This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I didn’t quite make it in April. I moved in May. I’m finishing the alphabet in June and July.
The ABCs of Autism Acceptance series has been picked up by Autonomous Press and will be published in book form, with additional material, in June 2016. Watch for it!
V is for Vulnerable to Violence and Victimization
It is ironic that so many people fear us when Autistic people are much more likely to be subject to violence and abuse than to perpetrate it against others. I’m not saying that we are incapable of being harmful or abusive. Yes, there have been abusive Autistic people and Autistic people who have a difficult time controlling anger. But violence is less common among us and we are so vulnerable and, in some cases, so naïve that we can be easy targets for predators and abusers. In fact, I’ve discovered that there are some predators who single us out intentionally, because we are Autistic and thus easier to manipulate, more likely to have a weak personal support system to protect us, and more likely to have gone through compliance training that teaches us to accept abuse as a normal part of life.
Now, I know I’ve already talked about bullying, but when I talk about violence and victimization, I’m talking about something more sinister. There are predators out there who seek out disabled children and adults specifically. A free booklet discusses “disability trolls”– people who have sexual fetishes for disabilities and make fake profiles to try to get close to people in wheelchairs, amputees, and other physically disabled people. What makes things less clear when it comes to Autism is that there are some predators who specifically seek out Autistic people and others who seem to have a radar for vulnerability so a large percentage of the people they prey on are Autistic, but more as a coincidence, due to Autistic people having a tendency toward more vulnerability than the general population.
A study by Sobsey and Doe (1991) found that not only are people with disabilities sexually abused more often than the general population, but that the abuse tends to be repeated again and again, chronically. Sobsey and Doe found that 49% of people with intellectual disability will experience sexual abuse or assault 10 or more times in their lives. Sullivan and Knutson (2000) found that people who are multiply disabled (for example autism and epilepsy, autism and intellectual disability, autism and psychiatric disability, etc.) are at greater risk of sexual assault and abuse. The types of disabilities most likely to be abused, according to Sullivan and Knutson, were those with intellectual disabilities, communication disabilities, and behavioral disabilities — all three are labels that are frequently attached to Autistic people. In short, disabled people are well over three times more likely to be assaulted and abused than the general population and Autistic people, particularly Autistic women, are among the most assaulted and abused of all disabled people. Sobsey and Doe found that 83% of their study sample of women with developmental disabilities had been sexually assaulted at least once in their lives.
And the victimization is not just sexual. A 1992 study of disabled people using a third-party payment system (disability benefits being sent to someone other than the disabled person themselves, typically a caregiver or financial manager) and found that 20% of the third-party recipients were victims of crimes ranging from larceny to murder and “slave trading,” a practice where disabled people are bought and sold from payee to payee, getting little or no actual care and being valued only for their benefit check. Additionally, the victimization of disabled people is greatly downplayed. It is often reported in the system and in the media as “abuse and neglect” instead of as the actual crimes that occurred, such as rape, assault, or murder. Crimes against disabled people often go unreported altogether due to being committed by people upon whom the disabled person depends for survival. As bad as the situation appears — and the appearance is quite bad enough — the reality is much, much worse.
Those who have read my previous book, No You Don’t, or the title essay from the collection know that I have had a long history of victimization spanning decades. At this point in my life, I have learned most of the ways predators enlist victims and am, thankfully, able to avoid the kinds of abuse and exploitation that marred my childhood, teens, twenties, thirties, and parts of my forties. But I am still vulnerable and I had a run-in with a predator just a few years ago. I am skeptical, a quick learner, and a reflective thinker, but I have some difficulty with generalizing knowledge. My classic example from my life is that I have known for many years not to accept a package from a stranger in an airport or bus station but I didn’t generalize that to “don’t take a package from a stranger anywhere” and I didn’t realize a classmate in my university class counted as a stranger — after all, I saw her in class three times a week, even though I never spoke with her, so how could she be a stranger? But I accepted a mystery gift she gave me, claiming it was from someone else I had never heard of before. It turned out to be a humiliating joke that I opened in front of everyone and immediately regretted.
I think this is one factor in the repeated victimization of those of us with developmental disabilities. While difficulty generalizing situations is not universal among us, I’m not the only one who struggles with it. It makes it harder for me to learn how to avoid being victimized because if the approach happens in a different way or a different place or even something simple is changed like the gender or age of the predator I can fall for the same thing all over again, feeling foolish afterward when I make the connection and realize that I missed seeing something that I had already learned before. There are many other factors to re-victimization. A few of them include: not being able to figure out how to break out of a repeated “script,” being too afraid of offending or making someone angry to resist, lacking strong boundaries (often due to the abuses of ABA “therapy”), being lonely and having little social experience to raise skepticism about offers of instant friendship.
My predator from a few years ago was hard for me to spot, in part because I have grown accustomed to predators who want sexual attention from me or who want my money (meager though it is.) This predator was harder to spot because they were looking for something else. I’m not entirely sure what they were seeking, but it involved attention, validation, admiration, and control over others. When they made their first overture to me — offering to mail me a present — they seemed safe and trustworthy because we had 62 mutual friends on Facebook. The huge overlap of our friends’ lists made them seem legitimate and a trusted member of the autism/Autistic community. I had never noticed the person before so I don’t know how long they had been in community, but it is easy to slip in to the Autistic community on Facebook since many people follow the same policy of accepting a friend request from anyone who has at least a few friends in common. (I no longer follow that practice, having been burned by my predator. I now will not accept a friend request from someone unless I have at least talked to them a little. And I periodically “purge” my friend list of the people who “friended and forgot” because they rapidly become an unknown stranger on my friend list if they don’t interact with me.)
It took me a while to figure out what I had gotten into with this predator. They seemed so safe in the beginning. But sending me a gift meant they knew my address. They quickly wormed their way into my life and started trying to plan it for me. It was all “dangling carrots” sort of control — every time they learned about something I wanted or wanted to do, they would say they could help me get or do it and then start manipulating me with all their offers of presents and “help.” Before I knew it, I was caught up in a big plan that included coming out to where I lived and throwing all my stuff into a moving van and taking me to live with them and their spouse (who they spoke disparagingly of and who they also manipulated and controlled.)
They had high demands of my time and energy. They wanted me to video Skype with them for hours every day. I protested, because it was taking up all my time and energy and leaving nothing for me. I couldn’t get housework done, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t just rest and stare at the wall — a favorite pastime of mine, similar to running a defrag program on a hard drive. I became frazzled and stressed. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. They grew more and more demanding. Just as I was about to pull away from them, they started saying they thought they might be Autistic, too. They wanted my help and advice. They pulled me back in. Their demands got larger — I was going to move in with them and go into business with them. I could see that they wanted me because a diagnosed Autistic person would add an air of legitimacy to their business. They were using me as an object, not treating me as a human being.
It all came to a head when my electricity got shut off temporarily due to a clerical error and a lost payment. I was relaxing in the dark. I was stressed. I was naked. There was a knock at the door. I ignored it, as I always do when I’m not expecting anyone. They said they were the police and I froze in fear. They broke down my door — it turned out that my predator had gotten frustrated at not being able to reach me for a Skype visit and sent the police to my door for a welfare check. I don’t want to go into all the results of that welfare check, but I will leave you to just imagine how it went. How would you expect the police to respond when sent to an apartment by a frantic sounding person telling all sorts of wild tales? What would you expect their response to be when they knocked, heard movement, broke the door, and found a naked person, incapable of speech, sitting in the darkness in an apartment with no utilities? It did not go well.
That gave me the courage to break off the interactions with my predator. I was fortunate that the victimization never went past the level of emotional manipulation, but if they had swooped me up and moved me to their home, who knows what would have happened once I was isolated and under their control? And “swoop” is the right word here — the entire “relationship” went from innocent-seeming gift to police breaking down my door in less than two weeks. It all moved so fast and was so overwhelming. I was always several steps behind in understanding what was happening. They took advantage of my Autistic traits and used them against me to corral me into a completely untenable position.
Autism acceptance means presuming competence, but it also means building a community that helps Autistic people defend ourselves against predators. The standard education children get about “stranger danger” is not enough. So many times, the predator is not a stranger or they are very skilled at convincing their target that they are not really a stranger. Predators try to overwhelm us by moving things along fast. Autistic people need to know that it’s okay to slow down, to take our time, to think things through. People who demand instant answers and instant actions from us should be questioned. If they are truly on our side, they will accept a slow response. Demanding that we keep up their fast pace is a “red flag” that can help warn us that a person might not have our best interests at heart.
We need to learn how to locate mentors in the community who we can turn to for sound advice. A mentor could be a parent, a teacher, a trusted therapist, a friend — anyone who has a proven track record of helping us to make decisions that are good for us and come from our own choices. If a new person comes into your life and wants your address, your phone number, wants to make grand plans to uproot your life, wants to push you to a more intimate friendship than you are ready for — anything that makes you uncomfortable — it is good to be able to talk it through with a mentor. It can be a dangerous world and we Autistics are vulnerable. There are people who know that and seek us out to use, exploit, manipulate, and more. We need to be careful and autism acceptance recognizes the risks while working to protect our autonomy and dignity. A person can be competent yet operating under incomplete information. Presume competence, but help us steer a safe course when we ask for advice. Help us steer our own course — don’t choose for us. But help us see the potential obstacles and learn how to avoid them.