Main content

The Bullying Doctor

Autistic psychologist Emily Lovegrove studied bullying to PHD level and now arms young people with strategies to cope if they are being targeted.

Autistic psychologist Emily Lovegrove says that when her children left home, she "needed something else to obsess about". So she studied bullying to PHD level and now arms young people with strategies to cope if they are being targeted.

Ignoring it, telling someone and fighting back are, she says, logical strategies for an emotional subject. Instead, Lovegrove suggests working on your self-esteem, learning grounding exercises, practising meditation and keeping a bunch of written down self-care options to hand.

It's a tough subject but this is a joyful episode full of Robyn and Jamie's trademark humour and fascinating insight.

Presented by Robyn Steward and Henry, Jamie Knight and Lion. Produced by Emma Tracey.

Listen via your smart speaker by saying "Ask the BBC for 1800 Seconds on Autism" and subscribe on BBC Sounds. email

Release date:

Available now

31 minutes


This is a full transcript of 1800 Seconds on Autism published on 26th November 2020 and presented by Jamie Knight and Robyn Steward.



ROBYN - I never found a way out of bullying as a teenager, it was just this constant thing. I got bullied at home by kids in the village. I got bullied at school. And it would be even worse now because then I’d be bullied on social media.



JAMIE - Push them up on to their long end. You stamp on the bottom bit and kick it shut and you put your arm up, you thump it up with the palm of your hand and then you slam it down as your hand comes down. And I learnt how to do it with these three swift, sharp movements, and it sounded as like you’d fired a canon.



EMILY - I’ve always looked different. I hate the clothes that most people like. So I’ve often been met with gasps or sniggers or weird.



ROBYN - Hello, and welcome to 1800 Seconds on Autism, the podcast that makes you think about how you think. I’m Robyn Steward.



JAMIE - And I’m Jamie Knight. This is Season Three, Episode Two, and we’re with you monthly, right round to the middle of spring next year. Well, if you’re in the northern hemisphere.



ROBYN - Recently one of our listeners, Abbie, asked us to do an episode about bullying. We thought that that’s a fantastic idea, so we’ve invited autistic psychologist, Dr Emily Lovegrove, aka The Bullying Doctor, to join us. She’ll be here shortly.



JAMIE - We’ll be sharing some pretty tough experiences, so if that’s not what you want to hear today we’ll be giving you a warning a bit later so you can switch off before we get to that bit.



ROBYN - First things first, let’s read some of your emails.



JAMIE - The first one is from Bix, who was diagnosed five years ago at 46 years old. The subject line is spoon counts. Bix has obviously been listening to us saying things like, “I’ve got five spoons left today,” or, “I woke up with ten spoons,” and doesn’t get how we can calculate it. Bix says, “I’ve never been able to wake up to anything other than a general sense of exhaustion versus alertness, and a vague impression of how much I think I can slate to get done in the coming day.” So, Robyn, how do we it? How do we measure our spoons?



ROBYN - I think you’re probably the person to answer this one.



JAMIE - Yeah, I guess so. I guess I started off by keeping it really simple, it was either a day with energy or a day that I was tired. Then it kind of went to three things: I’ve got lots of energy, a bit of energy, not a lot of energy, I’m tired. So that was kind of four things, and then as I got more used to my body and more used to asking myself I got better at estimating it. I would say that it is an estimation rather than a calculation though, it’s not all that precise. And some days I do surprise myself. I wake up and go I feel great, I’ve got, like, ten spoons, and then I’ll go and make a bit of breakfast and discover, no, no, Jamie, you’ve got four spoons. It’s more often right than it’s wrong, and that’s why it’s useful, but it’s not terribly precise.



ROBYN - We’ve had an email from Guillaume, who says a few nice things about our producer, Emma. Yay!



EMMA - Ah!



ROBYN - Whose voice you hear chiming in from time to time. Guillaume says, “The questions Emma asks are good, especially when you then tell her they don’t make any sense to you because they are neurotypical. It is a good way of showing how different people think or experience stuff.”



EMMA - Hmm-hmm.



ROBYN - It says in the script, “Is Emma a bit too neurotypical?” No! We need all kinds of neuro types in the world and we are glad that we have Emma.



JAMIE - Emma’s a great second voice. She’s, I guess, the voice of the neurotypical people listening. It’s a little bit weird because normally if you had a piece of media you would have five neurotypical people and maybe one autistic person, but we have it the other way around. So, you know, we have our token neurotypical to ask the neurotypical questions and then, you know, half ignore.



EMMA - Well, that’s very kind, Guillaume. I’m a bit embarrassed because last time I kind of threw my toys out of the pram didn’t I? And now Robyn’s thinking of me throwing toys out of a pram.



ROBYN - That’s exactly what I was thinking! [laughter]



JAMIE - Me too. I was also trying to work out what toys you’d have, because in case people don’t know, Emma’s blind, so I’m wondering if you’d have, like, texture toys or would it be, like, Lego? Or would it be something that lights up?



ROBYN - Things that make sounds?



JAMIE - The little balls with bells in?



ROBYN - Cuddly toys?



EMMA - Or smelly things.



JAMIE - Smelly things?



EMMA - Or things you can taste. They’d probably be my tech toys and I really wouldn’t want to throw those. So thanks, Guillaume, I’m a little embarrassed because it’s probably related to what I said last time. But I’m pleased to be here and I only chime in when I think it might work.



ROBYN - [singsong voice] Ding Dong.



EMMA - I really love all these literal interpretations of things going on today. I know last time we called them Robyn-isms, but I can see now that Jamie also does them as well and I love it.



ROBYN - Jamie-isms.



JAMIE - That’s what other people in my life call them, “That’s a Jamie-ism.” Shall we move on?



EMMA - Hmm-hmm.



JAMIE - We said earlier that we’ll tell you when we’re about to talk about bullying, and we’ll be doing that very soon during our conversation with Emily. So if you don’t want to hear that, goodbye, we hope you download the next episode, and it’s been great to have you with us. We’ll be back sometime in December.



ROBYN - Oh look, Emily has just appeared on our podcast. Hi, Emily.






JAMIE - So, Dr Emily Lovegrove is an autistic psychologist known as The Bullying Doctor. She gives autistic young people strategies to use if they’re being bullied. What more should we know about you, Emily?



EMILY - Oh, I don’t know. [laughs] Yeah, I guess that’s what I do. I mean, I went to university late on in life. Bear in mind I’m now 74. I absolutely loved bringing up kids. I’m not sure I was a brilliant mum, but I did enjoy it, and I did hate it when they all left home. So I needed another passion, another thing to obsess about, so I went off to university and did psychology and health science, then got offered a PhD to kind of choose my topic, and I was looking into how the way we look affects how other people view us with teenagers. And it was clear that the main emphasis, their main fear, was getting picked on, teased and bullied about the way they looked or sounded or behaved.


So we worked really, really hard to come up with strategies that helped with that. I mean, what kids said was, it was really nice to have lots of things to be confident about, rather than what happens now, which is just ignore bullying, which you can’t do. Just tell somebody. Well you can get into awful trouble for telling about things, or just hit back, which can also be effective, but we’re not allowed to do that. You know, kids who hit back can end up with a police record; in primary school I’ve known it happen. So all those blanket logical strategies are not much use, because it’s a very emotional subject.


So I’ve worked with mainstream schools and teachers with kids who have severe learning difficulties who also struggle with lots of bullying issues. I’ve done loads of work and research with kids who are visibly very different and feel bullied by all the negative attention they get, and autistic kids who also feel they don’t quite fit in and they attract a lot of negative attention.



JAMIE - So before we get any deeper into this programme I want to say that if you’re being bullied or have been bullied, it’s not your fault. So when I was a kid the school turned round to my parents and basically went, “Well, Jamie’s just the sort of kid that’s going to get bullied,” and that was wrong of them. And if people are telling you that you’re being bullied by what you’re doing, or that it’s your own fault, those grown-ups in your  life are letting you down, because we don’t want people to listen to this podcast and go, well, why didn’t I just do that 20 years ago or whenever it was. So, Emily’s got great strategies, but you’re not a bad person if you didn’t know about them.



EMILY - I think hardly anybody does. If you look at the curriculum for teacher training colleges you rarely find anything for dealing with bullying issues. Teachers are not trained to deal with it, parents don’t know how to deal with it.



JAMIE - But it feels like that’s a good place to start there. Could you give us a definition of what bullying is or how you know if you’re being bullied?



EMILY - Yeah. There are lots of legal definitions. Schools are legally obliged to have an anti-bullying policy which states exactly what they won’t put up with, but the reality is, if you feel humiliated and put down and out of control you feel bullied. So it doesn’t matter whether it follows that exact criteria of is this constant, is it deliberate, if you feel bullied you have exactly the same reaction to it, so emotionally you feel devastated, socially you withdraw, and you just behave in a different way. You don’t want to do things, you don’t join in, you don’t tell your mates what’s happening. So it doesn’t matter to me what the definition is, if you feel bullied that’s where we need to start.



[Jingle: 1800 Seconds on Autism. With Robyn Steward and Jamie




EMILY - I’ve got the mic facing the wrong way. [laughs] What an idiot.



ROBYN - So, why is it that people pick on autistic people?



EMILY - Because human beings are herd animals. Actually, we’re always checking to see if any other living being is safe: Will that hurt me? And therefore, anything which looks or behaves in a way that’s slightly different to what we are expecting, that excites our interest.



ROBYN - So it’s not actually about the person that’s being bullied?



EMILY - No, absolutely. I always say to kids, “If you get picked on it’s not actually personal, it’s not you, it’s what you represent, and the more confident you are of yourself as a person the less interest you will excite.” So it’s about giving our kids confidence, it’s not about getting them to fit in and act as if they were part of the main stream.



JAMIE - Can I paraphrase that as confidence acts as armour?



EMILY - Absolutely.



JAMIE - So I got bullied at my first secondary school and I reacted incredibly violently. I got to the point where other kids were scared of me because, after doing nothing for years of being bullied and being very passive, if I saw the bully that bullied me in the classroom I’d pick up a chair and run at them, every time I saw them, which as you say, has consequences. But I tell you what, it made me really confident and I unsurprisingly got thrown out of that school pretty quickly. I moved across the country anyway, so it wasn’t a huge problem. By being bullied and reacting to it I knew that I could, if not control it or prevent it, I could feel less vulnerable, and once I could feel less vulnerable I felt more confident which meant that I got bullied less. Does that make sense?



EMILY - Total sense. [laughs] Yeah. I mean, to be honest, you know, we’re not allowed to hit back, but we still have endless films and video games in which that’s the aim, you fight hardest and you win. You know, if we were still stuck in caves you’d be absolutely brilliant, we’d all be falling behind you going, yeah, here’s somebody who’s really courageous. Puts the chair where their mouth is. [laughter]



JAMIE - Well, I’m not sure it was wise at the time, but what are the other strategies that people can employ to build confidence, short of grabbing a chair and hitting everybody over the head with it? Because I tell you what, BBC moment, don’t do that, bad idea.



ROBYN - Doing martial arts.



JAMIE - Well, martial arts is something that I did at my second school, and part of the reason how I avoided the bullies is that I spent the whole of lunchtime doing martial arts in the gym. And I tell you what, nobody picks on you if you’re stood in your martial arts equipment in the gym.



EMILY - The thing is, if you feel confident then your facial expression and your body language changes, and other people pick up on that really quickly. Yeah, martial arts are brilliant, they give you that confidence of having control over your body. So find something that you love, that you’re passionate about. And we’re really good at that. Find ways of engaging with people. Find other autistics, because that’s an enormous confidence boost, that there are other people out there who are like you. It’s not to say that bullying doesn’t go on in the autistic community, because it can, but what we know so far is that finding people who are autistic in the way you are means you’re quite likely to have a brilliant relationship.



JAMIE - When I was at primary school the staying out of the playground thing was a big thing, so I ended up helping the lunch people put away the tables at the end of lunch. And I got paid a Wispa once a week. Every Friday I got given a Wispa chocolate bar, and it was the highlight of my week sometimes. The tables had to start being put away by the ones on the furthest at five to 12, and at five to 12 I was stood there to say to people, “You can keep eating but you have to do it on a table. Go all the way down to the far end, I need to put these away.” And it was one time in my life where the clock actually meant something, where there was a little bit of control and certainty.



ROBYN - Did the canteen… was it noisy? Because I remember the canteen as being really echoey and the tables and chairs noisy.



JAMIE - It was, and I learnt how to slam the tables as hard and as loud as I could so then I was controlling the noise, to the point where I would break myself doing it, but actually it could feel quite satisfying. There are these folding tables, and the way you fold them is you push them up on to their long end. You stamp on the bottom bit and kick it shut and you put your arm up, you thump it up with the palm of your hand and then you slam it down as your hand comes down. And I learnt how to do it with these three swift, sharp movements, and it sounded as like you’d fired a canon. It was brilliant. And often I’d have to stand there for two seconds, dazed at my own noise, but it felt good.



EMILY - I’m dazed just listening. I can feel myself kind of pushing myself back against the chair in horror. [laughs]



[Jingle: Email]



ROBYN - I never found a way out of bullying as a teenager, it was just this constant thing. I got bullied at home by kids in the village. I got bullied at school. And it would be even worse now because then I’d be bullied on social media. And I remember the whole time all I really wanted was to have some friends and just, you know, sort of bump along and it was very miserable and I never really found any solution, apart from I used to hang out with the IT teacher and that gave me some protection, because no one was going to bully me in front of a teacher, and especially one who… Like, I don’t think even people whispered things that were horrible to me in the IT room. It felt like a safe space and that was really important I had somewhere I could go that I felt safe. Sometimes I just felt that life was really unfair, and also I felt really trapped. And I suspect a lot of young people probably feel really trapped. People used to call me names like freak and retard and stuff, so what advice would you give to a young person who’s being verbally bullied?



EMILY - It is really hard. I’ve always looked different. I hate the clothes that most people like. So I’ve often been met with gasps or sniggers or weird, but the thing is I couldn’t change that, I would rather die than look the way most other people seem to look. So just having that confidence of thinking, actually, I’m happy with who I am is enormous. And it’s quite hard work, you know, working that up. What I do with, mainly young people, is it’s not a quick fix, you do have to work on yourself. You know, I give kids grounding exercises.



JAMIE - What’s a grounding exercise?



EMILY - When you’re stressed your heart pounds, all your oxygen is diverted to your feet to run or your hands to punch or all of your muscles to freeze up, so then you can’t think of a strategy and you’re just there like a deer in the headlights. So I do a breathing exercise whereby you breathe deeply into your stomach. You have a phrase that means something to you or a colour that you like. So imagine purple is your favourite colour, you breathe purple in and then you breathe it out, down through your legs, through the floor, as if you were growing roots. And you keep growing those roots until you run out of breath. So you’re completely airless and then your biology, your body will take over. You take in a huge gasp of air and at that point it goes up to your brain so you can start to think logically about what you’re going to do. And obviously it’s no good doing that under stress the first time, you need to practice it so that you go into a situation where you might be picked on, already grounded, already having your brain in gear for just going, whatever, smiling.



[Jingle: 1800 Seconds on Autism. With Robyn Steward and Jamie




ROBYN - Henry would like to say that support animals can be really helpful at helping you calm down.



EMILY - Oh, they can. Confession time here. I have a teddy obsession, and when we moved to our current house I did feel quite bad about the number of teddies that we had and I got rid of some of them and I’m now heartbroken, and I’m afraid I’m now replacing them. They have to be a particular texture and just having it there and sometimes, I’ve got a small teddy that is tucked in my pocket…



JAMIE - I go everywhere with Lion in a big backpack so he’s not very subtle.



ROBYN - And Lion’s really big isn’t he?



JAMIE - Lion’s huge. He’s four foot long.



EMILY - He is huge. He’s beautiful.



JAMIE - There is this running joke that Lion’s overriding personality trait is that he’s incredibly ferocious, but you never see him be ferocious, he just says he’s ferocious. I wasn’t being bullied, but I was in a situation with a bunch of mountain bikers who were being quite unfriendly, and I kind of withdrew a bit, but I had Lion with me, and part of the thing that I was thinking was, they don’t know Lion’s there, he could drop out at any minute and surprise them all. But we’ll decide not to eat them today because, you know, it would make all the insides of the bus messy. That comic thought of any minute now Lion could jump out, he’d pounce on that one, eat that one, and then they’d all run away. It would be lions on a bus rather than snakes on a plane. That made me giggle and smile and suddenly that anxiety bled away.



ROBYN - Henry growls at people occasionally.



JAMIE - I went to a dentist that was really good a couple of days ago. I went to a dentist that wasn’t so great the other day, and apparently I growled at them when they were doing dental things without my permission, and it was a proper growl and they stopped. So yay for growling.



EMMA - Do you not even know you’ve done it?



JAMIE - No, it’s a noise that comes out.



EMILY - If I meltdown, which is really, really rare I scream. You know when you get actresses who just scream on demand, I can’t do that, I cannot make a sound like that, but when pushed way beyond what I can cope with then I know afterwards, because I have the most appalling sore throat.



ROBYN - Yeah, I think I’m the same. Jamie, did Lion go to school with you in your backpack?



JAMIE - No, not by the time I got into secondary school. So I wanted to but nobody let me, but by the time I got to college and stuff like that, then yeah, Lion was in my bag all the time. And people knew Lion, in fact there’s a little bit of a friendship bonding experience which was one of the first times I ever felt part of a friendship group, which is I’d met a bunch of nerds in the school library sort of thing, and the way that I made friends with them was by showing them how to go past the internet filter. Which probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but you know, I needed to download some JavaScript files so, you know, things had to be done. And every break I’d be in there and we’d chat and get to know each other, and they met Lion.


And then one day there was a nasty, quite a grumpy person, who threatened to steal Lion and set him on fire. And the entire group bristled as if they were about to hit the guy, and I felt protected and I didn’t feel as vulnerable. So yeah, that was probably my first experience of feeling protected by friends. Previously to all of that, because of the way the bullying and stuff happened I’d have friends who’d only be friends with me outside of school, or only be friends with me in secret, which, you know, way to demolish somebody’s confidence.



ROBYN - That’s not really a friend.



JAMIE - Well, they were friends, they were well meaning, but they were also vulnerable themselves. And in the calculus of necessity they had to protect themselves over me. Whilst that was not the right thing for them to do I can understand why they do it.



ROBYN - So what are the next strategies, Emily?



EMILY - Well, I use meditation. When people talk about therapies to help, often they talk about using CBT behavioural therapy, and that relies on you knowing how you feel at any given moment, and I think a lot of us are quite bad at that.



ROBYN - It’s called alexithymia.



EMILY - Yeah. So the only literature I can find that’s really extensive on alexithymia is found in the work on PTSD, and the therapies that you use for that are very different, they are body based therapies so that you get in touch with and gain some control over your body feelings and then it’s easier to know how you feel emotionally. So I use a form of meditation which is just that you set your timer for two minutes. You lie there, you clench everything up, you let it go. You take a couple of deep breaths. If you can think of something nice that’s lovely. By that stage your timer has probably gone off.


Again, it’s another way of getting back in control of what can feel just totally overwhelming feelings. And I get families to do it together and often parents feel really awkward about doing it, but once they’ve done it then they see the point and they see the point of doing this in the morning before school. You know, quite often if you’re somebody who struggles with time and you have a rigid routine and something goes amiss, then having a couple of minutes to just calm down again can be really helpful for a whole family.



JAMIE - Don’t arrive at school backwards and on fire and full of stress because that’s a bad way to start the day.



EMILY - That’s the one. Yeah, because I think if one family member is really stressed, actually the others will all pick up on it. If it’s the autistic person who’s really stressed, often other people are in a panic thinking, oh no, no, not now, please, please don’t have a meltdown just now, you know, I’ve got to get to work for nine o’clock, I’ve got to drop you off at school. Or if the parent is stressing. We do know that autistics are very sensitive to other people’s stress, they might not know what they’re feeling, but they pick up on other people’s energies. It’s just a way of calming down a whole family and perhaps doing it at bedtime as well, particularly with younger kids, just that time taken to calm down and go, it’s okay.



ROBYN - So what comes after that?



EMILY - I think a lot of it is to do with self-care. So often one can feel quite low spirited because it is always hard living in a world that is not designed to accommodate who you are. There’s a lot of room there for misunderstanding. That applies across the board to teenagers who are really struggling because you will know your whole brain rewires whilst you’re a teenager, so it’s as active as it is when you are a toddler and all those links are being made. When you’re a teenager anything that’s not useful is being chucked out and new synapses forming and joining up.


So being a teenager is a particularly difficult time for not just autistics, but also neurotypicals. So when you’re in a good mood think of things you like doing that are easy to do. It can be as simple as, you know, I just go and talk to the dog or I go and have a bubble bath or there are certain pieces of music that I know will make me feel better. A bit of Stevie Wonder usually puts the world right. So having a list of those things just kind of in a jar so that when you feel low you can pick one of them out and go, oh, yeah I could do that, that would be good.



JAMIE - We have one of those which is one that I learnt… When I was homeless I lived in a hotel for a while and one of the things I found really effective for me if I was feeling really, really, really bad was to go and do one nice, unexpected thing for somebody else. And I used to force myself to do it when I was in these terrible, terrible moods. And it could be as simple as, we had this shared bathroom, and over the course of about a week it would fill with washing stuff, other people’s shampoo, other people’s gel and stuff, and you’re not technically allowed to leave it in there but, you know, you want it to feel a little bit homely. So what I’d do is I’d know whose was whose because I knew what they smelt like and then I’d go and drop them all outside their doors. And the very act of doing it became one of the ways that I kind of got my emotions back under control.



EMILY - Right.



JAMIE - So having little things like that. So things I do like that at the moment is I always buy my flatmate a bar of chocolate when we go shopping. I don’t necessarily give it to him straight away, so that if I need to do a nice thing for someone to help me get back in control of my brain I know that there’s a pending nice thing that I can go and do. Although there are situations where sometimes it’s so driven by the environment and so driven by things outside of my control that that sort of trick isn’t going to work and I just need to bunker down, sleep, and let the spoons recharge before I can do anything.



EMILY - Yeah. Am I allowed to do a book plug here?



ROBYN - Yeah, absolutely, go ahead.



JAMIE - Yeah, yeah, plug away, plug away.



EMILY - Okay. Well, the book is called ‘Autism, Bullying and Me’. A lot of kids think when I leave school bullying will stop, you know, and all of us who’ve left school know that’s an absolute nonsense, but they’re still encouraged to think that, and that’s why I think tackling bullying when you’re a kid is so important because it’s a life skill. It’s written in a language that’s easy to understand, because I think what people need is something that’s easy to read, has kind of got common sense in it and that you can go, okay, I’m going to use that strategy first thing tomorrow morning. It’s having things that you can do so you feel back in power. I am all right. I’m okay as I am. You know, my experience of autistic people so far has been the vast majority are incredibly generous spirited, but not necessarily very good at being nice about themselves.



ROBYN - Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much, Emily. It’s been fantastic speaking to you, we’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for your time and I hope you have a lovely rest of the day.



EMILY - Thank you. Thank you for having me. I was in a really grotty mood when it started and I feel so much better now talking to you two, you three, it’s been lovely. Thank you.



JAMIE - Wonderful. That’s it for this episode of 1800 Seconds on Autism. is our email address for any comments or questions. We love hearing from you. If you don’t want it read out on the podcast please let us know in the email.



ROBYN - Please subscribe to the podcast on BBC Sounds and tell your friends about us. Thanks for listening. Bye.



JAMIE - Bye.