To those who bullied me for being autistic: Thank you

From as early as three years old, I was different. Compared to other children I was scared and timid; I got angry at myself and I had a lot of social anxiety and from the very first day of school, my peers noticed the subtle differences.

They didn’t seem to want to talk to or interact with me and I received verbal and physical abuse. Years later, the bullying would lead me to my lowest ebb and multiple attempts to take my own life.

However, during Anti-Bullying Week 2020, I want to say thank you to my bullies. Yes, you read that correctly.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the problems I have faced; I use everything I have been through to try and make change, to help and to inspire others. Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing.

At the age of six, after months of being labelled as a badly behaved child,  I was diagnosed with autism. One of my teachers was clued up on the condition and had harboured suspicions, wondering if my behaviour matched many of the signs.

Being so young, I didn’t really understand what autism was – I just felt like I was weird and a failure. Over time, as it was gradually explained to me, I was relieved; my diagnosis gave me an explanation as to why I was so different, and got rid of some of my self hatred.

However, the autism spectrum differs dramatically from one end to another. Individuals on the lower end can have difficulties with communication and social skills and nothing more but those considered higher on the spectrum may not be able to communicate at all (or only by using pictures and signs) or understand emotions.

I am considered low, and this was why school was such a difficult place for me to navigate. My autism was mild enough to prevent me receiving additional support or understanding, but not so subtle that others didn’t pick on me for it. I often wished it was more severe, then I might have had help and not experienced as many issues as I did.

Things only got worse during secondary school. I was beaten up, cyber-bullied and even received death threats. I started to skip meals and purge because of the remarks people made about my looks. Depressed and unable to see a way out, I started to self-harm but was too embarrassed and afraid of talking to my parents as I felt it would upset or burden them, and I thought that the bullying would get worse.

With no means of escaping the misery, I tried to end my life.

Eventually, my erratic behaviour and intention to harm myself led me to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I was put into the care of a psychiatric hospital for almost three years.

At first I didn’t know what I was walking into – my freedom had been taken away and without the option of escape, it was like I was being suffocated. Yet as time went on, I felt a sense of security. I could just be myself as the people around me understood me and there was no judgement.

When the three years ended, I was taken out of my family home and placed into care, under a ‘Section 20’ (Joint Care Order) meaning the local authority and my parents had responsibility over me and we could remain in contact.

It was still extremely hard for my family. They had done all they could and this was the last resort – I had so many violent outbursts that the police had to attend on numerous occasions. They felt powerless but guilty that they couldn’t help me and they blamed themselves, despite having nothing to blame themselves for. I was the one who felt ashamed at what I was putting them through.

I received therapy from a psychologist and psychiatrist in both my care homes and from external mental health services. It was extremely difficult and took a lot of time to go through the past but it really helped to let go of the emotions which were bottled up. It meant that finally leaving care to live independently at 18 was exhilarating as it was terrifying.

I felt like I had a mountain on my shoulders and so many worries going through my head: what if I felt suicidal again? Who would I be able to turn to? Was I just going to end up dead?

Eventually I got to a point where I knew I had to dig deep, so I kept telling myself  ‘I can do this’. I finally had people I could open up to, I was no longer alone and crucially, nobody could hurt me again.

However difficult my life has been (and still is) at times, my experiences have made me into the person I am today. Being bullied has given me a fighting spirit.

Aged 12, I began volunteering at a youth cafe for young people with additional needs, which led to me starting my own campaign and non-profit organisation, Stand Up Speak Out, to raise awareness of bullying and mental health and provide support and advice.

The campaign went viral with the help of celebrity support and I was awarded a Princess Diana Award, which recognises outstanding achievements of young people. Today I am honoured to be an ambassador for the National Children’s Charity Kidscape, an organisation that helped me so much when I was younger.

My bullies did terrible things to me. The hurt and pain they caused was beyond horrible and because of them, I could have easily died.

I still get the occasional traumatic flashback but I’m stronger now than I have ever been. After years and years of abuse, hating myself and feeling like I should end my life because it would simply be better for everyone, I’m still here.

I don’t condone my bullies’ actions but I don’t hold a grudge, and I understand their motivations. The blame lies with the ongoing lack of education around mental health, and especially additional learning needs like autism.

There needs to be so much more awareness in schools, workplaces and communities and it should start at a young age so we can all be more understanding and accepting of others. We are all different but that’s precisely what makes the world a great place.

Now, older and wiser, I see my autism and other diagnoses as my superpowers. I look at the world in such a different light and I can empathise with people in so many situations.

My bullies didn’t beat me – they lost. I will continue to help others, and fight every battle that comes my way.

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