Like many other women, I received my Asperger’s (Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD) diagnosis late– too late to save me from an abusive relationship with a sexual predator that resulted in me developing PTSD. An abusive relationship is something that for many women, just happens, with no organic cause.
Editor’s note: This article contains frequent references to extreme, violent abuse, sexual assault, animal abuse, and psychological torture. Read at your discretion. Further, the author is from a country where terminology about autism may differ slightly from how it is referenced in the United States. NeuroClastic makes no distinction between Asperger’s and Autism. They should be understood as synonyms.
Studies show that women from all backgrounds, regardless of socio-economic status, are physically, emotionally, financially, and verbally abused in romantic relationships. The most frustrating question, that I hear again and again, is “Why didn’t you just leave?” or “How did you let this happen?”
I’m often blamed for a dichotomous way of thinking, a black-and-white mindset, as a result of being Autistic, but somehow, when I answer these sorts of questions with an, “It’s more complicated than that,” neurotypicals often get upset and respond with, “It’s not! I would have just left the first time I saw a red flag!”
The simple truth is that there are red flags in any relationship. People aren’t always their best selves, and we all make mistakes. Red flags are hard to spot when your partner is a skilled manipulator who can disguise and hide those flags. When you’re autistic, seeing those flags is even harder– our tendency to take things at face value and to believe people are being honest makes us more vulnerable to those types of abuse.
Growing Up Far From The Autism Spectrum
I once read that seventy percent of girls with disability are attacked by sexual predators at least once (Krohen, J., 2014). This includes girls on the Autism spectrum, though a lot of us are only diagnosed as adults (Leedham, A. et al, 2020). Looking back, many of the statistics for the needs or experiences of children with disability apply to me.
This makes me feel like a hybrid of a human: I was only recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, at the age of almost twenty-seven. This means that while growing up, I went through the normal path of education and service any child and young adult goes through here in Israel, including a full military service, without any special attention, help, early interventions, or IEP.
It’s hard for me to tell if this was for the best, or if I lost something because of it. I don’t believe that being diagnosed early and receiving the help that is now given to young Autistics would have changed who I’ve become – but it would certainly have given me a different set of skills. Life would have certainly been softer, had I and my parents known before.
Not crying over spilled milk is still a phrase I somewhat resist, because I believe that an earlier diagnosis could have helped to prevent the experiences that have left me suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Like many other Autistic people, I have a clear long-term memory, with some photographic properties. My first memories are sensory, and include the feelings of having a baby neck, wet with spittle. My later memories, also sensory, include the feeling of tight sleeves and heavy diapers, turtleneck collars and itchy sweaters.
I remember myself at four, knowing that I was different than others. For me, it felt like something was wrong. I was not like everyone else, socially, verbally, intellectually, and on an interest-level. Like many Autistics, I spoke early – as early as five months – and my speech quickly became “professor-like.”
I remember my frustration when others didn’t understand my metaphorical speech, the times when I was forced to always play the dad in pretend-play in kindergarten, my preference to playing with building blocks and on the computer with the boys, my aversion of the feeling of sand in the play-yard.
All those things could have been alarming – if I had only expressed them. Understanding that I’m different, and the encouragement to fit in taught me to mask, starting at age four. I kept quiet – if things didn’t bother other kids, they shouldn’t have bothered me.
When I was a little older, toughing-up became a way of living. I have developed a case of imposter syndrome, thinking that all the things that bothered me weren’t so bad, that I should be able to deal with them, that trying to change them or act differently than others would mean that I’m letting myself spoil myself.
My mom, who just wanted me to be like everyone else, has unknowingly instilled the idea that I should in fact try in every possible way to be like everyone else. I did just that, but this feeling – of putting everyone else’s ideals and needs before my own, this deep feeling of being a spoiled imposter – rooted deeply in me.
Empathy and Autism
Empathy is a concept that is often divided into two sub-types: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is the ability to vicariously experience other being’s feelings, to feel them within us. Tearing up when we see a sad child is an expression of emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to react logically to another being’s feelings – to try to comfort them, to hug them, or to smile with them according to their needs.
In Autistic people, and especially in females, the experience of empathy may be different or at different ratios. A lot of us, including myself, have a very high level of emotional empathy. It is enough for me to glance at a stray animal to make me feel deep sorrow, coldness, or pain. When other people display strong emotions, I become extremely happy with them, or extremely sad, depending on how they feel.
Cognitive empathy, however, may be mitigated by the over-abundance of emotional empathy. It’s hard for me to react appropriately, or in other words to show others how I feel. I freeze in the presence of strong feelings of others. My smile gets frozen, my body gets into a sort of a fight-or-flight reaction. I believe that for me, it is because of the sensory overload that comes with sensing someone else so strongly. This means, however, that I am not good at reading other people’s motives (Smith, A., 2009).
Interestingly, the same case applies to psychopaths, but in a reversed manner: their emotional empathy is non-existent – they couldn’t care less about how others feel, let alone experience the feelings with them – but their cognitive empathy is high (Daddas, M. R. et al, 2009).
This gives them the knowledge of how to react to the feelings of others, the ability to know what makes others tick, and to perfectly manipulate others if they choose to do so. When brought together, a male psychopath and a female Autistic make a twisted pair of Yin and Yang. To break them apart, after they merge, is almost hopeless.
I know that semantically, Yin represents the female, the darkness, and Yang represents the male, the light. However, my gender identity isn’t important to this story, and so I choose to refer to myself as the Yang. I have met darkness, the Yin, in my early twenties. He was a young officer in the military, son to two highly respected veterinarians.
In the beginning, all was great: Yin tries to make me feel like I was the only girl in the world. He seemingly tries to do anything in his power to make me happy – only seemingly, because even in those first two-three months, he expected me to drive him everywhere, and rationalized it to me in the fact that he didn’t have a license, while I had a car, and that if I loved him, I should have wanted his life to be easier when we meet.
Quickly after, opportunity struck for him to get me to move in with him, relatively far away from my parent’s house. I was about to start studying in a university that was closer to the village he lived in, and he knew that moving away to the dorms meant I would have to leave my dog behind with my parents.
I have an intense bond with my dog, Dali, and I could not imagine leaving her behind. I moved in with him under the false assumption that we could live a happy life in the countryside with my dog beside me.
A Cautionary Tale of Torture
Soon, my sexual predator started demanding I do everything around the house – from cleaning to cooking lavish, five course meals – under the logic of him working in another city, and me studying closer to home. He expected me to spend the time I wasn’t at university taking care of the house.
I was not allowed to have meltdowns, let alone shutdowns. He played on my insecurities and vulnerabilities: first, that I was in fact a spoiled young woman with imposter syndrome, and secondly, that this is what normal partners do to each other.
Under the same pretense, he established a sexual-engagement routine, in which I had to satisfy his extreme sexual hunger. Like the stereotypical psychopath, he used to engage in extreme sexual behavior, as well as to indulge in substances – none of which were illicit drugs per-se, as they were given to him with prescriptions to alleviate made-up complaints, supported by Broadway-level of acting on his part.
My tight schedule was used by him to steer me away from family and friends. I was simply not able to meet them outside of the home. If I did book a day with a friend, I was to catch up on all that I’ve missed, including at least two sexual intercourse sessions when I got home.
It was not doable. I learned better than trying to complain – he used every chance and excuse to take his anger out on my dog, and in multiple occasions, I had to protect her with my own body, while he stood above her with a butcher knife.
In the times that I did visit my parents, I allowed myself to fall apart. Keeping the entire interaction between Yin and Yang to myself, in order to maintain peace at home. I was also ashamed: I knew something was wrong, and I knew the stigma about women who let their men beat them and abuse them. My parents didn’t understand my misery, and made it feel like I was upset for no reason.
Yin used this to his advantage. He claimed that I always feel worse after I see my parents, and that they are not even really there for me if all they do is fight me. He stirred me even further from them, to the point where I truly believed that if we broke up, I’d been left homeless and misunderstood.
At this point, the demands increased. I was to engage in sexual acts that physically hurt me. I was to be physically punished if I skipped or failed with my duties at home. He used to push my back to the wall and scream in my ears, spit on me, and choke me.
I think that by then he noticed that I started to disengage. In order to show me that my situation isn’t that bad, that I’m being spoiled, he took me on a family trip with him, his dad, and his brother to Thailand. We were there for a few weeks.
Back them, his father used to mentor me in my studies, as I aspired to become a veterinarian myself. I didn’t know, at the time, that his father was aware to the abuse in the relationship. During our stay, Yin stayed in our room and claimed to be sick.
I spent time with his younger brother, who was just a teenager at the time. When I got back to the room in the evening, he insisted on drinking, abusing medications, watching the same movies, and forcing sexual activity. At around that time, he made me feel like I can either get engaged with him – and it had to come from me, I had to want it – or he would leave me, and I’d be broken, used, and alone.
Engagement it was. We were never truly engaged, because he used even the “need” to get engaged to further hurt me. He said we have to test the relationship to see if we could get married. We were to first join our funds, and then open the relationship and have sex with others, in addition to still having sex twice every day.
When we joined our funding, he sent me to work, had me clock a certain amount of time, and kept all of my salary in savings. He allowed me a small allowance that wasn’t even enough to feed myself on long days at the university. He said I had to lose weight, even though I was already too thin. I started seeing my figure the way he did, and started to intermittently-fast twice every week.
After a year of this, I lost all spirit. I was busy protecting myself and my pets, and I could not leave. I knew I had to, but I was in over my head and every wrong word brought physical abuse. He started choking me, with his hands, whenever he got upset. He forced another trip to India, to a faraway Ayurvedic village with no reception, far from any road. During this time, I lost even more weight.
I was about to fly out of India before him, and go stay with my uncle in the United States for a month and a half. Initially, he liked the idea because he made me commit to a fifty-hour-per-week working schedule while in the States. My uncle and I are very close, and he tried, in the months before my trip, to break this attachment.
He couldn’t, and in the days before my flight from India, he panicked. He was afraid I wouldn’t come back, or that I tell my uncle about how things were between us.
Two nights before I left, he tried to poison me with the Indian poisonous flower Datura. In micro-dosages, it can be used as a recreational drug, but as little as one drop can kill. He forced such drop into my mouth, claiming it was just marijuana paste and that we had to have had a good time before I left – even though he knew I did not enjoy any recreational usage of drugs or alcohol. It was easy to kill me then, and say that I overdosed on a drug in rural India, just another young western into the statistics.
The poisoning didn’t go as planned for him. I did not lose consciousness, and for two days suffered from ,nausea, disturbed vision, stomach aches, hallucinations, ongoing panic attacks and bladder issues. During this whole time, I remember at him yelling at me that I’m being psychosomatic, that others at the hotel can’t know about this, and that I should not get to a hospital.
He was adamant about this.
My memories from those days are fuzzy, but I remember his panic, the yelling, and I often reexperience parts of it in flashbacks. I left India as planned, and months after, I found out that the night he left, he tested why the poison didn’t work on me by poisoning one of the center’s employees. I know she was taken to the hospital, but I don’t know what has become of her.
When I was in the States, I got a job at a local Dunkin Donuts. In my spare time, Yin kept me busy, because he insisted that we had to move out, and that I have to list for him – and make long-distance calls – of every available property in Jerusalem.
Once, I tried to break up with him. He responded by walking over to my dog and attempting to kill her unless I changed my mind. I surrendered, and he arranged to sign the lease the week after, in my absence, in the names of both of us. At this point, my dog was so utterly terrified of him that she started jumping through windows whenever he left her unattended. She tried to escape, but like me, couldn’t.
The two months after I got back were even harder. Choking happened every day, as well as rape. He once forced me to sleep with his best friends. Once, when I tried to push him away while he choked me, he hurled me to the ground, beating me up, and tried to drop our counter-top dishwasher onto me.
I had to fight him to be let go of, but without hurting him too much. At some point, I stopped caring. My whole life became survival, and I wasn’t afraid enough, anymore, for him. He started pretending that he would commit suicide, and when I tried to leave the house, he took my phone, car keys, and fought to tie me up with belts and gag me.
One day, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Weeks before, I sent the dog away to safe haven. I announced that I was leaving. He got mad, but I ignored him, took my keys, and my phone. I walked into our windowless storage room to fetch the cat’s crate. He followed me in there, butcher knife in hand.
I ran to the door, but he bit my hand until I let go. He had me trapped. Knife to the throat, he told me I deserved to die. I cried and begged, and when I realized that didn’t help, I started to reason with him. He put me in the tub and took out a pile of pills, and said I had to choose if I want him to stab me or if I prefer a pill cocktail. I can’t remember how, but I reasoned my way out of this.
After that, I knew I couldn’t leave, so I demanded we stay together but live separately. He claimed that if he had offered it, that would have been ok, but if this is what I wanted, then he disagreed. This made no sense at the time, I thought he was going insane – only later did I realize that it was all about control.
In the same evening, he forced me to go visit his family, but felt me slipping away. He burned my stuff and sent me pictures. He threatened to slaughter the cat. When I got to his family dinner, I grabbed his brother and begged him to come home with me. This is how we finally separated.
I was diagnosed with PTSD, and still suffer from it. After my autism diagnosis, family members started to reason that it was because I was autistic that I let all that happen – that my naiveté allowed it, that not understanding how social situations between partners should go made me vulnerable.
Being Autistic certainly added it’s share to the situation, but that’s not it. Countless women are victim of domestic abuse, some of it ongoing and as difficult as mine was, and even more women fell prey to sexual predators. Most of them aren’t autistic. Violence against women crosses all socioeconomic levels, and all circumstances of life. I am simply one of many.
Then again, realizing I was on the spectrum did put some things into perspective. I’m still getting over my imposter syndrome, and I’m not sure I ever will get over it. Distinguishing between a shut-down, an autistic meltdown, or panic attack is also difficult. My PTSD is fully-blown, as in, I have all listed symptoms.
What did change, since leaving the relationship, is the constant feeling of being alone, of being misunderstood, that shadowed me all my life, disappeared. My family picked me up with open arms, hugged me in, and keeps on giving me the support that I need. They can’t understand me fully – there is always the strangeness that exists between any autistic and NT individual – but this strangeness became positive, in its core.
Some things have gotten better over time. Today, I understand that what happened to me wasn’t my fault, that I was brave and resilient. I did everything I could to save myself and my loved ones. I see my being Autistic not only as a risk factor, but as one of the things that helped me save myself and my pets: my life-long masking allowed me to adapt, to hide and to manage myself under pressure.
My sharp instincts allowed me to react in time, and with appropriate strength. Taking things at face value allowed me not to overthink my abuse, which allowed me to go on and save myself. My analytical mind allowed for plans, that saved my own life and other lives.
To neurotypicals, autistic individual might seem fragile. The stigma of disability, emotionlessness, violence, and meltdown, in addition to some genuine vulnerabilities such as naivete and appearing as childish to nonautistics, create a picture of an ageless, helpless child.
But it is being autistic itself that gives us strength. It is being autistic that lets us see the world from a profound, deep, “beyond our years” kind of wisdom (Khan, A. & Ferrari, M., 2018). Letting us make mistakes, get hurt, or care for ourselves is as crucial to us as for anyone else. Sometimes, our unique neurology allows us to handle some situations better than our typical peers.
I don’t know if I have advice for parents of autistic children and adults, or for other people on the spectrum. After such a tale, one expects a fantastic realization or advice. I have none. This is just a part of my life, something that I’ve lived through, and in many, many ways still live through.
I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to let it go, even if I try – and I try, every treatment under the sun. Maybe the only cautionary conclusion from this all — apart from the knowledge that an early diagnosis could have saved me – are that you don’t know how strong you are until you have to be strong, and that you are never truly alone in this world.
- Krohn, J. (2009). Sexual Harrasment, Sexual Assault, and Srudents with Special Needs: Crafting an Effective Response for Schools. Retrieved December 17, 2020, from https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals
- Leedham, A., Thompson, A. R., Smith, R., & Freeth, M. (2020). ‘I was exausted trying to figure it out’: The experiences of females receiving an autism diagnosis in middle to late adulthood. Autism, 24(1), 135-146.
- Smith, A. (2009). The Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism: A Theoretical Approach to Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Autistic Development. The Psychological Record, 59, 489-510.
- Dadds, M.R., Hawes, D.J., Frost, A.D., Vassallo, S., Bunn, P., Hunter, K. and Merz, S. (2009), Learning to ‘talk the talk’: the relationship of psychopathic traits to deficits in empathy across childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50: 599-606. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.02058.x
- Khan, A., & Ferrari, M. (2018). Wisdom of Young Adults with High Functioning Autism in Canada and Pakistan: A Cross-cultural Study. Journal of Education & Social Sciences, 6(1), 3-22.