Features Editor, Olly DeHerrera, reflects on a culture of autism-intolerant violence.
Olly Stephens was born at 9pm on the 1st of November 2007; at the age of 13, his murder would make national headline news. Olly and I shared not only a first name, but also a diagnosis of Autism- which is a complex and nuanced developmental disability/brain-difference that often affects or impedes social function. Autism as a diagnosis has been the subject of much controversy and continues to be beset by misconceptions and derogative stereotyping. The National Autistic Society estimates that one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, with around 700,000 [diagnosed] autistic adults and children in the UK. “He was an enigma, a square peg in a round hole, a puzzle to be solved”, said Olly’s father, Stuart Stephens, in tribute to his son; he continued to describe Olly’s autism as his “superpower”.
When Olly was set upon and stabbed during a planned attack by three teenagers in a suburban Reading park, the local and national community flurried to make sense of the abominable headlines.
Tom Rawstone, writing for the Daily Mail, was strong-worded in his criticism of the perpetrators’ choice to “glorify and mimic the culture of inner-city gangs”; similarly, Stuart Stephens criticised the “gangster mentality” of younger people at a public hearing following the murder. There is certainly much to be said about the apparent rising statistics associated with knife crime in the UK. In a 2020 statement, The Ben Kinsella Trust stated: “we have now seen knife crime rise by 78% from 2015, with offence numbers increasing from 26,974 to 46,265 in 5 years”.
However, the sombre reality obscured by this focus is that, whatever ‘trend’ or statistic that violence may embody, autistic people are perpetual targets and victims of such behaviour. According to a recent survey by Ambitious About Autism’s youth council, 75% of autistic young people have experienced bullying – a fact that will likely come as little surprise to autistic readers or those close to an autistic person. The social difficulties associated with autism often lead to isolation and ostracization- particularly within the heightened social climate of mainstream schools. According to BBC news, the motivation for the attack on Olly was formulated after he reported the attackers to the older brother of a boy they were mocking- an apparent social faux pas. “He did what he always did, stand up for other people”, Stuart Stephens reflected to press after Olly’s funeral: autistic people are often noted for their strong sense of justice. “Olly trusted people too much, it was part of his make-up, it was part of his autism – it was why we loved him,” Stuart also noted at the Reading Crown Court sentencing hearing.
As autistic people, we can almost all share stories of the bullying we experienced: my own dates back as far as pre-school and characterises most of my education experience until age 16. As I reflect now, I wonder how I truly managed to make it through. Attitude towards autism and social difference are ones of tolerance, not acceptance- the difference is small but paramount to preventing violence. From major Hollywood movies to daytime sitcoms and children’s cartoons, characters written with autistic traits serve as perpetual victims and punchlines – in a way that is rarely meaningfully condemned. There exists a general attitude that bullying is part of the autistic experience, ignorant to the truth that bullied autistic children eventually become autistic adults, many of us still reconciling with the emotional wounds and self-doubt instilled by our experiences.
Olly died on 3rd of January, 2021. May his memory be a blessing and a lesson.