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Why Understanding Consent Is Essential for People on the Autism Spectrum

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Recently I read about a campaign on social media, which had caused some controversy, designed to teach young children about consent.  In weeks and months past, watching events unfold on the world stage, a common theme has been respect and relationship with others: how we interact as a species, decide others’ worth and how, accordingly, we treat them. The recent worldwide Women’s Marches have highlighted issues surrounding how those who hold the “power” dominate those they consider “other.” As such, much emphasis has focused on protecting rights based upon gender, religion, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.

As children and adults on the autism spectrum, we may occupy a different place in our heads. Consciousness is not consciousness as other people experience it. You live in a space that is not entirely connected to your physical self or the world around you. I’m not sure if this is due to sensory differences, but it’s a distant place and often the connection to self feels as though you are being towed around like a balloon by the physical entity you are connected to far below. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the opposite: you feel like a balloon, towing around the entity that anchors you way down there. You may feel entirely at odds with it, like a badly fitting sweater: either too tight, hemming you in, not letting you speak; or too loose, tripping you up, too loud, too bright, too scratchy.

Much of a day on the spectrum may be spent traversing planes of existence, being jerked to and from the reality of your body and becoming palpably aware you have returned from another place, rudely reminded by the shock of light and sound around you. Stimming can keep you in the room and aware of your surroundings. The tap of fingers or thump of a foot can maintain a connection between body and self, providing a reminder of ownership of the vehicle.

This distance and disconnection between body and self can lead to a lack of understanding of others. A child on the spectrum may not realize they have verbal communication problems or appear “different” because their internal life is so very different from their external world. Only as they become older will they become aware, often hyper-aware in the case of girls, of their differences from other people.

When you are so far removed from your physical self in daily life, other people may seem alien. They occupy a space you don’t, and when you struggle to connect to self, understanding what you look like and how you appear to other people can seem like a nearly impossible task. When you are caught on a plane between body and soul, you have to find a platform on which to project yourself and find a mutual ground. And it’s exhausting being out there.

Other people’s body language and communication is foreign, and it can be hard to understand that not everybody is honest, or means what they say, or has your best interests at heart. It is hard to understand that another person might hurt or harm you. It leaves you vulnerable, both as a child and adult, because although you don’t exist in the same space as them, you still desire friendship and communication. Autism does not mean you do not experience love or compassion or empathy. In fact, a person can be flooded and over-whelmed by compassion and emotion to the point that it becomes overwhelming and overloading. If all your senses were burning, would you not look away from the source of the flame?

The differences can affect physical relationships and the way we interact with others. Because of the variation in physical connection between our minds and bodies, there can be an altered perspective of what might be considered “attractive.” People on the spectrum can be less likely to consider the physical and more likely to have a “soul” connection as that is where they live internally. An initial attraction may be more likely to be based upon soul qualities and then in turn physical than the other way around.

It is not uncommon for children and adults to experience abuse, both verbal and physical and not think to tell anyone.  We may not understand we have a right not to be treated in this way. It can be easy to manipulate either a child or vulnerable adult on the spectrum into believing that abusive behavior is appropriate because we often don’t understand deception, dishonesty and manipulation. It can be very hard to understand lying, or the purpose behind the lie. In girls, who often mimic the behavior of others and spend their lives attempting to conform, there is an increased danger of them going along with something they don’t want to do because they believe it’s “what everybody does” and they just want to fit in.

In times when the degradation of women, minorities and the vulnerable becomes widespread, it is even more important to teach children on the spectrum (and on any other spectrum of disability) the principles of respect and self-worth. It can seem easy to want to protect and shield them. Perhaps it’s harder for some adults to view them as humans who will grow up to have sexual experiences than a child without their difficulties.

I believe there is a greater responsibility to arm these children and adults with the knowledge and communication they require to understand their value in the world. They are individuals with unique talents and perspectives. It is important to show them what physical respect in relationships is, how they should not be touched without their permission, what it means to be in a loving relationship and why another person may want to take advantage of them.

It is important to allow their questions and provide a safe haven of trust, so if they come to you and tell you something has happened, they know that you won’t blame them, or tell them they have always been naive and make it their fault. If the time comes that someone treats them in a way that hurts and confuses them, they will need a place to turn to so abuse does not become the mainstay of their life and allow their uniqueness and value to be drowned out.

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Originally published: March 29, 2023
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