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Empowering Autistic Women: From Passive to Assertive

By Emma Hinze, Dr. Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood.

Many autistic individuals often find themselves facing unique challenges in their interpersonal relationships. This can lead to feelings of victimisation and, in some cases, even exploitation. In a recent study by Sarah Bargiela and colleagues (2016), participants shared their experiences, shedding light on the journey from passivity to assertiveness and the obstacles they encountered along the way.

** Please note that this post includes references to sexual abuse, which may be distressing to some readers; if you find such content distressing, please consider refraining from reading further. **

Passivity and Its Consequences

Participants frequently linked their perceived passivity to their autism, highlighting how it had led to unhealthy relationships and high-risk situations. One participant expressed the pressure she felt to conform, stating, “I almost feel pressured by society to do it because you get told this is what is expected of you to make you be a good girlfriend and you think, if I don’t do it, then I am not fulfilling my duties.” This struggle to please and appease others often left them feeling trapped.

Avoiding conflict was another common theme among participants. For many, any form of verbal disagreement was seen as ‘having a fight.’ This avoidance sometimes resulted in over-assertiveness, leading to damage in their friendships. As one participant put it, “When it finally comes out, I can be a bit too blunt.” However, there were exceptions, with some women refusing to appease when they knew something was wrong.

A Shocking Incidence of Sexual Abuse

Disturbingly, nine out of fourteen participants reported instances of sexual abuse. Half of these accounts occurred within relationships, where young autistic women felt obliged or “gradually being pestered” into sexual activities. Arguments often escalated into sexual encounters, even when they didn’t want to engage.

Three young women reported being raped by individuals they didn’t know, with one particularly disturbing case involving grooming by a peer on behalf of three older men. Several factors contributed to these situations, including social mimicry, difficulty in reading others’ intentions, social isolation during adolescence, and a desperate desire for acceptance. Their difficulties in reading people’s intentions and understanding social rules left them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

– “I kept trying to break up with him, and whenever I did, he would say I didn’t know my own feelings…I felt so trapped.”

The women spoke of feeling obligated or gradually coerced into sexual activity, often due to societal expectations placed upon them. As one participant commented, “There’s potential for you copying a guy’s flirtatious behaviour without realising that’s what you’re doing.”

Learning to be Assertive

Despite narratives of passivity and accounts of abuse, many women also shared stories of personal growth and an increase in their ability to be assertive. They learned to read others’ intentions better, which empowered them to leave uncomfortable situations. Some had received guidance, such as “a guide to being assertive” from a counsellor or skills acquired through their jobs.

Four women discussed how their diagnosis of autism had become a tool for confidence in asserting their opinions. They no longer felt obligated to provide explanations, and simply saying ‘no’ became an option. This newfound assertiveness was a testament to their resilience and self-advocacy.

Raising Awareness: Protecting Vulnerable Autistic Women

The stories shared by these young women highlight a critical issue that practitioners and society must address: the high vulnerability and shockingly high rates of sexual abuse among autistic women. It is imperative that professionals in the fields of physical and mental healthcare, psychology, education, and social work, as well as law enforcement agencies, recognise and respond to the unique challenges faced by autistic women.

  1. Education and Training: Practitioners need to undergo specialised training to understand the intricacies of autism, particularly in the context of gender-specific challenges. This includes recognising the signs of abuse and understanding how the characteristics of autism may contribute to a higher risk of victimisation.
  2. Trauma-Informed Care: Practitioners should adopt trauma-informed care approaches when working with autistic women who have experienced sexual abuse. Understanding the potential trauma and its effects on mental health is crucial for providing effective support and therapy.
  3. Preventative Education: Schools and educational institutions should incorporate comprehensive sex education programs that are adapted to the needs of autistic students. These programs should focus not only on biological aspects but also on relationship dynamics, boundaries, and consent.
  4. Early Intervention: Identifying vulnerability factors early on is crucial. Parents, teachers, and caregivers should be educated about the challenges autistic women face, including their struggles with social mimicry, difficulty in reading others’ intentions, and a longing for acceptance. This knowledge can help create a protective support system.
  5. Communication and Empowerment: Autistic women should be empowered with effective communication strategies and self-advocacy skills. Teaching them how to assert themselves, say ‘no,’ and seek help when needed can be life changing.
  6. Support Networks: Building strong support networks for autistic women is essential. This can include peer support groups, counselling, and mentorship programs. Connecting with others who have shared experiences can help reduce feelings of isolation and increase self-confidence.
  7. Legal Protections: Legal systems should be aware of the challenges faced by autistic women and provide them with the necessary protections. This includes sensitivity in legal proceedings and the provision of accessible resources.
  8. Community Awareness: Beyond the professional realm, communities need to foster an environment of understanding and acceptance for autistic women. Promoting inclusivity and empathy can go a long way in preventing abuse and providing a safe environment.

In conclusion, the journey from passivity to assertiveness for autistic individuals is filled with challenges, including the risk of victimisation and exploitation. However, the stories of these young women also demonstrate their remarkable ability to learn, adapt, and grow. With the right support and resources, they can overcome societal pressures, advocate for themselves, and navigate healthy relationships on their own terms.

Reference: Bargiela, S., Steward, R., & Mandy, W. (2016). The experiences of late-diagnosed women with autism spectrum conditions: An investigation of the female autism phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 3281-3294.

Where to from here:

Many girls and women miss out on the identification of their autism because of camouflaging and the internal experience of autism, where the observable, external signs are more subtle. Our masterclass Diagnosis and Support for Autistic Girls and Women shares insights to assist in the diagnostic process to differentiate and recognise autism from anxiety disorders and other conditions.

We also provide information about how to support autistic girls and women to embrace their true selves, including how to discover and unveil their authentic selves, thrive in friendships and relationships, and manage anxiety.

The masterclass was designed for health and educational professionals. Parents and autistic women have also found it very helpful.

Masterclass Day 1 – Diagnosis for Autistic Girls and Women

Masterclass Day 2 – Support and Therapy for Autistic Girls and Women