. ”She couldn’t have hit you. Can’t you see she’s crying?” He asks me. ”But I’m crying too,” think. ”And she did hit me.” But I lack the language to even communicate that much. Plus, I’ve long since learned that the uncontrollable sobbing that goes along with being a habitual victim of bullying, doesn’t endear you to anyone. It makes them resent you.
I’m looking for the child who, when asked about the bullying, tries to give the whole story. ”It started three years ago, when she started trying to keep me from making friends, and it only got worse from there.” The teacher interrupts, “None of that matters, we’re here to talk about now.” But it does matter. The whole pattern matters. It doesn’t happen in isolation.
I’m looking for the child who was always getting sent to the principal’s office or the school counselor’s office, often with the bully alongside, to “talk it out”.
I’m looking for the child who has been ordered not to be within ten feet of hir bully. So hir bully works out wherever sie wants to be, and stands within ten feet of it. This includes standing near any of the child’s would-be friends.
I’m looking for the child who wants desperately for the playground to be like it is on TV and in books, full of children laughing and playing and most of all including hir in their games without comment. I’m looking for the child who has read books like The Secret Language and wants school to be like that.
I’m looking for the child who is so overwhelmed by the emotions of others that when sie walks onto a playground, sie feels every joy, every anger, every skinned knee, all at once, coming from everywhere. Sie doesn’t understand that this is out-of-control empathy. Sie just knows that playgrounds hurt. Sie goes on them anyway.
I’m looking for the child who is normally so passive that sie doesn’t know sie can get away from bullying. Like severe chronic pain, bullies are simply unwelcome parts of the landscape, but not something you could change any more than you can change the sky. So sie goes out on the playground, not knowing sie could do anything else, not knowing she could go somewhere where the bullies don’t exist.
I’m looking for me.
I never see me.
I see smiling, happy children frolicking.
I see an adult fantasy of childhood.
When I was a child, I swore I would never forget that childhood is not idyllic and wonderful. I swore I would always remember what childhood was really like. And I have remembered. I’ve remembered everything.
It makes me grateful to be an adult. So, incredibly, grateful. Adulthood is wonderful, even with all the responsibilities and pressures. I can make so many choices. Children don’t have many choices.
I know some people, even some autistic people, who had that idyllic childhood. I am so happy for them. But for autistic people, that idyllic childhood is as rare as hen’s teeth. And I have a feeling it’s rarer for nondisabled people than people let on.
In “Winged Migration,” they used a child choir for part of the backup music. The director (or producer, or something like that) said that he deliberately used children’s voices because childhood is a time of danger and fear and terror, and the birds were always in danger during their migrations, and he wanted to evoke that. And he evoked it very well. Maybe in France, people admit more what childhood was like. Or maybe it was just that particular director. I was gratified by what he said, though. Most people won’t admit the realities of being a child.
Childhood bullying is child abuse, done by one child to another, but still child abuse. Nobody treats it that way. And when they crack down on bullying, somehow it’s always the victims who get hurt by the crackdown. The real bullies can manipulate the victims into looking like bullies. It’s easy for them.
I could never see the teacher. I could never see what the teacher was looking at. I could never even fathom I was supposed to see what she was looking at. So the bullies would do things to me when she couldn’t see, getting a reaction out of me right when she looked in my direction, and looked innocent. So it just looked like I blew up out of nowhere, and I would get punished. I didn’t have the communication skills to fully explain what happened, and even if I had, I doubt they’d’ve believed me.
Whenever I see videos of children playing, I look for that one child. The child off to the side, playing by hirself, screaming when approached by other children. The child trying to climb into the playground equipment and getting pushed roughly off by hir ‘peers’. The child who saw all the other children lining up to play games, and got in line, and was told sie didn’t count, that sie couldn’t play. The child whose only ‘friend’ was marched up to hir by another girl and told to say, “I don’t like you.” And that was the end of that. The child who was bullied in preschool, an age when bullying isn’t even supposed to have started yet. The child who sometimes ended up in the middle of things, on the playground, trying to do normal playground stuff, and always ended up bullied and rebuffed. The child who couldn’t talk right, so everyone made hir repeat words and sentences so they could make fun of hir speech patterns.
The child who was so literal that sie spent an entire year with this exchange going on:
Bully: Do you have any balls?
Bully: How many?
Bully: What color?
Me: One green, one red.
Bully: How big?
Me: The green one is this size, the red one is this size.
Bully: Where did you get them?
Me: I got them for Christmas.
Accompanied by roars of laughter when I gave every single answer, because I didn’t know balls meant testicles. Things like this were a common part of my day at school. So were people making fun of my clothes for being “fake” because they weren’t name brand. And all kinds of other kid stuff.
But added up together it became so traumatic that I’d stay home from school rather than face the bullies one more day. The teachers saw nothing particularly wrong, other than that my social skills were terrible. If my social skills were better, they said, the bullying would stop.
And the idyllic videos about children around the world, they don’t show me. Even when they show children in trouble, children in bad situations, they don’t show me. They don’t show the social outcasts who are social outcasts no matter how much we try to integrate ourselves into the schoolyard. They don’t show the pain of overload. They don’t show the child screaming, having meltdowns, crying in the corner, hiding in the bathroom, or exposed in the middle of the playground, too stripped emotionally raw to have the chance to hide anywhere, feeling like sie’s got no clothes on in hir mind, no skin, no nothing, just the feelings of everyone around hir whirling around and battering hir.
They don’t show me. They don’t show the autistic people I’ve known. I know we’re out there. I know because there’s so damn many of us, we can’t possibly not be out there. I know that even in schools and mental institutions that are designed for neurodivergent people or other Kids With Problems, autistic people stand out as people to be bullied. I know because I’ve been there. I know because I’ve been sized up in five seconds as fair game for bullying, by kids with mental illness that should have given them some empathy for my position. But autistic people seem to be outcasts everywhere. And when we’re not outcasts, I always worry that we’re only being kept around so that bullies can pretend to be our friends, because that happened to me too.
I want it all to end.
I want a world that’s safe for us.
Really safe, none of this ‘safe space’ bullshit. I’ve never met a ‘safe space’ that was truly safe for anyone.
And I want to see us.
I want to see that child whose unhappiness shows on hir face, and I want to see hir not presented as the problem when the bullying happens to hir. I want people to see hir problems as caused by a society that sanctions bullying of people like hir. Which is most societies, from what I can tell. It can be subtle, it can be blatant, but it’s always there.
And I know sie is there.
I know sie is out there.
I know sie may even be one of the laughing, smiling kids, with hir laugh and smile edited in at the right moments so nobody has to see hir cry and scream. Sie may be camouflaged by editing. I’ve been in the news, I have seen how editing can completely distort a story, even a story that’s supposedly nonfiction.
And they don’t want bullying to be part of the story.
They don’t want autistic outcast kids to be part of the story.
But we are always part of the story. Wherever there is a school, there is us. What is it, one in fifty now? It was one in fifty back then, I can tell you. Because I remember us. I remember the people who weren’t diagnosed, but who were ‘like me’. I remember hating them because they reminded me of myself and self-hatred was something I learned young. I remember my shame as I treated them just as badly as everyone else did, sometimes. I remember wondering what else I could have done. I remember them treating me the same, half the time. Better to have us fighting each other than to have us gang up on those who kept us down.
It makes me horribly sad, and horribly angry.
I remember all of them. I remember most of their names. I remember all the people who would now be called autistic. Back then, a few may have been diagnosed, usually by their teens, like me. But most if they had a diagnosis it would’ve been hyperactivity, that was the diagnosis of the day in the eighties and nineties. Or sometimes gifted, as if gifted explained everything. As if there wasn’t a big obvious problem when we were put into gifted classes and told “These are your people, you’ll get along with them,” and were ostracized there as much as anyone else. Or sometimes learning disabilities, put in the resource room. Sometimes both resource room and gifted. Sometimes told, “Are you sure you’re really in gifted classes? That’s what they tell ree-tards to make them feel special but they’re really in ree-tard school.” At any rate, few of us were diagnosed with autism, but today every single one of us would be diagnosed with autism by the age of three. The diagnostic criteria and awareness have changed greatly. A study in England showed the rate of autism in adults, properly screened, was the same as in children — very high. Most of the adults had been misdiagnosed (schizophrenia is one of the biggest misdiagnoses for adolescents and adults) or undiagnosed.
We’ve always existed.
We still exist.
So where are we in these idyllic childhood videos.
Where is the child screaming in the corner?
Where is the child melting down?
Where is the child stimming?
Where is the child with hir hands covering hir ears?
Where is the child who runs away and hides?
Where is the child who doesn’t even know enough to run away, who absorbs everything, all the noise, all the emotion, and finds that sie can’t take it anymore?
Where are we?
Because I know we’re there, and it hurts not to see us.
tl;dr: I see a lot of documentaries that show children playing peacefully and happily. Even children who have clearly been to hell and back. But I always look for the outcast kids, the autistic kids, the kids who were like me. I never see them. This means they are either hiding them or editing out their ‘worst’ moments. This makes me incredibly sad and invisible. We exist. They need to show us. Even if we are inconvenient to their notion of an idyllic childhood. We exist in large numbers in every country on the globe.