Autism and Sexual Vulnerability-One Woman’s Story8 min read

Editor’s note: This story con­tains details of sexual assault. Reader dis­cre­tion advised.

The last couple of years 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 have been intense, often dif­fi­cult reads that have high­lighted the deeply-rooted, rotten, over-sexualised cul­ture in which 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 world-views, 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 an autistic woman, 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 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, that 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 autistic women, as well as my own expe­ri­ences, there is a unique kind of vul­ner­a­bility that is a key fea­ture throughout the majority of our lives.

It is a strange com­panion.

We grow up as fish out of water; strange, awk­ward beings who often, at best, hover on the fringes of social inter­ac­tion. We don’t under­stand people around us, are often con­fused and hurt by a response to our behav­iour, 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 makes 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 assume that your own set up is fairly stan­dard and that this is how family life is for everyone. I have since realised that 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 mould, were not.

Bullying and favouritism 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 around 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 inter­nalised 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. Was top in most sub­jects, but I had no real friends. I was a bul­lied swot who felt far safer studying than social­ising, but who masked every­thing with loud­ness, bub­bli­ness, and feigned con­fi­dence.

Masking, copying others and trying des­per­ately to fit in are key traits of girls growing up with Aspergers. We have no idea of how to behave or how to recog­nise social cues so we flounder through our teens, judged as weird and feeling lost and lonely. 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 that he was gen­uinely inter­ested in me.

Men, of course in my head, 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 ver­balise 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 four­teen.

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 step-father con­fronted me, calling me a whore and a liar. He said that 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 step-father, 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 behav­iour in all of my rela­tion­ships from this time onward.
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 recog­nised, val­i­dated reac­tions, and that 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 that being autistic in a neu­rotyp­ical world 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 (and men and non-binary folk) should be safe from sexual preda­tors, but it is impor­tant to recog­nise that women and non­bi­nary people on the spec­trum can be espe­cially prone to abusers, are often seen as easy tar­gets, and can be highly impres­sion­able.

They need effec­tive ther­a­pies, 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 autistic women and girls and play a small part in helping make the change in atti­tudes that is needed for all of us to be pro­tected, thrive, and live our best lives.

16 Comments

  1. Hi Sarah, thank you for talking about this under dis­cussed sub­ject. I think as autistic adults we can see how our lives have been shaped by those who are sup­pos­edly family.

    I’m 39, diag­nosed at 37, sex­u­ally abused and raped aged 1314, I don’t see myself as a ‘sur­vivor’ or a ‘victim’ like those in the #MeToo cam­paign, I see myself as a vul­ner­able person who was taken advan­tage of. It’s only now 25 years on that I am having coun­selling and I can see the light.

    The abuse has wrecked rela­tion­ships, a mar­riage and the way I treated women. Thankfully I’m no longer like that.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Author

      Hi Anon UK Male, thank you for your com­ments. I am with you about not feeling like I am a ‘sur­vivor’ or a ‘victim’. When you write about having had your vul­ner­a­bility being taken advan­tage of somehow explaining it like this empha­sises the deep trauma of it even more. I wish you well on your healing journey.

  2. very very well done Sarah for talking about it .i was abused sex­u­ally as a child .people never see the every day effects .there views/judgements are very Snotty Nosed . i take part in a lot lot research . i have M.E bladder/bowel prob­lems because i was abused
    I AM NOT AFRAID TO SAY OR TALK ABOUT IT..my story of abuse is in a AUTHORS BOOK
    my blog.http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter,supersnopper
    Linkedin,AutismDad

    1. Author

      Hi Mark, thank you. Your expe­ri­ence and sounds dreadful, but it’s so good that you are open about it. I’ll def­i­nitely have a look at your blog.

  3. One psy­chi­a­trist told me after I’ve been rape the second time “It’s very unusual to be raped twice” and I felt so wrong about myself. No only did she say that but she made me feel even more strange than I was.

    Years later, at another psy­chi­a­trist (who also gave me the diag­nosis ASD, gen­eral anx­iety dis­order and rece­dive depres­sion) , she told me “It’s unfor­tu­nately common for girls/women with autism to sex­u­ally abused in dif­ferent ways”. And then I realised I had been sex­u­ally abused so many more times than just these two rapes. By random men, by boyfriends and so on.

    Thank you for your text, it made me feel less alone in this.

    1. It’s not unusual for it to happen to boys Multiple times so I’d say the same goes for anyone with Autism. That docs a jerk and your hard­ships and feel­ings are valid.

    2. Author

      Ah Camila, you are most def­i­nitely not alone. It is a sad truth that autistic people are vul­ner­able to preda­tors. Please know that you have immense worth and this dreadful treat­ment at the hands of others does not in any way change that.

    3. Author

      Ah Camila, you are most def­i­nitely not alone. It is a sad truth that autistic people are vul­ner­able to preda­tors. Please know that you have immense worth and this dreadful treat­ment at the hands of others does not in any way change that.

  4. Hi Sarah as a con­trib­utor I saw a sim­ilar article like this and I wish I was capable of writing about my story, and I wish there was a way in which I had your talent and writing an article about how people with Autism in gen­eral (not by sex) are at far greater risk of expe­ri­encing sexual trauma. I’ve been looking for this article for a while and was unsure whom had written it because I’m cur­rently in a mas­sive case with an indi­vidual whom did this to me, and seems like they will get away with it because I’m a boy, what hap­pened to me hap­pened almost a year ago and I’m still not ok.

    Now a year later when my phys­ical health issues wors­ened, am I fighting her but also a cor­rupt con­duct board which knows I have a dis­ability, after she claimed I broke a no con­tact order I put against her after during a time when I was in the hos­pital. The con­duct board, who has been tar­geting me ever since I helped a group of stu­dents with their own diss­abil­i­ties protest unfair treat­ment and lack of fire evac­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures for wheel­chair bound stu­dents, is openly defending my agressors/rapists behavior when she took advan­tage of me during a time of crisis when my mental health was poor, and on top of that I was going through a state of non-verbaism during a time of crisis where my trauma induced age regres­sion had wors­ened and couldn’t express that I was uncom­fort­able. My friends are backing me have written let­ters and and also I’m get­ting a lawyer, but all I wanted was for her to leave me alone. Instead they intend to harass me until my health fails. Theya made me cry and relive the old case , they called me names and ignored all evi­dence. They changed dates and even fal­si­fied a doc­c­u­ments. Finally despite having said in recording that I was not respon­sible for her lies about breeching the order that I put in place (which they said I did through a third party that she and the head of the case are friends with a con­flict of interest)

    They forged a doc­c­u­ment claiming that I said I was respon­sible. Apparently to the SUNY Purchase con­duct board this jus­ti­fies my rape the pre­vious semes­ters, my coun­seling needed after + vio­lating the ADA by not allowing me to have a rep­re­sen­ta­tive until the last minute and making me stay in a room while the one run­ning the case threat­ened and belit­tled me with bold accu­sa­tions until I began to cry.

    In reality none of what they’re doing is ok. I wish someone could write about how much this hap­pens to us ALL.

  5. And you know with my expe­ri­ence so fresh, it’s your article that’s kept me going. Because I’m so ashamed that someone was able to do this to me. Your feel­ings and your story val­i­date all of us who have known this terror. I’ve been in such a dark place but you give me hope,. I’m glad you are one of our writers.

    1. Author

      Apologies for not responding sooner. I am hor­ri­fied at your expe­ri­ence and your ongoing battle. It sounds as though you, thank­fully, have good friends around you. Keep writing about it, if it helps you process. Your story is impor­tant too and needs telling.

    2. Author

      This, my friend, is why I sum­moned up the courage to write in my own name and not hide in anonymity. Shame is so crush­ingly pow­erful and deeply dam­aging, but the truth is that it belongs to the person who did this to you. Not you…ever. Keep com­mu­ni­cating and pro­cessing in ways that help you so that not only does your voice gets heard, but that you hear your­self. You have huge worth and your story is incred­ibly impor­tant.

      1. Thank you so much ! And thank you for fighting the good fight.

        1. some these views very SNOTTY ..i was abused SEXUALLY BY MEN AND LADIES .TOOK TURNS ON ME ..i have M.E. BLADDER
          AND BOWEL PROBLEMS BECAUSE I WAS ABUSED ..how would any body else cope /deal with this .i am Disabled .feel very very
          ALONE AT MOST TIMES .my story of abuse is in a AUTHORS BOOK. i am not afraid too talk about
          i am about to be CO-AUTHOR OF A BOOK .pub­lishers have passed it .this book does have a title /just waiting for news of WHEN THIS
          BOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED ..the book is about ..Disability and Sex
          mark

          1. I think you writing about it is a great idea, it will help sooo many people !

          2. my blog.http;//mark-kent.webs.com

            twitter,supersnopper

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