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The Bullying of People with Asperger’s: Long-Term Effects

Children don’t easily outgrow the agony of being bullied. There are some significant long-term effects on their risk for anxiety, depression, suicidality, and a whole host of outcomes that can wreak havoc on adult lives. Many – if not most – adults with Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) were mistreated as children by some members of their peer-group. They may have been teased, bullied or rejected due to their “odd” behavior and way of viewing the world. As a result, these adults bear the scars of those experiences today. And to matters even worse, many grown “Aspies” continue to be bullied in the workplace.

Social rejection occurs when a person is purposely excluded from a social relationship (e.g., a friend) or a social group (e.g., classmates). Rejection can be either “active” (e.g., bullying, teasing, ridiculing, etc.), or “passive” (e.g., ignoring the person, giving the "silent treatment," etc.).

Childhood peer-relations have been identified as one of the most powerful predictors of future mental health problems, including the development of psychiatric disorders. Social rejection is psychologically painful because of the social nature of human beings. The need for acceptance and belongingness is a fundamental motivation for ALL of us. Everyone (even introverts) need to be able to give and receive affection to be emotionally healthy. We all need (a) stable relationships and (b) satisfying interactions with individuals in those relationships. If either of these two factors is missing, the person in question will begin to feel isolated and hopeless. In fact, the majority of human anxieties appear to be due to social exclusion, which may explain why so many Asperger’s adults have anxiety issues.

Due to the symptoms associated with Asperger’s, many children with the disorder are unpopular with peers, easily provoked, have a poor understanding of social cues, and experience low self-esteem. Research reveals that such children often grow up to be 6 times more likely to have a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop a psychiatric disorder. By their mid-20s, these former bully-victims are more likely to leave school without qualifications, drift through jobs, be obese, and less likely to have friends.

Some level of rejection is an inevitable part of life for all of us, whether or not we behave “oddly.” However, rejection becomes a problem when the individual is highly sensitive to rejection, when it is prolonged or consistent, or when the relationship is important. Rejection by an entire group has especially negative effects, possibly resulting in a heightened sensitivity to future rejection, aggression, anxiety, depression, feelings of insecurity, a negative outlook on life in general, loneliness, low self-esteem, or social isolation.

As a therapist working with adults on the autism spectrum, it has often been difficult to differentiate between a client’s Asperger’s-related symptoms versus symptoms associated with being a social outcast of sorts. For example, many of these adults prefer to live alone, refusing to date or marry. Is this due to the fact that they are (a) “task-oriented” versus “people-oriented” and (b) more concerned with facts than feelings (both of which are Asperger’s traits) – or have they simply been rejected and ridiculed (not an Asperger’s trait) for so long that they have learned it’s much less painful to travel through life alone?

Some Aspies spend most of their time alone because being around other people is just too difficult. They may feel that others are judging them for their disorder. So, they may withdraw to avoid this stigmatization. However, this social withdrawal is psychologically very costly. But, this is a two-way street: the Aspie withdraws from society, and society withdraws from the Aspie.

When anyone – whether or not they are on the autism spectrum – does not have enough social contact with at least one “significant other,” it affects that person emotionally and physically. Social isolation is both a cause and an effect of mental anguish. When the Aspie isolates more, he faces more mental anguish. With more mental anguish, he wants to isolate even more. No wonder why this vicious cycle relegates many adults on the spectrum to a life of depression, anxiety, and solitude.

Bullying Exerts Psychiatric Effects Into Adulthood:


We simply can’t continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We should change this mindset and acknowledge that this as a serious problem.

Your comments (see below) would be greatly appreciated. Were you bullied as a child? How has that affected you throughout your life?

6 comments:

  1. We are seeing this in my daughter. In middle school she began to be rejected by peers and by 8th grade was borderline suicidal and completely withdrawn. We pulled her out of the school and transferred her to another where she experienced much more social success - everyone there is an 'oddball' so she fits right in and has many friends. We are hoping that this will alleviate/reverse the cycle of low self esteem that she experienced. Have seen positive results already so far.

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  2. Yes, bullying did affect me when I was younger because I was an Aspie, and people don't like what's different. It was the start of a massive decline in mental health. Not only did the misunderstanding impact me in school, but the depression I developed from the bullying made me start using mental health services, where they continued to misunderstand me, which caused my mental health to plummet further, and then another "service" I used physically assaulted me, which scarred me for life. I was deeply suicidal, but upon distancing myself from those places, and dropping their drugs, I improved greatly, with the help of my lover. But when broke up with me, and my attempts to rekindle the relationship failed, and my attempts to have the love live on in others with new relationships failed. The weird part is that they were Aspies too, but they never told me specifically what went wrong. While I always have my family, I've given up on dating. Though I'll always have my dog, who is my child. I prefer to keep myself company with my family, including my parents, siblings, and non-human animals.

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  3. I'm late 50's now and likely outlive most HFA. You've discounted the impact of hypersensitivity to overstimulation. Aversion to normal social smells, tactile sensations, noise, drafts, clutter, gastric gas pains, too many types of foods, too many people, etc. all make for a chronically overly stressed condition.

    Add to that the social mis-cues then it's hard to put up with other people without self medication, masking defenses like stemming or fidgeting, or the higher noise environments that drown out sudden noises, along with filters like sun glasses and earplugs.

    That same hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli that others habituate to lends itself to detecting and remembering patterns that others miss. Hince task orientation.

    I've largely lived alone my adult life and quite happily since I can de-stress from work. And I've moved often enough and far enough to avoid longer term relationships including with siblings and their large families.

    It's been a blessing to discover late in life that my tendency to isolate myself is part of being mildly aspie. I truly hate typical situations like commercials on videos or radio and big box store music / kid noises, and driving. Driving is where I still encounter bullies all too often. I've progressively moved from larger urban to more rural areas.

    As for needing social interaction, it's obvious that as I've aged I'm losing abilities. In some cases that's a blessing such as losing much of my sense of smell, likely due to text neck and often drying out my sinuses while sleeping. As my vision clouds I'm less able to detect mosquitoes to kill or avoid with the complication of not getting enough fresh air. I most detest mosquito bites over all tactile events, but have found cellophane tape over a bite helps greatly. Same goes for covering over tags in clothing or small hairs that get trapped in clothing seems that poke like a goad.

    So I've adapted ways of dealing with my over-sensitivities and under- appreciation for social cueing and the drama of human-packs. Such as avoiding marriages, funerals, holidays etc. And yes that's come at the cost of never completing college degrees despite having 150+ semester hours of classes with high GPA.

    Frankly though I don't miss the human contract because of hyper awareness of the spiritual presence of Christ. I credit Him with getting me through depression and addiction including suicidal ideation in my 20's. It's the higher order spiritual connection as a result of acting in faith that has likely graced me with having survived and thrived professionally.

    So isolation in the natural is offset by enhanced connection in supernatural dimensions. I'll spare you the testimony unless interested.

    In sum then, I get that I'm much more able to detect some things and patterns than typicals. While also missing social cues that are the lubricant for human and animal packs / cliques. I think typicals have some brain areas over wired and others under wired too, just not as much as HFA's.

    Thanks for that! HFA is much less stigmatizing. We're just birds with different songs than the majority. Isolation has it's perks and offsetting penalties. Like with Temple Grandin. Just different, that's all. Children of a "Greater" God. (Please pardon my dumb phone typos.)

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  4. I am 27 years old and have recently found out I have aspergers syndrome, although obviously I have felt different all my life. I was bullied incredibly badly at school, and there were times when I had to leave for a month or so. I can't help but to see this as a very negative article, although I may just be an exception to the rule, and if so, please excuse me. Besides the bullying I had a very difficult upbringing with an alcoholic father who passed away when I was 21. Despite this I have a good job as a teacher and have dreams and aspirations of one say becoming a psychologist. Aspies find life difficult, overwhelming and stressful, and my struggle with all the symptoms is daily, but that doesn't mean we can't live a long, happy, successful and fulfilling life, which I 100% plan to do.

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  5. This was eye-opening. I was never actively bullied so I couldn't figure out why I felt like I'd been bullied my whole childhood. I didn't understand the ramifications of social exclusion as bullying.

    And while as an adult I have a good job and live in my own house ... I live with cats, not humans, and have very few friends, and a good majority of those are family. I hate social situations and am likely to isolate myself first so I can't be rejected.

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  6. Me too! I have had a lifetime of abuse that I have experienced in school and the workplace.
    I was excluded from parties but still told I had to help plan for them. Each time I said NO WAY I will NOT help plan for a party that I am not invited to. Even recently, I've given up on any and all planning committees because I, too, get rejected. I've faced a mental health system that was chock full of quacks and other so-called "professionals" who would pump me with drugs and guilt. My therapist and I had screaming matches in his office so much that I finally fired him and found someone new. Rejection still happens to me this day. Guess I'm a very slow learner lol

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