I don’t typically wade into politics; it has always felt unwise to post content that might be fractious when all I really want is for people to gain a greater appreciation for neurocognitive differences. It’s enough work for me to advocate for neurodiversity and to write clearly on the topic, pointing my readers to scientifically accurate resources on synaesthesia, ADHD, autism, and other brain variations. But, the recent American presidential election has me thinking about lame duck incumbent Donald Trump and an incident that shocked and saddened me, leaving me befuddled as to how he was able to win the 2016 election and muster more than 70,000,000 votes in 2020.
In November 2015, Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Covering that event was NY Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, an individual Mr. Trump knew by name and had met in person on numerous occasions. Mr. Kovaleski fell under attack at that rally for contradicting Trump’s claim that thousands and thousands of people were celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a widely circulated video, Mr. Trump flails his hands and arms with spastic movements that imitate and exaggerate the arthrogryposis that causes joint contracture in Mr. Kovaleski’s right arm and hand. This display of bullying and mockery is documented in numerous videos available on YouTube. For me, it’s an historic low in regard to behavior from a person seeking the highest office in our nation.
In his defense of mimicking Kovaleski’s disability, Trump said that “he was not mocking Kovaleski because he did not know what [the reporter] looked like”. But, according to Kovaleski, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, while covering Trump for the New York Daily News, the two had been on a first-name basis and had met face-to-face on a dozen occasions, including interviews and press conferences in the late 1980s.That the two knew each other was corroborated by multiple other witnesses. To the best of my ability to parse the available information on this incident, it was a clear example of bullying.
I’m sensitive to the aggressions and intimidation of bullies for a number of reasons. I was a bullied kid, picked on with a vengeance in late elementary school for my Tourette Syndrome. I couldn’t stop blinking and rolling my eyes, and I was unable to resist the urge to clear my throat or emit short, barely audible vocal tics. When I was in my late teens, I struggled with undiagnosed ADHD, and made many errors at the restaurant where I worked for a summer. My coworkers and some of the customers gave me the nickname “Dingbat”; then, the kitchen staff followed that lead. It hurt so much to know that I am plenty smart, yet my executive function wasn’t robust enough at that time to keep on top of my job tasks. While I’d previously worked in a Chinese restaurant for 2 years, and had even learned to place some of my orders in Cantonese, I couldn’t keep up with the rapid pace of breakfast service at a busy diner, especially with the sleep deprivation that came with narcolepsy + an early wake-up time.
I got bullied again at another restaurant job where my boss kept commenting on my appearance. One of my Autistic masking strategies is to attire myself in striking clothing so that conversations tend to be about what I am wearing; it’s a form of deflection. But even with my boy’s department white Oxford shirts and black silk 50’s style circle skirts, I couldn’t hide from my lecherous manager. He constantly commented on my physique, and started calling me Cherry Pie after the Sade song from the album Diamond Life that often played in the restaurant’s small bar. On New Year’s Eve he grabbed my breast whilst ostensibly coming in for a celebration hug. I never reported the assault.
Neurodivergent individuals are often the targets of bullying, particularly when our neurocognitive differences foster behaviors that neurotypicals see as strange, awkward, or unseemly. It’s challenging enough to negotiate life with differences in regard to sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions that are the hallmark of our neurodivergence. What makes things worse is this: our disabilities are often invisible, traits that are hard to see on the surface, yet still impact our cognitive function. We might seem like we are okay from a superficial perspective, but roiling under the surface are challenges with sensation, attention, executive function etc. We might mask to deflect attention from our neurodivergence, yet it’s still there, amplified by the friction between our inner and outer worlds.
As America moves toward the Biden presidency, I’m hopeful that bullying as a tactic of intimidation and power will take a back seat to bipartisan respect. My father was a Republican, my mother a Democrat, and I know for certain neither of them would support bully politics. I’m registered Independent, and I hope I never again see a person with tremendous media traction using their privilege to belittle a disabled individual in a public forum. We have so much work to do in this country, but I believe we are ushering in four years that will be marked by increased empathy. May the bully be ignored, may the mediators and collaborators rise up.