Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

Autism, Abuse, and the Dilemma of Selective Advocacy

by William Stillman

On April 6, 2011, news outlets across the country reported that Bryan Stow, of Santa Cruz, California, was nearly beaten to death at the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball season opener. Stow was allegedly targeted as he was leaving Dodger stadium by two men who made him the object of their attack because of his appearance: Stow proudly supported the opposing team by wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey emblazoned with the team logo. As of this early April writing, Stow remains in critical condition, enduring the limbo of a medically-induced coma, brain damage, and seizure activity as a result of his beating. By all counts, Stow was a good guy, and an upstanding citizen and coworker.

Reaction from the public, the media, and representatives from both baseball teams was swift, supportive, and proactive. Ameliorations under consideration include the following: there should be more uniformed police officers visible before, during and after games; the sale of beer should be limited or curtailed before the ninth inning; and a $100,000 reward was offered for information leading authorities to the suspects. The Dodgers even announced they were hiring a former LAPD chief to assess security conditions in and around the stadium and its parking lot. In short, the attack on Bryan Stow brought about lightening-fast responses to create solutions to prevent any future such incidents. But as horrific as Stow’s circumstances are, it got me to wondering about parallels with others are similarly persecuted for being who they are, and conducting themselves in an uncommon or unpopular manner.

As a man with Asperger’s fast approaching 50, it should surprise no one that as a child, I had no diagnosis. This is typical of most adults with Asperger’s my age, older, and perhaps up to 25 years younger. All I knew was that I was different. I wasn’t particularly interested in playing with other children unless I was directing and controlling the play. I didn’t understand competitive games (I was the confused kid who scored points for the other team by running in the wrong direction). And I preferred to ingratiate myself in solitary projects of my own creation. One of my earliest childhood memories is of standing on the recess playground in kindergarten, observing from afar, not unlike an anthropologist, the other children running and laughing and carrying on, and having no clue what it was I was supposed to be doing. I had the vague impression that I was expected to be a part of their camaraderie, but none of it looking appealing and there was no motivation or incentive to join in.

My prodigious artistic talent (I routinely awed teachers with my adult-caliber renderings worthy of one well seasoned) got me so far in the manner that society will excuse or overlook the eccentricities of sports or Hollywood celebrities who behave oddly but are gifted. But ultimately, puberty woefully, painfully, illuminated the awful truth: I was considered weird, antisocial, hypersensitive, and cold, arrogant, aloof. My interest in niche topics or subjects reserved for those of much more tender years brought ridicule and worse. My clichéd mannerisms and spoken delivery lifted from lines of dialogue from characters in favorite movies (now called “scripting”) was cause for mocking. Because I was passive, I rarely retaliated. My speech and body language was publicly mimicked in plain view of cafeteria staff, school bus drivers, and teachers…who did nothing. I was verbally abused and physically harassed by select peers for years of my life. In one instance, I was alone in the hallway, making my way back to class. One of my tormentors paced behind me, systematically punching my back as a tried to pretend nothing was happening. The fleeting thought of suddenly twisting to confront him while thrusting my pencil deep into his abdomen mercifully passed as quickly as it came.

What I endured manifested in a post-traumatic stress disorder that haunted me into adulthood. It also manifested in a depression so severe I seriously contemplated slashing my wrists at age 16 to abate my painful tribulations. In reflection now, it is difficult to relive, in mind-pictures and mind-movies, the events of those dark days—it negatively affected my personality for many years as I descended into a period of bitterness and cynicism. At almost 50, my incentive for being an autism author and advocate is personal, as one might imagine: I never want for another kid on the spectrum—or any kid who marches to the beat of a different drummer—to ever endure the abuses I did. But still it happens. I am regularly apprised of the horror stories, of school children with autism or Asperger’s hit, kicked, punched, hair-pulled, strapped to chairs, mouths duct-taped shut, locked in closets, or physically restrained by two or more adults. When perpetrated by peers, it’s now called bullying; when perpetrated by adults, it’s often defended as “treatment.”

Let’s take a moment to pause and to contrast the rapid and supportive response to Bryan Stow’s brutal treatment with the current state of affairs in autism behavior management. We still have much to learn, and a long way to go toward attaining a compassionate call and a higher understanding of those who appear different from what’s considered typical.

©2011, William Stillman (

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