How My Autism Made Me Vulnerable to Sexual Assault
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
The last few months have seen a media explosion of pain, confession, opinion and counter-opinion in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. The various articles and hashtag movements been intense, often difficult reads that have highlighted the deep-rooted, rotten, over-sexualized culture we humans inhabit. There has been much emotion expressed from different perspectives – anger, pain, trauma, regret, shame, solidarity, to name but a few – that it has felt as though a dam has burst for many people: a dam that has been cracked and straining for a long time, just waiting for that last bit of pressure to break it wide open. There has been criticism of complicity, hypocrisy and cover-ups which may well be valid, but maybe it is better to open a wound late, examine it, and try to heal as individuals and as a wider society, rather than never.
Like many others, I have been deeply affected by this tsunami. We all come from different backgrounds, experiences and worldviews, but this seems to have struck a chord across the boundaries of generation, class, sexual orientation, gender and more. Some of the online activity may have been knee-jerk and clumsily thought out, possibly causing even more pain and difficulty, but to me, it seems that the experiences are so raw and ragged for so many that there was never going to be a perfect way to initiate this most difficult of conversations.
My particular perspective is written from the point of view of a woman with autism, diagnosed in my early 40s. Someone once said, “Write about what you know” and although I have an imperfect understanding, this alien neurological orientation is what I am starting to know. It has taken me the last few years to come to terms with this diagnostic bombshell, gain understanding and start moving through to a position of acceptance, and now celebration of my particular difference. Part of this time has involved a lot of reflection and exploration of my past, from the decisions I have made and the things I have done, to the events inflicted on me through the lens of the seemingly utter confusion and clumsiness of existence. I am discovering my true self along the way and key events, especially a recent family bereavement, have unearthed long-buried experiences which I have been seeing with fresher, hopefully better-informed sight.
These new insights may be helpful to others who have had similar experiences. I hope so, as unless our various pathways cross over and offer mutual support, then I don’t really see the point of this life. These various musings can be filed under the broad heading “vulnerability.” There are many people who are vulnerable, and I am sure all of us are in that position at various stages of life. However, as far as I understand from my reading of books written specifically about women with Asperger’s, as well as my own experiences, many of us live with a unique kind of vulnerability throughout the majority of our lives. It is a strange companion. We grow up as fish out of water; strange, awkward beings who often hover on the fringes of social interaction. We don’t understand people around us, are often confused and hurt by responses to our behavior, and can never seem to get “it,” whatever “it” is, quite right. We are often isolated, lonely and unable to reach out, yet desperate for love, acceptance and human interaction. We misunderstand and are misunderstood so much of the time that it can make us especially vulnerable to all sorts of people, particularly those of a sexually predatory nature.
To set the scene, I’ll give you a bit of background information about my upbringing. We all have different kinds of dynamics growing up, but at the time you may assume your own setup is fairly standard, and that this is how family life is for everyone. I have since realized this is not the case and that my family was not a pleasant one to grow up in. Women were not valued in my patriarchal existence. Men made the decisions; women and girl children kept quiet if they knew what was good for them. Male children were prized. Unusual girl children who did not fit a particular mold were not. Bullying and favoritism was obvious and emotional communication non-existent. As a rigid, logical thinker, I took on board the clear messages that women existed to serve men; that obedience to men and their needs was a woman’s role in life and that in order to obtain any love from my father, I had to strive to please him.
My parents were unhappy, distant people who were emotionally unavailable to themselves or each other, let alone their children. I remember being at a peer’s house and feeling confused at seeing them being kissed goodnight or being hugged. This just didn’t happen at home and felt very alien to me. When my parents eventually divorced in my early teens, my father was largely absent and my mother helpfully informed me that it was because he didn’t love me. It was probably a throwaway comment made by a rejected woman sunk in her own misery, but I internalized it and logically it confirmed my own sense of worthlessness and need to people please. My mother had said it, therefore it must be true because parents were always right. If I was going to be loved, I would have to obey the rules and try harder to be lovable.
As a result, I worked hard at school. I was top in most subjects, but had no real friends. I was a bullied kid who felt far safer studying than socializing, but who masked everything with loudness, bubbliness and apparent confidence. Masking, copying others and trying desperately to fit in are key traits of many girls growing up with Asperger’s. We often have no idea how to behave or recognize social cues so we flounder through our teens, judged as weird and feeling lost and lonely. It’s hard enough with parents who are supportive and loving; virtually impossible with those who are not.
Armed with my set of rules for earning love and approval, I then discovered one day that I was attractive to someone of the opposite sex. It was exciting and I felt wanted. He singled me out, paid attention to me and was flattering. I believed everything he said and thought he was genuinely interested in me. In my mind, men made the decisions, took the lead and had to have their needs met, so I allowed him to take me into his hotel bedroom, passively obeying him while he undressed me. I quickly felt out of my depth and wanted it to stop. I tried to verbalize this, but somehow was unable to make myself heard. My fears and needs were unimportant and I had to do what the man wanted. I froze, shut down and disappeared into myself until it was over. I don’t remember much about the aftermath. Leaving the room and going home was a blur. I was 14.
I don’t recall feeling very much after that for a while. It was a strange numbness. What had happened didn’t feel right, but it took some time for me to be able to name it as rape. It didn’t feel like rape. I hadn’t been dragged into a dark corner against my will, or pinned down screaming, as I imagined rape to be. It couldn’t be rape because I hadn’t explicitly shouted “no!” or fought him off. I nevertheless knew that deep down, something was wrong. I was terrified that I might be pregnant, told my mother what had happened and was taken to the GP for a test. It wasn’t mentioned again and life, as it was, continued.
There were other boyfriends, always older, and as a precaution I was put on the pill. Then one day, my stepfather confronted me, calling me a whore and a liar. He said I hadn’t been raped, that he knew the man I had accused and that if he found out about my lies then I would be in a lot of trouble. He was my stepfather, therefore he must have been right so I believed I was indeed a liar. My feelings were wrong and he was right. I was nothing and I didn’t matter. So the next time a boyfriend forced himself on me, I just sunk into myself until it was over and didn’t bother telling anyone. What was the point? Nobody would believe a prick-tease like me and I deserved to be treated like this. Passive compliance, approval-seeking and an inability to name any kind of need underpinned my behavior in all of my relationships from this time onwards.
Thirty-three years later I now know so much more and my life has changed beyond all recognition. It is too late to attempt any kind of criminal justice as one perpetrator is dead and I have no idea of the whereabouts of the others. However, I do have vindication. I understand that my physical and psychological responses to this kind of abuse are recognized, validated reactions and I was not responsible for the harm that was done to me. As a result of these and other experiences I have been on a long and difficult path from panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and self-harm to a place where I have a much better grasp of the particular vulnerability and social confusion my autism can cause. I have good people around me, experience life-affirming love on a daily basis and have been able to learn how to create safe boundaries to protect myself from dangerous people and situations. I haven’t just survived, I now thrive and embrace the strengths that autism gives me.
All women and girls should be safe from sexual predators, but it is important to recognize that females on the spectrum can be especially prone to abusers, are often easy targets and can be highly suggestible. They need effective intervention, support, education and guidance from loving, caring people throughout their lives in order to experience a fulfilling, rich time on this neurotypical planet. They need and deserve protection. My hope is that these key moments from my life can add to the growing body of work that seeks to understand what it is like for women and girls living with autism, and play a small part in helping make the change in attitudes and society that is needed for all of us to be protected, thrive and be our best selves.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Getty image by Carla Castagno.