Autism is something that everyone’s heard about, but there are a hell of a lot of misconceptions – like, for example, the Rain Man comparisons (being able to count loads of tooth picks doesn’t mean you’re autistic) and the fact that it’s only a male condition – and things that aren’t broadcast in the mainstream media. How, for example, there are people who sexually prey on autistic women, taking advantage of their tendency to misread people’s intentions.
Yep, it’s pretty grim and there’s very little research being done on it – aside from the National Autistic Society’s recent report that found 49% of adults on the autism spectrum had been abused by someone they thought was their friend. Robyn Steward, author The Independent Woman’s Handbook For Super Safe Living On The Autism Spectrum wrote the book after being raped at the age of 20. ‘I realised subsequently that it wasn’t my fault, this was happening to a lot of people on the spectrum,’ she says. The main problem, according to Robyn, is a complete lack of awareness and education when growing up. ‘I was reading an article on The Debrief about the female orgasm, and it was really great, but there’s nothing anywhere that’s autism-specific on how sex happens and how babies are made. Neurotypical people [those who don’t have autism] learn it as they go along, and a lot of the skills they learn are implicit whereas, for an autistic person, this has to be explained. And it’s often by parents, who don’t want to deal with it.’
Not dealing with it, and not properly educating those on the spectrum about how to navigate the sexual landscape can, as the stats show, lead to serious problems. Especially when you consider many autistic people’s personalities; a lot find it difficult to correctly gauge someone’s intentions. Lauren Lovejoy, who you might remember from last year’s X Factor, tells me she’s been ‘kidnapped about twenty times’ and, more specifically, that she’s come across those who prey on those who are a little more trusting than average. ‘I was with my friend who has autism, but he had to leave so I made friends with this woman. She introduced me to her friend and asked if I would like to come back with them, and I fell for it,’ she remembers. ‘It was a setup; they wanted me to sleep with them. I had to go upstairs to the loo, and there were screams of porn going on so I ran down the stairs and got so frightened I was sick. That meant I was able to leave, but they started following me around and coming to my workplace, trying to get me to sleep with them. It was so scary.’
A horrible situation, but made all the worse because of the confusion, and the potential for repetition: a lot of neurotypical people can identify when someone’s being a creep, or at the very least, suggesting sex while we’re out – but if you can’t, then how do you prevent it from happening again? ‘If you’re neurotypical, you’ve got more skills. You’re more likely to be able to tell what’s likely to be true and what’s not. There are issues with how young people perceive those issues anyway, but it’s especially difficult if you’re autistic,’ says Robyn. A good way of explaining the difference, she goes on to explain, is the Smarties test that involves showing a Smarties tube to a child and asking what they think is in it. When they say ‘Smarties’, you open the tube to reveal a pen. You then ask the child that if their mum was to come in the room, what would they think was in the Smarties tube? An autistic child will say a pen, because they know that there is a pen in the tube. There’s no recognition that other people could have a different perspective to you – so if you want to be friends with them, and they seem friendly, then why would they hurt you?
Lauren finds hanging out with older people a lot easier due to the fact that ‘they’re a lot more patient with me’, but they all have their own lives and marriages and kids – she never formed a tight-knit friendship group partly because of being bullied by peers at school, and partly because of her experiences. ‘I don’t really trust people, and while I’ve got some nice friends, it can be a bit lonely to be honest,’ she says. Not having a strong and varied friendship group can put autistic people even more at risk of those looking to take advantage of the vulnerable. ‘People that prey on someone who is vulnerable will focus on isolating them from their friends, and if you’ve got a tight knit group of friends then that’s more difficult for them,’ Robyn says. ‘Also, close friends are more likely to notice if you stop picking up the phone, you start losing weight or you have bruises. If you’re alone, it’s hard to get help. They might not realise they need help.’
Another reason for isolation can be a distrust of neurotypical people, just like Lauren feels negatively affected by people her own age because she was bullied at school. Robyn has a group of friends who are autistic, thanks to the fact she works with a lot of autistic charities and groups, but she also has a lot of non-autistic friends and thinks that’s really crucial for navigating the world safely. ‘Women on the spectrum want to get together with other women on the spectrum – we realised that it’s quite refreshing to talk about tampons and things like that. But I also find it useful to talk to neurotypical people about things, because they can be really helpful,’ Robyn says. ‘I had a problem at work, because someone had set me an unrealistic deadline that I took literally, so I went to a neurotypical colleague for help and they sorted the whole thing out so quickly. You can learn why people do what they do, an it helps clear up a lot of issues but a lot of autistic people reject this. Neurotypical people have been mean to them, or not understood them, so why should they reach out to them?’
Also, the more divided the world of non-autistic people and autistic people is, the less likely girls like Lauren are to go to the police when they’re taken advantage of. Going right back to her experience with the couple who lured her back to their house, the reason she didn’t go to the police is because she had, in the eyes of the law, consented. Even though she had no idea what she was consenting to. ‘I didn’t go to the police, because I thought I would get in trouble for doing something wrong,’ she told me. ‘I hope I don’t sound bad when you publish this!’ The fact that Lauren thinks, for a second, that she’s done anything wrong or that she’ll sound at all ‘bad’ shows how far neurotypical society has to go in understanding autism on a larger scale. Because once we understand it, we can start to help educate and protect those who have trouble perceiving people’s intentions, and view potential attackers as friends.
‘The solution is education, but nobody is teaching young autistic girls about this. Nobody is saying “now, this behaviour could be dodgy” or telling them it’s not their fault if someone takes advantage of them – and it’s really common,’ Robyn says. ‘Sex doesn’t just mean between two married people, flings can happen, if you have sex with someone that doesn’t mean they’re your boyfriend, if someone forces you to have sex with them that’s not OK, people on the spectrum need to be told this explicitly for things to change. Because it really needs to change!’