Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

How I Taught My 27 Year Old Autistic (ASD) Son to Handle Bullies in the Work Place

workplace

By Kathy Porter

A version of this article was originally published on Medium.

He arrives at the animal shelter where he works 15 minutes before the early morning shift starts. Punching his time card, he walks down the hallway toward the dog kennels.

“Where have you been?” she gets up in his face and yells. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago!”

She is a 62 year old co-worker.

He is my 27 year old, autistic (ASD) son.

When he quietly explains that no one told him to report at 7AM; that his scheduled start time on Saturdays is 8AM, she stomps off. Only to repeat her performance the following Saturday.

Off-the-cuff conversation is challenging for my son. When someone verbally bullies him, he doesn’t know what to spontaneously reply to protect himself.

Unless he’s coached.

The key is to use non-threatening language that addresses what’s been said without verbally attacking the speaker; to find a “one size fits all” reply that takes care of every single, rude comment that might (thoughtlessly or deliberately) come up in the work place.

Are you ready?

Here it comes.

“Your language is unprofessional and I don’t appreciate being talked to that way.”

I pulled the phrase “professional language,” out of the six years my son attended Hope Hall, a private school for children who might otherwise fall through the cracks; a school for kids like mine diagnosed with learning disabilities cobbled to auditory processing delays, to list just a few of the buzz words in vogue more than 20 years ago.

The school’s founder and executive director was (and still is) an amazing woman named Sister Diana.

“Use your professional words,” she always said to her students. This was her loving battle cry against hurtful words that kids say without thinking.

She also said, “Don’t let other people take away your power.” She meant, don’t let other people take away your self-worth.

Self-worth’s a tricky thing regardless of where you fall on the (human) developmental scale, especially if communication is problematic for you. Which it can be for my son.

However.

Despite the fact that he struggles with the nuances of language: the interplay of layered, active conversations between two or four or more people that almost never follow a straight line, soaring, instead, like kites caught in an updraft of spring thermals, swooping down then back up . . .

Each dip and sway spins that initial conversation, morphs it into a thousand different meanings.

Or so (I believe) it must seem to him.

Imagine tossing a handful of pennies into the air, tracking their splattered fall to the ground. Which one does he follow so that when his turn comes to speak, his reply makes sense?

For my son, it doesn’t matter which penny he tracks. If he’s having a conversation with two or more people, unless he has someone to guide him, he’ll lose his way.

But.

Despite the fact that he struggles with the nuances of language, he knows when he’s the butt of someone’s rudeness. What he doesn’t have is the verbal quickness to defuse it.

At that moment.

And so, he rehearsed after a brainstorming session where we put our heads together to come up with a phrase that was fool proof; that he could say back to anyone at work who insulted him; a phrase that he could take all the way to the HR department (with impunity) if one of his co-workers reported him.

Which almost happened when he (finally) screwed up his courage and used it for the third and last time one afternoon as he

and that 62 year old, part time employee worked together in the kitchen. As she opened her mouth to say something, my son verbally cut her off.

Looking her in the eye, he quietly, firmly told her that almost every time she spoke to him, she used unprofessional words and, he didn’t appreciate being talked to like that.

Then he watched her jaw drop.

I don’t know for sure (because I wasn’t there) but, I’ll bet he smiled as he walked away.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley

Hensel_PRrKathy H Porter is a freelance writer, author and head cheerleader for her amazing son. She grabs inspiration from a background that includes 14 years of business experience and 17 years as an educator. Her latest project? Crafting work-related “explaining scripts” for autistic adults. Join her newsletter to find out when her next article will be published and to discover more useful on-the-job strategies for autistic adults. Follow her on Twitter: @kathyhporter
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  • Not only did this totally make me tear up (on the train to work, no less), it may be smile and I wanted to cheer for your son. It’s hard for ME to stand up to bullies and I’m not afraid of a fight, so I couldn’t imagine not being able to follow the words, not being able to track the conversation, not being able to defend myself against someone who is intent on stomping on my self worth, because someone stomped on theirs.

    Thank you for sharing this amazing piece.

  • Thanks for your insights, Kimberly. What my son and I realized after the first awful episode was that preparing for the next time (because bullies are notorious for continued harassment) would be how he’d defend himself. We had to come up with words that would “:attack” his co-workers words which gets away from “stomping on someone’s self worth. So, despite how vulnerable this co-worker made him feel, he was able to walk away from that next encounter a winner! (And, her bully behavior and language stopped.)

  • hsfred

    Excellent article Kathy! I can see how this would be a terrific way to throw off a bully. It’s the unseen and unexpected uppercut to the jaw of an attacker.
    That your son handled this in such a manner clearly shows him to have a lot more class than his bully. What a great mom for helping him find a way through this!

    • It was unexpected for the co-worker who bullied him. And, for the first time, my son got to control a conversation, stepping out of feeling like the victim. Thanks for your kind words. 🙂

  • Kellie Scott-Reed

    Oh wow!! This is really fantastic!! Great solutions..We should use that even if we aren’t autistic!! That type of treatment is prevalent in the work place for all of us. Your son is lucky to have you!! Keep doing what you are doing. It is important work!

    • So glad you liked this. And, thanks for the vote of confidence.

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