CW: sexual assault. Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka.
Autistic women are nearly three times more likely to be assaulted than women without autism. There are various suggested reasons for this: we’re more naive, more trusting, more likely to be singled out by predators because of the above traits and less likely to be able to understand social queues and dynamics. Personally, from my experiences with sexual assault, it’s a mixture of being more naive and not understanding social rules. If someone told me or acted like something was acceptable, I felt that I had to defer to their judgment. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to be touched or kissed. It didn’t matter how scared I was or how scarring the experience would be.
In all the four major incidents (in terms of emotional and mental repercussions) I didn’t protest, I didn’t say anything at all, I just let it happen. It’s something for which I’ve loathed myself for months and years. Why didn’t I say anything? I felt anger towards the men too – not that I ever said anything to them. Yet the majority of my wrath and my confusion has been directed inwards. However, I was recently diagnosed with autism, which has allowed me to see the events with clearer vision. I’ve been able to exercise more compassion and understanding towards myself. It also provides necessary contexts for the assaults.
Autistic people often engage in ‘camouflaging’ which comprises a range of techniques such as masking or mimicking to allow us to appear as non-autistic in social situations. Essentially, we want or feel we have to fit in, so we try and act like everyone else, even if we don’t know why they’re acting like that. Women with autism are more likely to be good at this; it’s one of the reasons why we are often diagnosed late in life in comparison to men. Before the pandemic I was a master of masking. I hid my autism in social situations incredibly well and the bits that I didn’t hide could be blamed on the anxiety that I was diagnosed with at age 15. Whilst I was aware that I was behaving in ways that didn’t feel like me – as a young child I described to my Dad feeling like I had ‘different faces for different people’ — until the pandemic diminished my ability to mask, I didn’t realise how deep my masking went.
Part of this for me was that I kissed people that I didn’t necessarily want to kiss, because I thought I ‘should’ and that it was the ‘right’ (read: expected) thing to do. It wasn’t unconsenting, but it certainly wasn’t enthusiastic. Although I look back at these times now and wish I could tell my younger self that she doesn’t have to do anything just to fit in, they’re not scarring events.
During my time at university I’ve been assaulted by two different men, one of them on two separate occasions. The memories of these events are laced with pain and betrayal, because both of these people were my friends. Statistically, this shouldn’t be surprising, as most assaults are carried out by someone that the victim knows. In my case, I think they both sensed my vulnerability and the power they could wield over me and, in part, this power differential was due to my autism.
I have a very clear idea of what friendships look like, it’s kind of like a criteria that I’ve picked up from analysing patterns of behaviour throughout my life. Friends care for each other, they respect each other, and trust each other. This conception made me vulnerable. It blinded me to the intentions of these men. I trusted that they would not hurt me and they did. And I couldn’t say anything about it.
I’ve learnt scrips for everyday situations – how to behave in a restaurant, how to do small talk, how to send an email to a tutor. I didn’t have a script for when I was kissed without my consent. Thinking back to the Freshers’ consent workshop I’d attended, I tried to do the non-verbal thing they had mentioned whilst forcing down the panic and the sick feeling in my stomach. I was pushed against a wall and I tried to move away, I tried to change the subject, make a joke, my nervous laughter choked out, betraying my fear. We were alone. He was much stronger than me. I didn’t know what the consequences of angering him would be. So, without the words to say no and thinking that maybe he was allowed to do this, that somehow it was my fault – it must be, a friend wouldn’t do this – he kept kissing me. There were signs that he should have picked up on. He should have asked if could kiss me. Eventually, I broke free – luckily, before he could try anything else. I had to go meet a friend, a more valid excuse than my discomfort, which would have been evident if he had cared to look.
This wasn’t the first time that he kissed me without my consent. Months earlier, I went to him for help when I was desperately upset, gasping for breath between sobs. He comforted me and then kissed me on the lips. It was only a single kiss. There was no time for me to even move, let alone say anything. He didn’t do anything else, I wonder if it was just to feel power over me. I left his room soon after, still in a state. Because of the thoughts that I was having at the time, how scarring this event was, it took a while to realise. It’s made me scared to ask for help, to show vulnerability. A dangerous thing for someone who experiences suicidal thoughts.
The last situation follows the same pattern: a trusted friend who touched me without my consent. I didn’t know what to say or even do in this case. I was paralysed with fear. As someone who struggled to answer the register in school and who has periods of mutism under extreme stress, even if I had a script, I don’t think I could have whispered the words. It ended with me having a panic attack. The next few days I spent dissociated due to the shock. I wished I could forget it ever happened because he was such a ‘good’ guy. But good people can do bad things, especially when they think that they’ll get away with it.
Like other autistic people, I was acutely vulnerable due to traits of autism. Being autistic, I think, explains these events. I get around in social situations by having a script, it’s part of how I camouflage. However, I’ve never developed one for saying no: I don’t know how to do it, but I wish I did. Now, if I’m upset, I’m scared to ask for help in case some takes advantage of my vulnerability. Around friends, I’m on edge in case they have ulterior motives, which is especially stressful being autistic because I can’t read people well. I don’t know what signs to look for but I look obsessively all the same. These events were all a year ago or more now and the trauma from them still pops up in unexpected ways. I’m not over them. But I am over trying to justify them or not talking about them. I didn’t deserve any of it and it wasn’t my fault. Consent was not given, verbally or with my body language. In fact, physically it should have been obvious to both of them that their actions were not wanted – and it probably was.
I spoke to another autistic girl who had been assaulted. She was incredibly distressed but made all the same excuses for him as I did for both the men that assaulted me, and I knew they were excuses – it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t misread the social situation or failed to express emotions she should have expressed. I realised that everything I was telling her about how it wasn’t her fault applied to me. Since then, I’ve been incandescent with rage, all the anger that I aimed at myself has been redirected. None of these events should have happened and it’s the victims that have to live with the consequences.
There is no good way to end this. It might be worth saying that writing this is cathartic, as has been talking to friends. The idea of this being published is terrifying but I’m hopeful that it will help someone, make them feel less alone at least. The sad thing is that this could have been avoided if they had simply asked for consent. I would have had space to speak or shake my head. I would have known that I had the option to say no, that they wouldn’t continue or become violent if I verbalised my discomfort. But they didn’t ask. I suspect because they didn’t want to know my answer.