CW: mentions of suicide, bullying

My youth was spent in total ignorance of my true neurological inheritance, an ignorance all but guaranteed by the word “female” that was stamped emphatically on my birth certificate. It was exceptionally rare for anyone other than non-speaking boys with intellectual disabilities to be diagnosed as autistic back in those days.

I wouldn’t learn of my autistic neurology for 3.5 more decades. I never had a chance of understanding myself in the correct context growing up.

What I did have the chance to do was to internalize the more insidious tenets of capitalism and ableism.

Photo: An increasing line on a graph, superimposed over blurry lines of numbers, superimposed over a picture of a man wearing glasses and a button-down shirt, looking down and writing on a clipboard, symbolizing our society’s focus on profit increase.

The status quo was enforced on me from all sides, at home, at school, even socially. You go to school. You get good grades. You go to college. You get a good job. You marry and reproduce. You work until you’re 65. You retire and go on The Price is Right and guess the price of soap.

But it was apparent to me from a young age that school was really nothing more than a worker preparedness factory, a dehumanizing place which punished individuality and individual approaches to doing things, an enforced homogeneousness in thought, with society-sanctioned hazing for anyone who dared stray from the narrow boundaries of the ideal worker-consumer personality.

When I was much younger, when play dates were mostly arranged by parents or by circumstance, when it was seen as more or less normal for all kids to be shy or obsessed with certain things like trains or horses, I was much better able to fly under the radar. As I got older, however, my neurodivergent traits became more and more apparent the more the groups of girls I associated with relied on complex and nuanced social rituals which I just could not accurately decipher or keep up with.

Photo: Three teenage girls, one on the far left taking a picture of the other two standing on the far right, who are posing for a picture in front of a wrought-iron gate, symbolizing the posed and unspoken social rituals that many groups of Neurotypical girls engage in.

Before I knew it, it was my turn to be hazed for failing to stay within the lines. In the 6th grade, almost all of the girls in our entire grade signed a 12 page handwritten letter, front and back, written and addressed to me by a popular girl. In it, all of my now-obvious neurodivergent traits were brutally torn asunder, and I was given the “advice” that I should just kill myself.

By 8th grade, the teasing had intensified into an orchestrated campaign whose only goal was to make me suffer enough to give in and actually rid the world of my existence.

One day, I reached my breaking point. I punched a girl in the mouth who was verbally attacking me. I was suspended. I was grounded. I was even made to show up to her house with a bouquet of flowers and forced to apologize.

Photo: A hand sticks out from a fence, holding three flowers, red, orange and yellow, in a clenched fist, symbolizing the apologies victims of bullying are often forced to make to their bullies for their actions taken in self-defense, while bullies are not made to apologize for their bullying.

That same year, a boy a few grades ahead of me killed himself after years of intense harassment at the hands of his peers, students in the same class as my older brother.

I walked to school every day by taking a short cut through the town graveyard and would always pass by his grave. I would often stop and tearfully apologize to him for the way others had treated him because I knew that they never would, and that even though I hadn’t known him when he was alive beyond passing him in the halls, I nevertheless felt a sort of kinship with him.

The following year, a friend I had made from one town over used his father’s revolver to put a bullet in his head. He, too, was the victim of a years-long harassment effort carried out by his school peers.

Photo: Text on a weathered headstone reading: “In loving Memory” with magenta-colored flowers laid on top, symbolizing the victims of bullying we have lost and continue to lose to suicide.

There were many other victims, as well, but most had managed to convince their parents to let them transfer to other schools. One girl whose parents refused to let her transfer to another school actually wrote and sent a letter to the school containing a bomb threat so that her parents would believe her that the school was too dangerous and allow her to transfer. We had to evacuate as a bomb squad came in and everything. That is how bad the bullying problem was at my school. Those are the measures people were taking to get away from it.

The toxic school environment took children, widely regarded as some of the most innocent and loving beings on our planet, and turned them into people intolerant of any differences (such as disabilities) or divergences from expected norms, who would enforce adherence to those norms with literal physical and verbal abuse. This was seen by parents and faculty as a sort of unfortunate inevitability, even a right of passage. The victims of bullying were, myself included, advised to try harder to blend in, while our attackers weren’t admonished to be more accepting. It was seen as our fault for failing to conform.

Photo: a teenager sitting with their back against a painted cinderblock wall (the type common in schools and prisons) barefooted, wearing jeans and a long-sleeve shirt and hat, their feet flat on the floor and their knees drawn up to their chest, with their arms resting, crossed, over their knees and their face buried in their crossed arms, symbolizing the pain and isolation many children with social differences and/or disabilities endure in the toxic climates of schools.

I somehow hung in there. Maybe it was because after I physically defended myself, no one really messed with me anymore. It became known that I clearly had my limit, that I would push back. I would defend myself. I would also defend anyone else who was being bullied, and still do, to this day.

What is interesting and worth mentioning is that the type of bullying that is seen in American school systems (and workplaces, for that matter) doesn’t really happen, at least not to anywhere near the same extent, in other countries.

I lived in New Zealand for two years in my twenties. A person I met there asked me one day whether people really experienced the level of bullying in school as Hollywood movies depicted and the question just completely caught me off guard. It felt like a gut punch that took the wind from my lungs.

When I found my breath again I managed to respond, “wait, that doesn’t happen here!?” He laughed and said no, of course not. I informed him that sadly, the Hollywood depictions of American high school hazing often weren’t as bad as what happens in real life. He couldn’t believe it.

The phenomenon is distinctly American.

Photo: A close-up of a thread against a black background, symbolizing the common thread that runs throughout our school system, workplaces, the stock market, and connects to the capitalists at the very top of the system.

As I’ve aged, as I have reflected on why these realities are apathetically accepted as “just the way of things,” and as I have pulled the string, it became increasingly apparent that I was beginning to tug on the very fabric of our economic and governmental structures. The thread I was pulling on went beyond the toxic environments of our American public schools, ran right through the halls of adult workplaces, and looped around the trading floor at the stock exchange, before leading to the doorsteps of those whose bottom lines relied on the exploitation of the working class.

Photo: Close up of the laps of seated women, some holding purses in their laps, others holding small American flags, all dressed in similar ways, symbolizing coherent themes which are distinctly and uniformly American.

Another thing that is distinctly American? Our particularly brutal form of capitalism.

It is that brutal form of American capitalism which influenced the creation of our state-run schools in the first place. It is no wonder that the American public school system is a microcosm for the greater economic macrocosm that is capitalism, that the same intolerance for those who could not turn a profit for capitalists spilled over into the culture of the schools. It is literally engineered to prepare the future generation to enter that system as the working class. There is even a covert hostility implicit in the very prison-like design of most public school systems that seems like a veiled threat.

Capitalism is defined as: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

Capitalism wouldn’t be a problematic economic system, actually, were the people who engaged in it uniformly ethical. But the people at the helm are not uniformly ethical, and money is a highly corruptible influence on those who might have once had ethics and morals. The only natural checks and balances on unfettered profit acquisition at any cost would be one’s morals and ethics. When these erode, profits will always supersede the well-being of human beings.

Photo: An arm outstretched in front of a placid lake, holding a compass, symbolizing the moral compass that we all have but sometimes ignore.

And it is simply not profitable to accommodate disabled people. What public accommodations we now have as a society had to be pried from the clenched fists of the lords of industry under pain of fines and financial losses that were more expensive than the cost of implementing such accommodations in their workplaces and places of business in the first place.

Do you think wheelchair ramps and ADA compliant, accessible bathrooms were just benevolent measures willingly adopted by businesses everywhere? No! These things were the result of protracted legal battles which even went to court in the first place because marginalized communities and those who empathized with them came together to form organizations to challenge the status quo. These things had to be fought for.

Under morally bereft capitalism, we have been told, and come to believe, that people only deserve basic survival necessities like food, housing, clothing, respect, etc., if they are able to work hard. We have been told, and have come to believe, that homelessness is the product of laziness and irresponsibility, neglecting to realize that most who enter homelessness are intellectually disabled, physically disabled, mentally ill, and have been failed by the systems which were supposed to catch them when they fell.

And really, these capitalistic tenets are ableism, which can be defined as, “discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities.” The belief that people who, for any reason, are unable to work as expected under capitalism, are not worthy of help, compassion, or even survival, is the very definition of ableism, and it is inextricably linked with capitalism. Said another way, in a morally bereft capitalistic society, disabled individuals are useless.

Photo: A meme showing a loaded boat full of immigrants on the sea with a caricature of a greedy capitalist, wearing a top-hat and fancy suit and resembling a pig, drawn in the right corner with the text: “we need to worry about our own homeless, we can’t take any more people.” The same caricature is in the left-hand corner of the photo on the bottom, which is a photo of homeless people sleeping under what looks like an overpass on thin cushions with blankets and trash, with the text: “get a job you lazy f*cks.” It is suggested that the capitalist caricature is the one saying these words, symbolizing the attitude of most capitalists regarding those who cannot work as well as highlighting their hypocrisy.

It is ableism like this which infects state-run public school systems and indoctrinates school children into telling their obviously different (often disabled) peers that they’re better off just killing themselves. At least the children who say such horrible things still do so directly and happily sign their names on the letter. Capitalism and the government which enables it both pretend to be inclusive while doing everything in their power to keep the basic necessities of survival just out of reach of the disabled people who need them, which is just an underhanded way of telling someone to just do everyone a favor and die. What was it that honorable and successful businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, said about the poor? “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”

These things become internalized over time. In fact, internalized ableism is central to “hustle culture” It is inseparable from capitalism, and, I believe, a result of a century-long extremely successful gaslighting campaign perpetuated by those who rely on the exploitation of the labor of people who can and will work themselves into the ground for crumbs while the private owners take the cake, and by people who have no use for those who can’t or won’t.

Photo: an outstretched arm of a man wearing a suit controlling a marionette with puppet strings, symbolizing the way the wealthiest business owners of our society control the workforce.

Where do disabled people, especially those with invisible disabilities, fit into this system?

In this society, if you cannot produce a profit for someone, you are seen as unworthy of even the basic necessities of survival. You are seen as a burden, as a dredge, as a living embodiment of the worst attributes of human nature. Your struggles are subverted to fit the narrative of you as the worst of what humanity has to offer.

This narrative of the disabled as lazy, as freeloaders, as burdens, as tragedies, as undesirable, is gaslighting. It is a smear campaign intended to make disability so socially abhorrent, so synonymous with laziness (which has been thoroughly vilified as the single worst human failing), that workers will do anything to distance themselves from those “undesirables” and from any suspicion of laziness, seeking to demonstrate their “worth” and their industriousness in their willingness to work themselves into an early grave without a single complaint.

This intolerance and disdain for those who are disabled and those who are different is acculturated into each generation through our worker preparedness factories, our public school systems. It is there that natural compassion and tolerance are brow-beaten out of each new generation to ensure that they don’t object to the economic system which treats them as disposable. It is where children are turned into custodians of the status quo, enforcers of norms, and bullies to anyone with disabilities or differences. It is where ableism is taught and learned.

Photo: The sun is setting behind the waves of the ocean where two hands are sticking up above the surface of the ways, indicating that someone is drowning, symbolizing the lack of supports and accommodations for those with invisible (and visible) disabilities in our society.

It is where disabled children are not properly accommodated and whose failings are misinterpreted as stemming from laziness or immorality, where children’s first bullies are often teachers and principals, who demonstrate to their other students, through their intolerant and punitive behavior, how to treat people who do not or cannot conform to ableist standards of excellence or “acceptable” behavior.

Perhaps teachers didn’t set out to be bullies, but pressure to adhere to state-approved curriculum and to ready students for standardized testing on that curriculum, which scores often determine the amount of funding a school gets and so provides a financial incentive for teachers to demand their students all file neatly into the proper channels, punishing those who don’t or can’t either by not accommodating them or worse, by actually belittling them in front of the class.

Photo: a man is sitting at a chair and bent over a desk with a computer, but appears to be the only one in the office and it looks to be getting dark out the windows, indicating he is working overtime symbolizing the expectation of “hustle culture” for workers to regularly work overtime.

Compassion for the disenfranchised in our society is equated with weakness, which is quite bizarre when you stop to realize that evidence of human compassion in the fossil record is what paleo anthropologists and archeologists see as clear evidence of the establishment of true human civilization. When we begin to see in the fossil record evidence that people are surviving injuries that they could not have survived without the help and care of their fellow humans, we point to that and say, “ah, see? Sentience, humanity.”

At what point was that definition of humanity usurped by ruthlessness? (Probably about the same time as modern Christianity repackaged Jesus as the patron saint of the super rich who condemns the poor and the “weak.”)

Those of us in the disabled and marginalized communities are really omnipresent reminders of society’s lack of compassion, and for that, we are demonized.

It is even easier to demonize disabled people who don’t outwardly appear to be disabled because at least one can pretend that their disability doesn’t exist, and that their only “true” disability is the most grave sin one could commit under capitalism: laziness. When someone struggles with invisible quicksand pulling at their feet with every step, it is easier to deny that quicksand exists. It is easier to dismiss that person’s struggles.

Photo: a picture of bare feet covered in wet mud, symbolizing the “quicksand” that disabled people in our society must walk through without support or help while others benefit from solid ground and disbelieve that disabled people have to walk through quicksand.

There is no room for compassion when capitalism is driven by those infected with a craven, insatiable greed, and when those so infected have infected a large portion of society with their warped ethos, as compassion as seen to represent unnecessary expense.

A recent study demonstrated that autistic people are more likely to choose to stick to their morals, even when no one is looking, rather than abandon their morals in order to make a financial gain. Nonautistic people were more likely to abandon their morals in order to acquire financial rewards when they thought no one was looking.

Photo: an opportunistic seagull is stealing trash out of a garbage can on a beach, symbolizing individuals who are willing to steal when given the opportunity.

Not surprisingly, even this behavior was framed as a deficit on the part of autistic people, saying that we “care too much” about our morals and posing our disregard for social reputation as “abnormal.” That’s how you know you’re in a society that must demonize the disabled in any way possible, when even our strengths are pathologized and couched in the language of “social deficits.”

I really want to clarify here, however, that I do not think neurotypical people are monsters. I do think neurotypical people are the majority and do set the tone for our overarching social structures such as economics and government, and it has indeed been shown in a few studies that autistic people tend to be less likely than nonautistic people to compromise on our morals for financial gain (even when no one is looking.)

But I also believe that economic systems are made by many people, over a long period of time, and that simply being a member of the autistic community does not automatically confer upon someone impunity from all wrongdoing (ahem, Elon Musk) just as simply being neurotypical does not guarantee that one condones unethical actions. Even though society is made up of more neurotypical individuals than neurodivergent, our society is made up of both, and economic structures and government structures weren’t created by neurotypicals in a vacuum.

Photo: a vulture sits on top of piles of money in the form of cash, coins, and gold bars as a golden arrow rises on an incline from the bottom left of the photo background to the top right, indicating a rise in profits and symbolizing the corrupting influence of wealth.

But on the balance, these systems may have been able to become so corrupted over time because of ethical blind spots that some neurotypical people seem to be more prone to, and the corruption of but a few powerfully wealthy individuals could have the net effect of changing the standard for morals and ethics in capitalism for the whole country.

I think it has more to do with the cumulative effects of corruption over time creating the runaway monster that is now American capitalism, and that in a way, we’re all victims of it, neurotypical and neurodivergent, but that neurotypicals are better able to cope within it, being that they are not actively disabled by an environment that is not built to accommodate someone of their neurotype, in the same way that neurodivergent, disabled people are. I don’t think anyone is particularly enjoying the-stage capitalism who isn’t already gluttonously wealthy, but disabled people enjoy it least of all.

As the majority of the population, however, and as people who are not disabled by their environment and are better able to function within it, neurotypical people have more power to create meaningful change that leads to better outcomes for everyone, and that is a responsibility which needs to begin to be shouldered by the neurotypical community.

Photo: a close up of an eye which shows a reflection of the environment in the wet surface of the eye, symbolizing the need not just to look outside of ourselves at the environment but the need to reflect on ourselves and our roles in the environment, as well.

Do I think capitalism or even money are the problems? No. I think a lack of moral integrity is the problem. I think a tendency to push for expansion and profits at all costs, even the cost of ruined human lives, is the problem. I think that capitalism could be a perfectly benign system in the right hands, with integrity and morals standing as natural checks and balances.

I don’t have an idea for the replacement of capitalism, and I’m not necessarily advocating for one. It would be futile to do so, anyway, before humanity had found its heart again, for any system would inevitably just result in continued oppression for marginalized people.

So in the meantime, all I will say is that a good first step would be to inspect ourselves for internalized ableism, to challenge the belief that only those who live without physical or mental disability are worthy of surviving, and to try to find our hearts again in a heartless system.

Photo: an elderly man with white hair embracing an elderly woman with gray hair in a city square with ornate stone buildings and crowds of people in the background, symbolizing the need for compassion in our societies.

Maybe we as autistic people are nature’s way of bringing balance back into a system which is so unbalanced it is about to teeter off an existential cliff. Maybe autistic people can demonstrate that there is a better way to meet our needs without diminishing one another or diminishing our home, without having to demonize or withhold compassion from anyone. At any rate, we are a living embodiment of an invitation to return to basic human compassion.

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5 Comments

  1. Amazing Kai. Thank you for continuing to touch and taste and feel a pain not very many of us could bear. Being able to read it and see it hurt so bad but if we don’t talk about it to eachother i truly think nothing changes. Thank you for being brave and wanting change

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this heartfelt reply, Anna!! It means a lot hear that these posts have value for others, despite sometimes being a little heavy. I agree, it’s so important to talk about these things even when they’re uncomfortable! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and reply 🙏💜 Your support means a great deal to me!

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  2. You are so right! I am only at the beginning of your blog and stopped to comment about the labeling. If, like you did, you went to school in Hopedale, they definitely had a labeling system. Once you had a label attached to you there was never any way of changing it. I saw that right away how they tracked students. It used to be some students were tracked right into the Draper factory. Some students who, let’s say, were outside of the Hopedale academic box of what was deemed to be successful students, were labeled as trouble makers, lazy, unsupported, or somehow less then the cream of the crop. I remember the day the school principal wanted to keep someone you know who was in my care, in a detention after school. I attended the special meeting with this student and the principal. The reason for this meeting was that this student had waved to his friends outside at recess before he got out there. The friends laughed and this student got in “trouble” during recess. I told this student to wait outside the principle’s office. The principal told him to stay. I told him to leave, which he did. I then informed the school principle that after keeping this person after school on numerous other occasions, that from now on, if this student was going to be kept after, that I was also going to wait in detention with him. The principle said that was not allowed. I informed her that was going to happen unless this principle stopped singling out this student. All of a sudden, there were no more detentions for this student. We all need to stand up to unfair, unjust, and unrealistic labels put upon children when we see the injustices take place. Good for you for writing this.

    Also, I got a kick out of how you wrote about retiring at 65 and going on The Price Is Right to guess the price of soap. It is good to know it is possible to retire at 55, like I did, getting the opportunity to enjoy life more than adding to my SEP (401K) Account, since there is more to life than money. Funny thing is, I did go on the Price Is Right Show in 1980, and was the big winner of the day! I still have some of the nice treasures and memories in our home.

    I love your perspectives. Now I will finish reading the rest of your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have more to share here. Sadly, the problems you mention are not limited to youth, nor only with neurotypical and/or divergent individuals, although it is presently worse for people with these disabilities. I am very glad you are shedding a light on this. The cruelty is systemic, crossing age, gender, and employment. Lack of education, social awareness, empathy, and compassion are the missing human traits. I am very glad John showed you how to defend yourself, because school situations did not, in my experience. Let me explain.

    I knew a female child who was the youngest and smallest one in her elementary school class. Other students would pick her up and spin her around, bringing her to tears. She would come home all upset from school. I called the teacher, since this was going on in her classroom. She abdicated her role. Instead, she said it was up to the individual student who had to stand up for herself, so the picking up and spinning around continued under the teacher’s watch. All I could think was the teacher claiming, “It’s not MY job!”

    I happen to be one of the ones who were judged to have bought a house “on the wrong side of town.” Not only that, evidently it was tolerable for a guy to marry a divorced woman before moving into the town. But if you got divorced after moving into town, that was a different story. The judgments were toxic, with people thinking they knew what was going on in other people’s houses. Personally, after I got divorced, I went to a soccer game and was sitting with a women I did not know, enjoying our conversation. However her sister came up and whispered in her ear. After that my newfound friend turned her back to me and would not speak to me the rest of game. The parents are just as bad as the children in this matter.

    John, got yelled at in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. The woman in the adjacent parking space was making it difficult for him to get into the handicapped parking spot. He is 100% disabled from a service connected disability from 3 years in Vietnam. The women yelled out as John got out of the car, “You don’t look disabled!”

    Then it became apparent that you could lose your very popular newspaper column if the topic offended the advertisers, as John found out in Connecticut. He had written a column about the Tea Party and the disastrous effects it had on freedom and democracy, after which he was told his column was no longer needed. The advertisers told the publisher that they disagreed. Money mattered more than truth. However, John entered this very column in the New England Press Association (NEPA) writing competition where the writers could enter their columns. John won First Prize for this very column. We were not there to pick up the award, so the bosses had to bring this award to John.

    There is a price to pay for truth, but that is the only way to shed a light on it. Today we see a lot of Ebenezer Scrooges out in the world. How many times have we heard, “Let them get a job.” Do people realize that most people on Welfare are children who cannot get a job?! Certain segments of the wealthy would not be caught dead speaking with those of lower economic status.

    Thank you again for shedding a light on this topic. Healing will begin when we seek to remedy the problems within ourselves before we start pointing fingers at others. The way society can grow in empathy and compassion is to begin to focus on that more in their own lives. We can all be better people. We just have to want to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

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