It was once believed that “bullying” was only confined to traditional victims. They were the adolescents who wore thick glasses and lacked the gregarious personality to compensate for these physical deficits. They were also the people who seemed to run a nonstop campaign to act as odd as possible as if begging for ridicule and negative attention. This apparently was me during most of my childhood. As an adult, I had the opportunity to reunite with my old Sunday School Teacher from Vassar Temple. It has been about twenty years since I last saw her so it took awhile for the memory cylinders to fire up. She admitted, “I never understood how someone so adorable and intelligent could do so many ridiculous things to increase his ridicule!” Society has long-assumed that bullying was limited to those who “brought it on themselves” or who just never received too many breaks with regards to physical appearance and/or social abilities. It was a fact of life and only affected this small segment of the population.
We know that is not true and someone incredible reinforced the notion that bullying never discriminates. It affects those who are beautiful, talented, and are the last people you would think are victims. It even affects some of the most beautiful people in New York State or even the nation. Millennium Brooklyn High School should be hailed as a hero for showing us the way and reminding us that anyone can be a victim. I attended their annual “Peace Day.”
I was not in a good mood when I walked to the last assembly of the day on the date of Tuesday, January 29, 2013 because I had to wake up at 2:20 AM to catch the Metro North Train into the city. Furthermore, I had been lecturing all day trying my hardest to impress several classes of high school students. It is emotionally-draining trying to explain to an amazing class of kids who have Asperger’s they will be in for a tumultuous future if they do not make an effort to understand the difference between Asperger’s syndrome and qualities that must be corrected. They should give themselves more of a fighting chance than I had for a long time. Some are going to listen to my words of wisdom and others will be forced to also learn things the hard way. I was spent by the time I walked into that auditorium, but it was not long before I woke up.
The person lecturing to Millennium Brooklyn High School was Miss New York State 2011 and the second runner up of that year’s Miss America Pageant. She spoke of years in which she was bullied and called names like, “weird.” The abuse sadly does not get much easier when you become a celebrity. It opens the door for any individual to post their own ignorant and ridiculous opinions. As long as there are no suggestions of violence toward the individual…anything goes.
One of the most beautiful women I have ever seen has admitted to the same abuse I have suffered as someone with Asperger’s syndrome who had a big nose, funny voice, and eccentric hobbies. (Actually…I still have those qualities!) I am going to do my absolute best to bring Kaitlin Monte to my own former school district to infuse the same inspiration she brought to those gimlet-eyed, high school students.
I am very proud of all the celebrities in our culture who have opened up about their own abuse and it is found in plenty of songs. The most famous song I can think of is, “Raise your Glass.” The music video created by the artist, Pink, features an assortment of misfits rising up against a society that rejects them. They have let go of the empty hope that they will someday be embraced and have decided to create their own celebration. ‘If you learn to let it go…we can party on our OWN!” Of course, there is also Taylor Swift who created the popular song, “Mean.” Taylor Swift has been a target of bullying from Kanye West grabbing the microphone away during her acceptance speech to people crucifying her in the media because of her many short-lived, romantic relationships. (My favorite piece in this new genre is “Mean” because it focuses on victims seizing back their lives and rising to a level of success that will never be obtained by former victimizers.) It is hard to feel completely sorry for these celebrities who float above the economic crisis with their millions of dollars in revenue, although they really do live with the same anguish as the rest of us despite their success. Do some of them become successful to run away from their past filled with such pain? And most important, does their success really make a difference in alleviating their residual pain?
You could hear a pin drop as Ms. Monte continued. She spoke of being stalked through text messages for two years from a former boyfriend who continued to tell her that she was a horrible person and there were so many fake friends who came out of the woodwork only when she became famous. I could relate to this after my book was published when plenty of individuals from high school requested me on Facebook who did not give me the time of day over twelve years ago. Ms. Monte says she rejected all of these new friends because if they were not in her life in the past then they are not true friends now. While I was still skeptical about all the friend requests I received, it was my choice to give them the benefit of the doubt. There is one person who tormented me for six months over the Internet who I have yet to hear from, and maybe it is because I gave her an unflattering cameo in the book while speaking about this experience. What happened to me is actually associated with a relatively-new term known as, “catfishing.” I was lured into an Internet romance by a woman whose name was, “Liz.” The online relationship continued for six months until I finally learned the young woman was a figment of someone’s imagination. Mentioning the experience within my book provided only some amount of closure. It will never dissipate completely from the horrors of memory.
Kaitlin Monte and I are now public figures trying to save others from experiencing our same level of pain. We want more warriors to join us in this quest. Most important, we need people to understand they are so special and have much to offer when others give them the fighting chance they deserve in life. Most victims of bullying are not destined to become public figures, but they should still find some way to lessen the torment experienced by current victims. We are past the days when bullying was seen as an unfortunate part of growing up and accepted as such. We are better than this!
It is also important to acknowledge there is a form of abuse that can be just as horrible as bullying, but society has very limited control over it. My inappropriate behaviors and anguish used to flare up during times when I was “ignored.” I wanted attention and negative behaviors were often a way to obtain this acknowledgement. Therefore, it is critical for teachers and society to provide mentorship programs that will give students an opportunity to know how much they matter. More mature, accepting students will be able to watch over those who cannot yet advocate for themselves. Every child is entitled to at least one friend who will help fight for their success and look out for them. We had something like this called, “The Buddies Program” when I was a student, but it was only for students with “traditional” disabilities.
Please join me in bringing Kaitlin to my community and all of your local schools considering I think the schoolchildren may pay more attention to her than me! (Especially the adolescent boys, but I think that is pretty much common sense!) Kaitlin Monte…you are perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and hope you finally acknowledge this fact!
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MONDAY, JANUARY 14, 2013
A CRAZY GATHERING OF GRASP, INC. AND MY AMAZING PEERS
It was a pleasure to return to a group that has helped me get through some very dark times in my life. The attendees are a multi-faceted bunch and are a testament to the popular expression in my community, “When you have met one person with autism…you have met ONE person with autism!” I had a neurotypical friend with me that night for support and because she wishes to learn about this unique population. She was in for quite a night!
The gatherings of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP), Inc. meet the second Wednesday of every month unless there is a disaster like Hurricane Sandy that prevents it from happening. The meetings are as predictable as the train schedules so many of my peers obsess about if their “special interest” happens to be the New York City Railroad. The meetings always revolve around a specific topic and this week it was “Disclosure.” It is always a battle to know when to tell you have Asperger’s syndrome, who to tell, if it is necessary to tell, if it will make things worse or better, and how to tell? Considering that lecturing about my case of Asperger’s is how I make a living these days…telling people is almost as natural as pulling up my socks. When you have a book titled, “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters,” telling everyone is part of the deal and I no longer have much fear.
But there was a time when the level of fear and hopelessness was so potent. It was when I was attending these GRASP meetings so many years ago. This was the first time I had been to a meeting in probably six months…at least. It is too far away and takes too much money to travel into the city from Poughkeepsie. My life has also grown easier these days as a respected public figure. When I began attending the GRASP meetings a few years back I was an angry, bitter person who was met with irrational fear from my own community. My four years studying to be a teacher in college were proven to be worthless when schools caved into the natural feelings of discomfort so I ended up working in purgatory for a while. But they did not call it that. It was known as, “The Twelve Hour Night Shifts of IBM.” In retrospect, I attended the meetings because there were people in much worse shape than myself. Sometimes it helps to understand that things could always be ten times worse. There were also people who had survived and broken out of their desperations by building flourishing careers and romantic connections.
Sometimes the meetings resemble a circus in the sense you never know what to expect. Nonviolent outbursts are common and it is probably because this is the only time when a group of us may loosen our ties and let our hair down for a little while without fear of consequences from a world that does not understand. I looked down and noticed the attractive, fiercely-quirky girl doing yoga moves on a mat in her bare feet. My companion looks at me and she says, “Why is she doing that?” I replied, “Because she has Asperger’s syndrome.” Apparently, the yoga girl has found success in the entertainment world and this leads me to wonder how many A-list celebrities walk among us who are affected by the autism spectrum and probably know it? When will one of these celebrities come out of the Asperger’s Closet and advocate for the rest of us?
Personality clashes are very common during these meetings when people are talking over others. Interruptions are as plentiful as salmon in a genetic hatchery. Tempers flare and inadvertent rudeness happens all the time. As I finished adding my two cents to a conversational topic, one of the members asked me, “Do you know you have patches of white hair all over your head.” I wanted to say, “Wow! Really?! I never actually noticed that myself while looking into the mirror every morning for the past two years, but thank you for pointing that out in front of everybody!” But I simply composed myself and explained that the white hair is caused by an autoimmune condition known as vitiligo, which causes the skin pigment to recede.” The same man helped me stuff envelopes in preparation for the Benefit last April and remarked, “You look thinner than when I saw you a year ago.” The comment may not have been meant as a compliment, but was cherished considering how hard I was struggling to lose weight.” My peers and I do not wake up in the morning to ask, “How can we creep people out more than yesterday? How much weirder can I be than last week?” It just happens and this is a group filled with forgiveness and understanding. How dare we cast stones when we all dwell in glass houses?”
As a public figure and role model, I felt it was my obligation to give the group advice on how to disclose especially given a job situation. It is always good to acknowledge the elephant in the room especially considering most people are not going to bluntly ask, “What is your deal?”
Most of us wonder when and where to disclose about the Asperger’s, but nobody really talks about the Fine Art of Disclosure. Ninety percent of my success has come from always knowing I have something to offer and continuously trying to show other people even if they do not wish to listen at first. I believe it is often important to disclose during job interviews especially if you gain the sense that an interviewer is doubting your abilities or asking questions like, “Do you feel like you could fit into an environment with so many different personalities and sensitive situations?” One should explain they have Asperger’s, but also explain how this will help in a working environment. Look the interviewer in the eye in a nonconfrontational manner and say, “I have challenges related to Asperger’s syndrome, but have made amazing contributions in past venues. I am very punctual and take commitments seriously.”
Every single person has their own way of confronting demons. I choose to put myself in the most uncomfortable situations and attempt to be someone I am not. I’ll be the square peg grinding its way into a round hole. “Hello Potential Employer! I have social troubles related to Asperger’s syndrome, but I also worked very well when I was employed by a funeral home. I was able to work with people on one of the worst days of their lives and would make a similar contribution at your workplace!” Disclosure will never work with brutal, unnecessary honesty such as admitting, “It takes me a very long time to learn certain things, I have difficulty understanding basic boundaries, there have been accusations of sexual harassment in the past.”
I wanted the GRASP group to understand that ninety percent of success is achieved by knowing you have something incredible to offer and having tenacious persistence. There was not enough time to go into much detail about how much persistence has benefited and hurt me over the years. On Thursday I finally have an interview with a school that fired me seven years ago because I was unable to let go of the fact that it was not fair. I deserve to be a teacher because of the success in controlling the inappropriate comments and will continue fighting. I am not able to always let go of the persistence that often rears its head in dating situations, but have learned how to do some serious “backing off.” There is absolutely no shame anymore and persistence almost always leads to amazing things!
My friend embraced the group as I knew she would and is one of those rare souls who appreciates the beauty of such a misunderstood, sometimes vilified, population. Now is a time when we have to band together more than ever to dissolve much of the fear that has been created by the gunman from Newtown, CT.