Tiny and Percy: My Story of Physical Restraint, Gaslighting, and Boundaries
The 2021 film Music directed by Sia, is notable for an autistic character being played by a non-autistic actor in what resembles a mocking pantomime. When the film was being promoted, one aspect among many others caught people’s attention. A leaked scene in which the autistic character, Music, is shown to be having a meltdown, and her older half- sister physically tackles her to the floor and holds her facedown.
This clip was met, thankfully, with horror and disdain. Autistic advocates came out in full force to condemn the clip and let the world know that this practice — referred to as prone restraint — is not only wrong, but actively dangerous as many cases have seen autistics die under restraint. Sadly, although facedown restraint is demonised, other forms, be they seated or lying face up, are not.
Whether in meltdown or not, physical restraint is the active negation of an autistic person’s will and humanity, denying them agency and coping strategies, and increasing their sensory overloads and by extension meltdowns, making the practice have the same logic as using petrol to prevent fires. In addition, it is humiliating and terrifying to the victim to have people larger than you put all their strength into it.
Restraint of any kind on autistics is traumatic. And I would know.
I’m autistic, and I went to a special needs school from the ages of 12–18, which at the time of my joining had opened very recently. This had its ups and downs, as on the one hand, being among the first students to join meant that I had a stronger voice and me and my friends were able to guide the staff on how best to support us, and other children like us. It also meant that I got to witness the school grow from having a dinner hall the size of a teacher’s office, to one big enough to host assemblies. Indeed when I left, only one student and member of staff from when I first joined were still there.
But as good as that was, there was a severe downside, that being an experience of the school’s transition from unprofessionalism to professionalism.
For the majority of my time in the school, two men made my life an ordeal, and scuppered a good deal of my education with much of their unprofessionalism leaving me scarred. One was my Maths teacher, a man we shall call Tiny in reference to a nickname he earned in the school, the other, a later though no more welcome addition, was my Science teacher Percy. Both of these men were my form tutors for at least a year each in my time at this school, and both of them would regularly “forget” many of my needs, restrain me either face up or seated when I got upset to whatever level, then use their power as significant staff members to gaslight the blame onto me to other staff, head teachers, and even my own parents.
Before I continue, I want to establish that two of my greatest needs are personal space, and a window clear sense of what is expected of me.
Lets start with Percy.
For a year he was my form tutor, and only in retrospect did I learn that my view that he was a truly appalling addition to the school shared. I’ll begin with my personal experience of him. In my time as one of his pupils, I was in a class with a boy much younger than me, with whom I didn’t get on. Whilst I don’t claim innocence in my relationship with him (I did and said many equally petty things that I’m not proud of), there were many occasions where he engaged in undeniably poor behaviour (deliberate disruption, interruptions, etc.) So you can understand my surprise when Percy would take his side against not just me, but my two older friends in the class.
He would make the case for him interrupting, always demand apologies from us for whatever fights broke out (even ones we didn’t start), and once even gave him points for good behaviour on request, something that staff frequently said wouldn’t work.
This stuff though, is the easy stuff.
As a science teacher, he would turn up various degrees of late (once by thirty minutes, prompting my friend to quip “don’t worry, it’s only our time you’re wasting”) and then insist on carrying out a full lesson, much to the dismay of everyone attending who would rather he turned up on time so we could get to morning break. He also hired a substitute science teacher, whose name I can’t remember, who had the age, charisma, and coherence of the elderly farmer hiding a stash of guns in Hot Fuzz. What’s more, on many occasions he wouldn’t turn up at all leaving the substitute to drone lessons out to us, which frequently put us to sleep. And because he was one of the most important teachers at the school, the staff took his side when children such as myself told their parents that the science teacher wasn’t turning up.
All of this went against one of my most important needs of clarity in expectations and rules, which he would bend to his will and mood then insist that they didn’t. He would violate the other one (personal space) by regularly peering over my shoulder at my work, letting the boy I didn’t get on with do the same, and insistently approaching me when I was upset. Situations such as these would regularly inflame my stress and anxiety levels, occasionally leading to outbursts of anger and violence, all of which he was first in line to deal with by restraining me with another member of staff (one in particular, who we will come to), and since he had the powerful ring of being the school’s science teacher around him, was easily able to place the blame entirely onto me. I was the one acting out after all, and he wouldn’t have had to do anything if I wasn’t.
Then there was Tiny.
Although he was more professional than Percy, it had the downside that he was also better at gaslighting me. An authoritarian man from the military who relished power, he was guilty of many of Percy’s errors during my time in his class. He would regularly bend rules to suit himself (on one occasion, he told me and my friends that an adult had to be at every table in the lunch hall, a rule which didn’t exist, had never been enforced, and was never brought up again after that day), and was more frequent and hawkeyed when it came to peering over my shoulder at whatever I was doing, despite countless times being informed that I didn’t like that.
Like Percy he would also side with other children I got in fights with and insist no matter what that I had been in the wrong, framing these lectures as “trying to see both sides of the situation” which it never felt like. He would also chastise me at every turn for whatever he could, from wanting to be a YouTuber (as a teenager), to jokes I made with my friends, and even on one occasion being upset at a story that I had read about a hideous crime against a woman posted online and actually held me back a few minutes to explain how maybe the people posting it were in the right.
Also like Percy, incidents like these made me dislike him severely, and coupled with his very loose definition of things (he once told me that I had thrown a book at him when I dropped it on his desk), my temper would on many occasions spiral out of my control. However when the opportunity to restrain me came, he would do something worse than Percy. He would call in a wider array of staff to help him, including many that I got on well with, and had been a major source of comfort. It’s hard to truly explain the level of hurt that comes not just from being restrained, but by people who you trusted, and saw as a bright light in some of your darkest times.
Perhaps worst of all about both of these men was that they were both my form teachers, which granted them meetings with my parents, and on some occasions access to my therapist, granting them a wider knowledge of my triggers and needs, none of which they appeared to give a damn about.
By the time I first sat my GCSEs, I had no preparation, and not only a lack of trust, but an actively hostile attitude towards two of my most important teachers in that time. Matters were not helped by the fact that Percy was my exam invigilator, and when made aware of my sky high anxiety about them, told me a precise number of marks that I would need to pass a paper. I’m not kidding.
So, by 16, I had no GCSEs. I was set to go to the school’s sixth form. I was initially apprehensive about this until the head of sixth form, a woman who has a special place in my heart, stepped in and did something extraordinary for which I am forever grateful. She pulled strings behind the scenes to keep these men away from me, including hiring a maths tutor, and helping me drop out of doing science. Over the next two years, my education caught up considerably, my relationships with teachers and mental health improved, and by the end of my time at this school, there weren’t even lessons happening but I was coming in anyway because I felt I had such a strong sense of belonging.
Nonetheless, despite all of this, I can’t help but feel anger at those two men for their sabotaging of my education (whether on purpose or not I don’t care), and for putting me through some of the most terrifying and traumatic experiences of my life. I still have nightmares in which I can’t move, or where everyone can see everything I do and think, or where everyone I trust turns on me, or where I’m at this school and I change for the worse because my anger overtakes me.
Percy would later go on to be arrested and imprisoned for sexually assaulting a woman only a year younger than me (which makes his eagerness to teach sex-ed deeply unsettling in retrospect), and Tiny would inflame a fight between two children to the point that he got his head kicked in, by which point, other staff, fed up with him and his attitude, did nothing to help him. He then quit, but demanded a pay rise if they wanted to keep him, like a pack of seagulls threatening to leave your beach picnic alone if you don’t throw them anything.
Let me emphasise, these men were not looking out for me. They weren’t driven to misdeeds by a misguided desire to help me, they weren’t doing their best, and they certainly weren’t doing the best possible thing for everyone in that situation. These were men who had power over me and enjoyed it. They could mess up and get away with it because they were the teachers, and they had the power.
But they didn’t teach me nothing. For the longest time, I had internalized impressions that my boundaries and needs were unacceptable, and even to this day, I fear backlashes on some level to being assertive, and even asking for what I want out of fear that it would get me into trouble.
And the worst thing about it all is that I’m lucky.
One of the most powerful and dangerous effects of gaslighting is the erosion of the victim’s sense of boundaries for the benefit of both the abuser and anyone willing to take advantage of this vulnerability. And yet this isn’t what we call messaging that has become a factor in the life of autistic people worldwide. We are constantly told in a variety of ways that our needs are unmeetable, and that setting boundaries is unacceptable, and that we’re being unreasonable, selfish, spoiled, demanding, and otherwise “difficult” if we do.
This, among a litany of other things, necessitates “masking”, the suppression by autistics of their tendencies and habits for the sole purpose of not infringing on other peoples’ sense of comfort that leads to exhaustion and mental illnesses. This demonization of boundaries also leaves autistic women, who also tend to go undiagnosed due to being statistically better at masking than men, particularly vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
We are taught to allow people to walk all over us, and that the concerns of others who may feel total indifference to us are more important than our own wellbeing. Not by sleazy older people, or a Big Brother hypnotising system, but far too often by those who are given the reins over us, whether they be parents, teachers, or behavioural therapists. We are told that we can’t be trusted to look after ourselves and that these are the only people who can take care of us. But not only is that not true, there are far too many who can’t.
I’m lucky because I understand this now. I’m lucky because I now understand gaslighting, and I have been able to unlearn the lessons that I learned from Tiny and Percy. I’m lucky because I am learning to set boundaries and not accept infringes on them in the name of the comfort and convenience of others. But I’m scared that right now, across the world, people like them are doing the same thing to other autistic children, and I’m scared that they might not have people willing to pull strings to protect them, and give them the tools I had to unlearn the harmful lies that I was taught.
I’m writing this because I’m sick of being lucky. Because I want those around autistic people, especially those involved in the care of non-verbal children, to be aware that the messages you give us, both through actions and words, have an impact deeper than what you can see. I want autistic people to be taught that boundaries are not only acceptable, but a good thing. And above all, I want there to be a common understanding that teachers, special needs or not, have a duty to protect students as well as teach them.