Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, this post could potentially trigger you. If you are in the US, one resource for support is the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
This series begins with Part 1, “Not Everyone Was My Friend”: Sexual Assault & An Autistic Life.
There are many reasons an autistic child may be at great risk of sexual abuse and assault. And most likely at least as many reasons why an autistic child… later an adult…
might be traumatized by what some might consider milder forms of abuse…
might have trouble recognizing, abuse…
communicating any abuse…
have difficulty finding help.
No two autistic children are exactly the same.
Some differences are obvious. They may speak… or not. They may be intellectually challenged… or not. They may behave differently… or not.
But many differences are invisible. How we feel. How we think. How we hurt…
Everyone is different in which events do and do not cause us lasting trauma… in our ability to heal… our will to survive….
AND, yet, at the same time…
A lot of us share traits… Perhaps even more so as children… that made us vulnerable:
- Many of us were unusually open, optimistic, and trusting. Every new kid was my friend. Every adult would take care of me. Everything new was something exciting to explore.
- Many did not understand important social norms… around boundaries, expectations, reciprocal behavior.
- Many were lonely… seeking approval… affection… perhaps seeking attention by doing things to please others.
- Some had difficulty with autonomy, leading our own action… a tendency to follow others.
- Many of us were physically awkward or otherwise unable to defend ourselves.
- Many had communication obstacles. A good number were nonspeakers or selectively mute…., expressly in stressful situations.
- Many were not as aware of physical sensations, pain, internal emotional states as “statistically normal” kids. Missing important internal warning signs of danger or damage.
- Our parents perhaps became used to us losing track of time or our whereabouts…not noticing or being concerned about our absence.
- Nearly all were easily overwhelmed under the right circumstances. Risking poor decision-making, impulsive action, non-rational behavior, panic…
As to trauma? If you know an autistic child well…
- They may be unusually conscious of rules. Of right and wrong. Very concerned about doing the wrong thing. If something does go “wrong”… they may tend to blame themselves… feel deep shame… to hide, rather than reveal, what happened.
- They may have learned at a very early age to not discuss… to mask… to hide… feelings, ideas, behaviors that others do not approve of. They may have felt they had NO other human to trust… to tell… not friend, teacher, minister, counselor, doctor, parent.
- They may have been intensely shy, private, prudish about nudity… about being touched in any way by another.
And unfortunately, even experts may confuse signs of trauma with typical autistic behavior.
Below I’ve checked all signs that applied to my childhood…
With never a report, note, conference, or remark… by parents, teachers, clergy, or counselors.
For context, I was raised in a respected, managerial/professional-class home, of college-educated parents, in a wealthy suburb of New York.
General abuse symptoms
- ☑ Withdrawal from friends or activities
- ☑ Changes in behavior — aggression, anger, hostility, hyperactivity
- ☑ Anxiety or unusual fears
- ☑ An apparent lack of adult supervision
- ☑ Frequent absences from school
- ☑ Reluctance to go home
- ☑ Attempts at running away (In the sense that I re-located away from the family as soon as I was able to in my late teens.)
- ☑ Rebellious or defiant behavior
- ☑ Self-harm or attempts at suicide
Emotional abuse signs & symptoms
- ☑ Delayed emotional development
- ☑ Loss of self-confidence
- ☑ Social withdrawal
- ☑ Avoiding school, buses, public places
- ☑ Seeking affection
- ☑ Changes in school or work performance
- ☑ Loss of previously acquired skills
Signs of parental or caretaker abuse
- Parent or caretaker shows little concern for the child. (☑ I would add, does not demonstrate affection.)
- ☑ Appears unable to recognize physical or emotional distress in the child
- ☑ Blames the child for the problems
- Consistently belittles the child, and describes the child with negative terms (☑ I would add, consistently criticizes or corrects the child… especially over unattainable performance goals.)
- Expects the child to care for the caretaker… especially meeting their adult needs for attention, may appear jealous or become angry… when the child pays attention to others. (I experienced some degree of this.)
- ☑ Uses harsh physical discipline
- ☑ Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
- Severely limits the child’s contact with others
- Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child’s injuries or no explanation at all
In “Further Reading” below, there are professional resources on sexual abuse… unfortunately, written by non-autists. There is much good information. Really good information. But from individuals who, although keen observers… can only speculate about what we autists experience or want… like keepers at a zoo trying to keep the public safe from exotic animals.
I am keenly aware that the bulk of current autism research remains on causes, “cures,” diagnosis, and accommodating autists to modern society.
In particular, there is little research on the extent of sexual abuse among autistic children. There is even less on the topic of parental or caretaker abuse of autistic children.
I suspect there is a connection between the lack of such research and the fact that the audience and funding for autism research appear to be the parents of autistic children… not autists themselves. The research tends to meet the needs of parents, doctors, teachers… not us.
Here are a few things my caretakers could have done that would have changed my life. Although they will make a great deal more sense if you read my history below…
Not everyone may choose to read the details.
- Consider honestly how closely you need to monitor your autistic child. Any child can drown in minutes. Be groped in seconds… These may be 4 times more likely to happen to an autistic child.
- Remember, anything you consider “common sense” may be understood differently by your autistic child… teen… adult. Consider if you are certain they will make safe decisions without supervision.
- Seriously consider how long the autist you care for is safe out of range of hearing of an adult you absolutely trust to respond to a call for help.
- If you yourself are NOT autistic… if you do not personally experience the variable ability and internal confusion of being autistic in modern society… seriously consider cutting your first estimate in half.
- Consider assigning a “designated caretaker” at all times.
- At least one adult supervisor who is not drinking, drugging, napping, meditating, gaming, absorbed in a book, listening to music on headphones, or otherwise altering awareness of their surroundings…
- AND whom you also personally know to have hands-on experience in caretaking an autistic kid.
- Do NOT assume anything about the safety of your child in hands of any friend… or family member.
- Most sexual abuse is initiated by someone the child knows well.
- If you care for an autistic child as a couple or family, be aware that both the challenges raising autistic kids can present… AND autists’ unique vulnerabilities… can easily lead to all varieties of secretive abuse.
- Take responsibility personally for ensuring your child is safe with your spouse, lover, anyone.
- Do NOT pressure your child to make friends.
- Trust your child to communicate when they feel safe… with whom, when, and how often they feel comfortable with others.
- Do not be afraid to learn details about any friends they choose on their own. And their families.
- Personally? I can’t imagine considering sleepovers… other than at a “designated caretaker’s” house. If….
- Consider never using a babysitter. As in never. Only a “designated caretaker.”
- Believe your child…? Seriously, just believe your child?
- That principle alone would have changed my life.
Multiply EVERYTHING I wrote above 10x for nonspeaking & selectively mute kids.
Below are more incidences of my personal sexual assault & abuse.
Because if no one talks, no one learns… Like Part 1, there are graphic details…
An Autist’s Personal History of Childhood Sexual Abuse & Assault
To quote from Part 1:
⬆⬆⬆These⬆⬆⬆ are the reasons that I believe we as a community do not talk about just how prevalent sexual assault on autists is.
Perhaps you can imagine a young autistic child attacked. By a friend, a schoolmate, a parent… the searing betrayal of trust, nearly incomprehensible to our autistically naive neurologies.
Most folks’ picture of child abuse seems formed by movies & media. As if child abuse only happened among celebrities, wealthy professional Manhattanites, or demonically possessed Bible-Belt parents.
I do not have exotic horrors to relate. A few paragraphs summarize the sexual abuse in my life…
I cannot summarize the effect on my life… and directly through me… others.
- My first memory of sex is confused with anger, shame, punishment. I was 3, given to night terrors and wandering at night. I remember hearing noises down a hall… Opening a door to my parents doing something I didn’t understand… Anger. Screaming. Being grabbed. Carried to bed. Slamming doors. Fear…
- A few months later, an older neighborhood boy took me behind a neighbor’s garage. So I went with him. This friend explored my penis. Then convinced me to pee on an old lady’s cellar door. He runs away… she comes charging out. Anger, then… more at home. And of course, punishment. “You should know better….” I was still 3.
- A few more months, my father beat me for the first time. Not sexually related, but it introduced me to violence.. and the fear of his violence. He became incensed, believing I had called him “stupid.” I was trying to help him diaper my infant brother….
- Like many of these first incidents, I told my mom. Over and over, she patiently explained I did not realize how much my father loved me, that I did not understand what he did, that I must not exaggerate, and similar.
- At 4, the first weirdnesses start with my father. What various therapists termed “grooming behavior”… I was still playing with bath toys. My father, checking on me, becomes instantly furious… raging, spittle flying. I’ve seen this before. I already know he has a violent temper… which may end in a beating. Terrified, what did I do wrong?
- I had gotten an erection… without knowing why or how… even what it was.
- Tremendous shame….
- But this incident starts a pattern of extraordinary surveillance that I endure from my father until I leave home at 18. My father bursting unannounced into my shower, when I toileted, into my bedroom, when I was alone in the basement… checking I wasn’t abusing myself, later openly checking for signs of semen in the bathroom, on clothes, tissues… As a kid, it was just something he did. By my mid-teens, even I knew it was weird…
- At ~6, I was attacked by an older male bully in a public park. I was the “new kid” on the block, sent out by parents to make friends…. While other boys watched he pulled down my pants and fondled me, laughing and screaming for others to come watch. I was surrounded by his laughing followers. I didn’t know what was happening. But I was panicked. Lost consciousness. I didn’t know what those weird feelings were… but they were wrong.
- In 1st grade, our Catholic school didn’t have doors on bathroom stalls. I’d become a playground target for mockery, sometimes physical violence.
- One day, a group of boys cornered me in a stall. Another groping attack.
- I didn’t go to the bathroom during breaks again until 7th grade. I developed constipation that required treatment. And the ability to ignore the abdominal pain that came from “holding it.”
- In the very rare case when I feared wetting myself in class, I learned to give myself nosebleeds so I could escape to the lavatory between bell breaks… when no other boys were around.
- Around that time, 6 or 7, my parents left me to babysit my 3-year-old brother as they went to work for some hours on a house they were building miles away. I became convinced, after what I remember as 2 or more hours, that they were not coming back.
- Became frantic. Told my brother that I had to go find them… fearing they were dead.
- Left him unattended. Began walking up the two-lane highway toward where I thought the building site was.
- I walked two miles. One step at a time toward the end… I was used to walking a mile to school in first grade, by myself… but my feet hurt…
- They found me on the highway.
- I thought I was saving my family…
- Although not beaten, I was severely punished.
- I had already been babysitting my brother for the previous year… when my parents engaged in binge drinking, frequently waking up at 6 to a silent house… and my brother… as my parents slept it off in their bedroom.
- Which I was forbidden to enter… since that incident above… when I was 3.
- At 10, my father took me… alone… to a pond on my grandfather’s farm to have the Sex Talk.
- He stripped… and had me strip… humorously commenting on my development… pubic hair… more embarrassing details… as he did so many times throughout my childhood…
- He explained the basic mechanics of intercourse. But he had a distant look in his glassy eyes. He looked different…. I was scared.
- Then he began touching himself… then more and more frequently… as he explained intercourse…. in detail.
- He came to orgasm next to me in the water. Became agitated. Loud. Explaining over and over… he didn’t mean that to happen.
- I became severely dissociated… having a waking daydream, imagining comic book characters, half-fish/half-man emerging from the pond…
- as he continued to explain and explain… way off in the distance… where I could no longer hear him…
- I was NOT an emotionally mature fifth grader. I still slept with my favorite stuffed animal… a dog I called Morgan…
- From that day forward, he took me into my bedroom about once a month alone to “talk.” Long one-sided monologues on sex…
- How I must not be taken in by the power of sex…
- How if I wasn’t careful I could come to believe my penis was the most powerful thing in the universe…
- Long-detailed discussions of how to masturbate… how amazing it would feel… but I must never do it even once because it would be a mortal sin and I would go to Hell…
- Finally, long, graphic discussions about his disappointments with sex with my mother… how sex with any woman could never compare to masturbating himself.
- I came to experience dread, nausea at the sight of him…
- Later that summer, one male babysitter “talked dirty with me”… and engaged in touching. A female babysitter partially unclothed and also talked about sex with me.
- 7th grade… we moved to Westchester, a wealthy suburb of New York. I quickly became the object of mockery from my new schoolmates… and some teachers…
- Elitism, privilege, snobbery, abelism, homophobia, genderism… verbal brutality? For context, future Trump advisor & Proud Boys spokesperson Roger Stone was one year ahead of me…
- Explicit verbal attacks on my intelligence, behavior, gender & sexuality, dress, speech… and more… were daily occurrences.
- Nearly as common were mild physical attacks… ripping shirts off my back, scattering my books, purposefully walking into me, stealing my things, etc.
- The “popular” captain of the Jr High wrestling team… and many of his many friends… surrounded me after gym class, getting undressed to shower…
- Shouting in my face… loud enough to hear outside the concrete walls… that I was the most hated kid in school, my parents should have flushed me at birth…
- Ultimately physically attacking me. Perhaps you can understand the sexual abuse element for me in this attack… and the sexual shame… even if I wasn’t overtly groped or raped.
- Maybe I threw the first punch in my blinding frustration… hell, I can’t remember. Doesn’t matter, there was no way this uncoordinated “spazz” was gonna do any damage…
- I wasn’t physically attacked again after some meetings with school administration.
- However, abuse never truly stopped… until I left the county… for college.
- At 14 or 15… My father took me on a business trip to Providence, Rhode Island.
- Even at that age, naive as I was… it was clear to me the hotel he booked was used for prostitution. The desk clerk checked my father in, then nodded in my direction and tiredly asked, “Do you even know his name?”
- On the one hand, no sexual violation happened on that trip. No touching. No rape. No sex talk.
- On the other, we slept in one bed. Side by side. In our whitey-tighties… Listening to couples goint at it in the next room…
- Freaked me the fuck out.
- The trip was so sexualized that I was convinced that something was wrong…
- I told my only two high-school friends about what happened… explicitly telling one I was terrfied he would sexually attack me.
- When my father and I got back home, I told him I would never be alone with him again.
- And wasn’t… until the molestation that I relate in Part 1…
Which happened cuz I fucked up…
I thought I was safe… that I wasn’t alone with him…
Cuz my mother was just around the corner in the kitchen.
In Part 3, I explore the aftermath of these destructive events… in my life… and into the life of those who knew me.
According to National Autism Association, there are no specific data on sexual abuse of autistic children, but they speculate it may be similar to the rate for children with intellectual disabilities, roughly 4 times higher for the general population of children.
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