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Personal Safety and Autism by Dr Michelle Garnett

Research and clinical experience show that autistic individuals are amongst the most vulnerable in our society for verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Whilst it may be tempting to think that it is only those who are non-verbal or who have a comorbid intellectual or learning impairment that are vulnerable, this is not the case. As a society, we need far more awareness of the vulnerability of those members of our community who are autistic, but the impairment is hidden.

Liane Holliday Willey very clearly describes some reasons for this vulnerability regardless of the level of autism (Chapter 7; Cook & Garnett, 2018):

  • Autistic individuals are not neurologically ‘wired’ to read the intentions of others, 
  • they may not recognise abuse because of their tendency for literal thinking, 
  • their inner fears of rejection and/or low self-esteem can lead to an acceptance of certain levels of abuse, 
  • their innate confusion and intricate analysis of social situations can lead to poor judgement and decision-making,
  • their natural tendency to believe in the honesty and innocence of other people can lead to naivete and vulnerability,
  • perpetrators recognise that the person is unlikely to tell others about the abuse because of their high levels of anxiety and lack of assertiveness skills.

In addition, there is research to suggest that being the victim of one abusive act is predictive of further abusive acts. Several studies have shown that approximately 90% of participants who had autism had been the victim of cruel bullying and/or teasing at school. Many autistic adults report that bullying from peers started as early as kindergarten. This aspect of the person’s developmental history alone is another risk factor for later abuse.

To stop this largely hidden problem we need action at individual, family, school and community levels.

Individual: Early recognition of being autistic will assist in equipping our children and teenagers earlier for recognising their vulnerability to potential predators throughout their life. Early prevention programmes can include: learning how to read non-verbal communication (facial expression, body language) to increase awareness of intention in others, how to recognise and avoid unsafe situations, how to tune into and be guided by their intuition and gut instinct, development of assertion skills, counselling for early bullying and teasing at school, how to ask for help in choosing safe friends and partners, how to love and accept oneself for who you are and to recognise all forms of abuse, and to have the self-esteem and self-empowerment to say no and to report if needed. It is important to acknowledge here that sociopaths are amongst our most charming and socially skilled community members, sometimes it can be impossible, with or without autism, to read a person’s true intention.

Family: It is very important at the time of diagnosis for clinicians to describe to parents and/or carers the risks ahead for the autistic person and to create a plan for managing these risks, which may include some or all of the above strategies. Teenagers are safer from potential abuse if their parents know where they are and who they are with. I encourage parents to schedule times to have frank and open discussions about the very real risks of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse with their child, and to create plans to mitigate against risk. These conversations are often needed well into adulthood.

School: Educational staff need to be trained generally in the presentation of autism, especially the camouflaging subtype. It is important to have consultants available to the school who specialise in autism, even when this means allocating resources to purchase the expertise. Identification and awareness of an autistic student should represent a red flag to members of staff that there are risk factors for this student. Guidance officers and school counsellors need to be trained about how autism can present, and to know what to do when abuse has occurred for an autistic student, including by other teachers. It is not enough to leave the strategy to the student, for example, being told to “ignore it and just walk away” in the case of bullying. We know that this does not work to stop either the bullying or the psychological effects of the bullying.

Community: We cannot afford to shy away from the conversations about abuse, however confronting, painful or uneasy these conversations are. Only with awareness of the prevalence of the problem and the reasons behind it can we begin to create change. An understanding of the ways in which autistic community members are vulnerable to predators needs to be incorporated into the education of our medical, health, forensic, judicial and educational professionals to inform the way that they interview, support, educate and advocate. We need more government funding to support autistic community members to be safe in our community, regardless of their level of education or intelligence.


Reference: Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism (2018) edited by Barb Cook and Michelle Garnett, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers