Siena Castellon photo, next to Diana Award image

Meet sixteen year-old Siena Castellon, an award winning autism advocate who considers herself a maths and physics nerd. Siena is autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic and has ADHD. She is also the founder of Quantum Leap Mentoring, a website which aims to raise awareness and offer mentorship to other young autistic people and people with learning differences. 

In this blog, Siena opens up about her experiences of being bullied in school, the impact this has had on her life, and how this inspired her to create the popular Instagram campaign #AlwaysBeKind.

I have gone to many schools. I have gone to small schools and to large schools, to girls’ schools and to co-ed schools, to day schools and to boarding schools, to private schools and to state schools and to non-selective schools and to highly selective schools. The one thing that these broad range of schools have in common, is that I was bullied at all of them. 

Why?

For the simple reason that I am different. I am autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic. I also have ADHD. 

Like most people who are autistic, I have a sensory processing disorder that makes me very sensitive to touch. Not long after I started school, the children in my class discovered my kryptonite. Within weeks, I became a source of entertainment and amusement. The children punched, pinched, slapped and kicked me into order to trigger a comical reaction: a look of horror as my body convulsed in pain. 

Later, the bullying would become less physical. The bullying would evolve into being subtler and more complex. I was at a small private school which prided itself in being a “loving, affirming and encouraging atmosphere,” but the school’s ethos did not extend to me.  When I was in Year 4, a girl in my class who thought my encyclopaedic knowledge of Harry Potter was “weird,” convinced the rest of my class of fourteen students not to speak to me or acknowledge me. From one day to the next, I ceased to exist in the playground. I became the only child that was not invited to the birthday party. The child my classmates resented having to sit next to in class. I became the unwanted child; the child that did not belong. My best friend, agreed to continue to be my best friend, as long as we kept our friendship a secret and only interacted outside of school. When I confided in my mum, she secretly arranged to visit the school during playtime to observe how I was being treated. As my classmates ran around the playground laughing and having fun, I stood with my back against the brick wall, watching forlornly. Eventually, I would turn by back and face the wall, not wanting to see what I wasn’t permitted to be a part of. When my mum expressed her dismay at the way I was being excluded, my teacher told her that I was choosing not to fit in and that the girl who I claimed was bullying me, would never do such a thing. 

As I got older, the bullying would become even more complex and manipulative, leaving me defenseless. My passion had now evolved into maths, physics, philosophy and reading. While I was immersed in reading Camus and Dostoevsky, my 12-year old contemporaries were focused on make-up, selfies and fashion. Once again, I became an easy target. My belongings were defaced: offensive, derogatory comments were scrawled on my books. My school planner was dropped into the toilet. I was attacked with hockey sticks. False and hurtful rumours were spread. When they were caught, the bullies pretended to be distressed, cried crocodile tears and promised never to bully me again. Whereas I, on the other hand, stood stoic, unemotional and detached, which the school interpreted as an indication that I was unaffected. More sympathy was given to the bullies who appeared more upset than I did.  The same bullies would later gloat and laugh about having manipulated the school staff. The school initially told my parents that they did not tolerate bullying and would stop the bullying, but as the bullying continued to escalate, the school started to blame me for not fitting in. A predictable response we had gotten accustomed to hearing.

As I became a teenager, the bullying took an even more sinister, darker tone. By this time, I had been diagnosed with autism and my new school was aware of my history of having been bullied. In Year 10, two boys who had been bullying me for months and had been threatening to get me locked up in a “psych ward,” finally put their plan into action. They told senior staff that I had serious mental health issues, was suicidal and had imaginary friends (none of which was true). They told my peers that I tortured my dog, was a pathological liar and was a psychopath. Their actions led to me becoming a social pariah at school. The continued bullying and the school’s approach to dealing with the bullying (which was to deny that any bullying was taking place) caused me significant distress and anxiety. I was diagnosed with bullying-related PTSD. 

A few weeks after I was forced to leave the highly-selective school where I had been flourishing academically, I attended a talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Malala. I was at a low point in my life. Despite all my hard work to overcome the obstacles caused by my dyslexia and dyspraxia and winning a highly competitive academic scholarship to one of the top schools in the world, my education and future lay in ruins. The bullies who had turned my life upside down had won, a pattern that had become familiar to me. I felt broken and defeated. I began to accept that being mistreated and abused for being autistic was my fate; the high price I had to pay for being different.

As I listened to Sheryl Sandberg and Malala talk about how life rarely goes as planned and how to find strength in the face of adversity, I had a revelation. Since Option A was not available to me, I had to find another option: Option B. Instead of hoping that I would eventually find a place where I wouldn’t be bullied, I had to use my bullying experience as motivation to bring about change. 

Today, I am a multi-award winning, nationally recognised autism and neurodiversity advocate. I am a member of the Diana Award National Anti-bullying Youth Board, where I represent over 28,000 anti-bullying youth ambassadors from around the United Kingdom. I use my voice and share my bullying experience in order to raise awareness of disability-related bullying. Sadly, my experience is not unique to me. In a 2017 Ditch the Label Annual Bullying Survey, 75% of autistic students and 70% of students with a disability reported being bullied. I want to change this. We need to change this. I firmly believe that every child deserves to feel safe and supported at school, free from abuse and cruelty.

Schools need to change the way they deal with disability-related bullying. According to a recent Diana Award back-to-school poll of 1,000 students, 25% reported having to move to a different school because of bullying. I suspect this percentage is even higher for SEN students. First and foremost, schools need to believe us and need to take disability-related bullying seriously. I have had a SENCO tell me that I needed to have a sense of humour and stop being so “sensitive” about being called derogatory and disparaging names. The same SENCO also told me that my autism caused me to misunderstand social situations, such as being threatened with being placed in a “psych ward.” Schools need to stop blaming the victim. Just because someone is different, doesn’t mean she deserves to be bullied. By excusing and condoning anti-social behaviour, schools are not only letting down their most vulnerable students, but are also reinforcing anti-social behaviour. In other words, they are letting both the victim and the bully down.

Last year, with the support of the Diana Award, I created the #AlwaysBeKind Instagram campaign. I created the campaign to spread the message that we should all be kind and supportive of each other. Every person has their individual challenges and struggles, whether it be due to their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age or disability. We need to build each other up, to create communities that look past our differences and instead, focus on being accepting and tolerant of others. My #AlwaysBeKind Instagram campaign aims to remind everyone that kindness is a universal language. Acts of kindness transcend all barriers; acts of kindness unite us and bring out the best in us.

I believe that people who think differently and who see the world from a different perspective have a lot to contribute to the world. I believe we should be creating supportive, inclusive communities where we accept each other for who we are. I hope that by sharing my bullying story, students who have had similar experiences to mine, realise that they are not alone. My hope is that young people with SEN join me in starting a movement to raise awareness of the prevalence of disability-related bullying and the impact it has on us, so that future students with disabilities have happy and fulfilling school experiences. 

As we celebrate Anti-Bullying Week, my hope is that we be kinder to each other. #AlwaysbeKind

You can follow Siena on Twitter and Instragram at @QLMentoring and her #AlwaysBeKind Instagram campaign at: @AlwaysBeKindCampaign

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