This may turn out to be the most important article I have ever written. And it may not be light reading: powerful subjects need powerful words.
Teenagers, this one’s for you again.
The story of Kennedy, sadly, is not a unique one.
Kennedy LeRoy, a 16-year-old student from Chino Hills, California, had Asperger Syndrome and suffered from bullying. He was an extremely compassionate young man who loved helping other people. He was famed for being able to sense pain in others and take it away. He felt so much joy from it.
If he’d been in your class, you’d have liked him. But sadly, you’ve probably worked out where this article is going.
On 12th June 2015, Kennedy went to his bedroom and took his own life. His parents, who were led to believe that the bullying had ended a long time ago, have been inconsolable. The news articles make painful reading, and the interviews with Mom and Dad physically hurt to watch. His suicide note- spread across social media at his own request- gives some heartbreaking insight into his life’s challenges. Like many people with Asperger’s, he did not just have Asperger’s.
I won’t lie, Kennedy’s story really affected me. People like him- autistic youngsters who need guidance and support- were the exact reason why I launched Autistic Not Weird in the first place.
And his story illustrates a problem faced by far too many teenagers. According to bullyingstatistics.org, 14% of American high school students have considered suicide, and 7% have attempted it. (In a country with over 300 million people, 7% of all high school students is an unacceptably large number.) I couldn’t find equivalent statistics for the UK, but the NSPCC reports that 45,000 British under-18s talked to Childline about bullying in 2013. Of course, we don’t know how many more bullied youngsters didn’t talk to Childline that year.
And of course, when we talk about bullying-related suicides, we don’t take into account the many teenagers who survive school in the literal sense, but grow up with a far more negative attitude to life than they deserve.
I’ll never claim to know the specifics of his life and depression, except what he wanted the internet to know. But I will say, without any doubt whatsoever, that the world would have been a better place if Kennedy had stayed in it.
But that’s what bullying, depression and anxiety can do to you: they can make you forget how valuable you are, and make you disregard your rightful place in the world. And now Kennedy’s gone, all I can do is help him in his quest to claw something good out of a dreadful tragedy.
So, here’s my attempt.
A few important points before we start:
This article is not just for those who feel suicidal. It’s for anyone dealing with bullying or harassment at school.
This article is not just for people on the autism spectrum. I’d give this advice to anyone. But since I run an autism site, this is how I reach people- autistic or not.
I was bullied at school, I grew up with Asperger Syndrome, and I made it to the other side in one piece anyway. The following is mostly a blend of advice I followed, and advice I wish I’d followed.
There is a list of good bullying advice pages at the end of the article. Browse these too.
This is for you, Kennedy- and for all the others.
Eight tips on how to cope with bullying
1. Tell someone you trust
There’s a reason I’ve put this one first. It’s extremely important. And I firmly believe that if Kennedy had done this, he would still be alive.
His parents believed him when he said the bullying had been resolved. And they don’t blame the school for missing any signs of bullying, because the signs simply weren’t there. Kennedy had become too good at hiding his depression from the people who loved him. In his own words, “every time someone asked me how my day at school was, I lied straight through my teeth.”
So lesson one- if people love you, let them help.
First and foremost I’d recommend telling your parents (although there’s a list of alternatives below, for those who don’t have the kind of relationship that would allow it).
Of course, telling your parents can be difficult. Here are the biggest reasons teenagers keep their suffering to themselves.
Bullies try to shame their victims into keeping silent. Words like ‘tattle-tale’, ‘snitch’ and ‘grass’ were invented to keep good people silent. (Yes, in Britain the word ‘grass’ means snitching. Don’t ask why.)
But think about it- why would bullies invent words to discourage you from telling others? Because they don’t want you telling others.
And why don’t they want you telling others? Because it would be good for you.
So screw them. Tell someone anyway. They don’t deserve your obedience.
Anxiety issues stop victims from talking. I won’t lie, anxiety’s a bitch. I was ‘lucky’ enough to only have it as an adult, and had a head start in learning some life lessons before facing it.
One of the most important life lessons I learned was this: THE BEST WAY OF OVERCOMING SOMETHING YOU’RE AFRAID OF IS BY BEING BRAVE AND DOING IT ANYWAY.
I used to be terrified of speaking to large groups. Later, I became a teacher who did it every day. That wasn’t magic. That was me having the bravery to speak to large groups until I became comfortable with it.
If you’re afraid of telling someone, decide to yourself that you’re going to be brave, sit down with someone you trust and ask them to listen to you. It won’t matter if it takes you an hour to put the words together. If they’re loyal enough for you to put your faith in, they’ll listen.
Victims don’t want loved ones worrying about them. That was me, through and through. I made that decision out of love.
And, looking back, I was wrong.
Because by not seeking help, I was doing more damage to myself . By trying not to worry people, I was giving them more to worry about.
Because if the situation had been reversed, I’d have wanted to know how to help them.
Because worrying about someone’s an important part of loving them.
Because what’s the point of building up a trusting relationship if you don’t use that trust once in a while?
And finally, because I was taking an opportunity away from people who would have loved to help me. That was its own kind of wrong.
Now, if you don’t feel comfortable telling your parents, here are some other people you can tell:
Another family member. I can’t comment on which one would be best, because that depends entirely on your own family. Chances are you’ll have your own immediate idea about someone- and if that’s true, you should trust your instincts.
A teacher. I used to be a teacher, so I know what kind of teachers are out there. Schools are loaded with competent, trustworthy people. Find the member of staff you trust the most, and talk to them. We’re trained on what to do next.
Your friends. There are different categories of ‘friend’. There are friends you can have a laugh with but not trust with things that are serious. Then there are friends who may have their faults, but you know you can trust them with your life. Distinguish between people you like and people you trust, then tell a suitable friend.
Bullying websites/hotlines. There are plenty of these out there. Just Google “bullying help [place where you live]” and see what comes up. The world’s not short of help for those being bullied. (Don’t forget the list of pages at the end of this article.)
But seriously, tell someone. A problem shared is a problem halved.
And- in case you missed this sentence the first time- I firmly believe that if Kennedy had done this, he would still be alive.
2. Don’t let the bullies know you’re afraid
Bullies are like online trolls. If they don’t get a reaction from their victims, they don’t see the point.
So, as difficult as it sounds, give no reaction. Appear unaffected. Ignore them and walk away. It doesn’t matter if you need to cry onto someone’s shoulder when the bullies aren’t looking- if you don’t let them see how you’re affected, they soon lose interest.
I understand, given the target audience of Autistic Not Weird, that some readers will find this especially difficult because of extra underlying issues: anger, impulses, lack of self-control and so on. Even if you absolutely can’t solve these issues, at least make your reaction less than it has been in the past. Bullies may also be likely to leave you alone if you tone down your response, simply because “it’s not as much fun anymore”.
3. Remember your friends
This point goes beyond what I mentioned in #1.
If bullies play too big a part in your life, it’s easy to forget you have friends. Spend your time with them, and place more value on them than on those who openly want to hurt you. (Looking back, I think this advice was the bit I was best at following, and I remember the difference it made.)
Your friends are your friends for a reason. And like I said earlier, what’s the point in building up trusting relationships if you can’t rely on that trust once in a while?
Now, there’ll be a subset of readers who honestly feel like they don’t have friends.
You will probably have them. But you may not have met them yet.
Schools are full of quiet people. They may be quiet for the same reason you are.
More than that, schools are full of people who are unwilling to be ‘their real selves’ openly. (Hmm, I wonder why?)
So it stands to reason that there are more potential friends out there than you think. Find opportunities to get to know new people. Say kind words to them. Help them with stuff. See what happens.
4 Don’t be a low-risk target
You know how there are some teachers who the class know they can be disruptive around, and there are others whose classes wouldn’t dare mess with them?
That doesn’t just go for teachers. It goes for everyone.
A ‘low-risk target’ is something bullies love- the equivalent of a teacher who seems afraid to discipline a class, or a parent whose commands can just be disregarded.
In a bullying context, a low-risk target is someone:
Who you know won’t tell a teacher if you pick on them.
Who shows no likelihood of standing up for themselves.
Who has ‘victim’ written all over them, but is unlikely to attempt to change this.
Who is more likely to damage themselves in response to bullying than take any action against the bully.
Who, overall, you know you can bully with basically no consequence.
Don’t be this person. Be the opposite.
Be brave enough to get the teachers involved. Learn what a confident face looks like and wear it. Don’t let bullies coerce you into the role of a victim. Refuse to take things out on yourself, and remember that they are at fault and not you. Recognise that if you don’t take action, it’s more likely to increase problems than decrease them.
Teachers, bullying policies and the police are all there for a reason. And if bullies know there’s a consequence to picking on you, you’ll be less of an ideal target.
5. Feel sorry for them!
Hard, but important.
Because no matter how bad the bullying gets, there is a way it could be worse. You could be one of the bullies.
Maybe a part of my belief in this comes from the part of the Bible that says “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)- and it has to be said, Jesus had a pretty good point.
When you think about it, there are a lot of reasons to feel sorry for school bullies.
I feel sorry for them because…
They rely on other people’s sadness to feel happy.
This means they can’t manufacture any happiness of their own.
They’re misguided enough to think popularity at school means anything as an adult.
When they leave school, they won’t be able to bully any boss into giving them a job.
Believe me, in some ways you’re far better off than they are.
6. Read ‘Growing Up Autistic’
A part of me doesn’t want to simply plug another article of mine. But honestly, if I didn’t offer a link to this (the most significant piece I’ve ever written for teenagers), I’d only have to repeat the exact same advice here.
So, to save us both some time, here is the best advice I can give to young people growing up on the autism spectrum.
With regards to bullying, pay particular attention to:
1. You are not alone
2. Don’t let other people decide who you are
4. Secondary school means less than you think
10. In all you do, remember how much you’re loved
7. Remember how much you’re worth
All you need to do is watch any news video with Kennedy’s family, and you’ll see how much he was worth to them. Look at the reaction across the internet, and you’ll see how much he was worth to the world.
I had never heard of Kennedy before he died. But if I had, I would have loved him. (Like I said, people like him were the reason I launched Autistic Not Weird.) And I’m not alone, either- there were millions of people just waiting to adore this young man if their paths had ever crossed in life. But he couldn’t have known that. Not in the state he was in.
Because bullying, and the anxiety it brings, does one particular thing that’s extremely damaging: it makes you forget how much you’re worth.
Bullies like it when their victims feel worthless. It makes them a low-risk target. So don’t fall into their traps.
You are worth loads to your family. Maybe more than you realise.
You are worth loads to your friends. Maybe more than you realise.
You are worth loads to the world. Definitely more than you realise.
8. In a few years the bullies will be gone anyway.
People say that suicide is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. They’re the wisest words relating to suicide that I’ve ever heard.
And that’s what I’d say to anyone struggling with bullying at school, suicidal or not: you’ll have a couple of years of dealing with this person, and then decades and decades of never, ever seeing them again.
And yes, I know how long a year feels when you’re at school. I remember overhearing this conversation in a science lesson in my final year at school:
Girl 1: “She was saying things about me, like ‘she’s such a skinny bitch, and no guy’s ever going to want her’… and I was there, about three seats away! She knew I could hear her but she said it anyway.”
Girl 2: “…You seem really calm about it.”
Girl 1: “Well I just think of it this way- after the end of this year, I’ll never see her again. So why waste thoughts on her?”
I remember hearing this and thinking “wow, that’s optimistic. You’re more patient than I am- the end of this year’s an eternity away!”
And guess what? I was wrong. And now, in my late twenties (I’m 30 in a few months, so I’m using that phrase as much as I can), the bullying happened so long ago that it’s just not relevant anymore. And as for the bully in that story (she bullied me too, actually), I neither know nor care where she is now.
I know it’s difficult to see things in perspective when you’re anxious (bloody hell, do I know that). But take my word for it, as someone who’s been there- once your school days are gone, they’re gone forever. Don’t do anything that takes away your opportunity to enjoy the decades waiting for you on the other side.
Other options- getting the hell out of there
I should at least mention the possibilities of changing schools, special education, or homeschooling. Each of these will have their pros and cons, and I am in no position to judge whether any of these options are right for you.
Changing schools would get you away from seeing those particular bullies every day. That said, it would also mean you’d have to start a new social life in a brand new place, which would be tricky.
I have seen special education do wonders for people- even those who don’t struggle academically (or at least, only struggle academically because of bullying factors). Of course, it depends on the provision of each particular special school. It may or may not be right for you.
I’ve also seen the brilliant and not-so-brilliant sides of homeschooling. I’ve taught kids who have just come into formal education having not been properly provided for at home… and I’ve seen home education work absolute wonders. (Including a non-autistic friend of mine who dropped out of school because of bullying… then graduated from high school two years before her peers. Yes, two years. She really, really wanted it.)
None of these should be rushed into. And none of them should be thought of as a quick-fix solution. But, if mainstream education becomes literally unbearable for you, it’s time to leave.
So, the main points again.
Share your problems with someone you trust.
The less of a reaction you give, the less the bullies will bother you.
Value your friends more than your enemies.
Don’t be a low-risk target who’ll keep their problems to themselves.
Feel sorry for the bullies. Be grateful that you’re you rather than them.
If it comes to it, there are different ways of being educated.
You are not alone in being bullied. Far from it. And there is so much support out there if you look for it.
If you have any other advice/insight into how to cope with bullying, please do contribute via the comments.
And Kennedy, I hope this article goes at least some way to helping you achieve your last wish. God bless, my friend.
Important footnote: I am fortunate enough to have been given the blessing of Kennedy’s family before making this article public, and I’m happy to say they’ve approved of everything I wrote and even supplied some of the pictures above. Their one request was that I provide a link to Kennedy’s final words, which he so desperately wanted the world to read. (His exact words were “I would also like my note to be posted […] on social media sites to prevent bullying as much as possible. Maybe my death will make people realize that words can hurt as much as, if not more than, physical blows.“)
Under normal circumstances, due to the extremely sensitive nature of his letter, I would not feel comfortable sharing it here. However, Kennedy’s wishes and his family’s must take priority over mine. So his parting words can be found here.
Be warned though, it is NOT easy reading.
List of pages which give good advice about bullying (UK-based, but relevant worldwide):
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook