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The Great Leap Backward: Autism, Adulthood, and Bullying

This post is from Amy Gravino, a member of our Communications Committee here at Autism Speaks. Her blog is part of an ongoing series on our site called "In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum," which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism.

For many individuals on the autism spectrum, life after high school carries with it the promise of change. A chance to start fresh, to be the person that you are—and in many cases, have had to hide for so long—and to be accepted as that person. Most of all, it means an end to the teasing and tormenting that so many of us experienced during these years at the hands of our peers.

…But what happens if the bullying doesn’t stop?

It might not seem like it at first glance, but look closely enough and you will see how much an office is like a high school. There are people in charge, rules to learn and follow, and certain social demands that must be met.

And when those rules aren’t followed or those demands aren’t met, there are serious consequences.

I read recently of a young man diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome who was employed as a janitor in an office. Whether or not janitorial work aligned with his actual capabilities did not matter, because oftentimes individuals on the spectrum are dedicated and hardworking people who will always do their absolute best, no matter what the job.

When the neurotypical, more socially apt employees that the young man worked with stole parts of his vacuum and hid them, leading him to run up and down the rows of cubicles yelling at the top of his lungs, that dedication ceased to matter. As did the fact that his meltdown was triggered by the cruel actions of his coworkers, because the only thing his boss saw was him reacting.

The young man was subsequently fired, and the other employees continued working there.

I faced a much more subtle form of bullying when I worked at a college as a temp employee many years ago. Uncertain of whether to disclose my diagnosis to my supervisor, I wound up telling one of my colleagues, whose office I was placed in to do my work. The following day, I came to find out that this colleague told my supervisor about my having Asperger’s Syndrome, and the day after that, I learned that my services as a temp were no longer needed.

To this day, I do not know the reason behind my colleague’s actions, but I find them more and more suspect every time I look back. It was this experience and a few others as a temp that resulted in a tremendous dip in my self-esteem and my being afraid to seek any form of employment for seven years.

Individuals on the autism spectrum frequently suffer the consequences of others’ actions. The children who pick on an Aspie student when no adult is around or the coworkers who play “pranks” on an autistic colleague in the boss’ absence do so because they know how to avoid detection.  There is no accountability on their end, only on that of the person on the spectrum, who often does not understand what it is they’ve done wrong and is almost never given a chance to remedy the situation before being let go.

Bullying is not always something that ends at the edge of the playground. Adults on the autism spectrum become targets for bullies in the workplace and in other environments, but little compassion is extended to us because we are adults and are expected to know how to handle such situations.

Yet, if every company had one disability-friendly employee in it—one person who could be a “safe” person for someone on the spectrum to interact with, and who could serve as an interlocutor between a person on the spectrum and their neurotypical colleague—it could potentially make a whole world of difference.

There is no limit to the devastating effects that bullying can have, both for children on the spectrum and adults. We must do more to bring this issue to light, to hold those involved responsible, and to put an end to the hostile work environment in which adult employees on the autism spectrum fight not just to succeed, but to survive.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.