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Hi, I’m Johnny Profane.
Last episode, I explored some dark alleys of my personal, autistic experience.
Sexual abuse & assault.
This week… let me shed some light.
Let’s talk… honestly… about what you can do to prevent autistic sexual abuse. Whether protecting yourself, a loved one, someone you work with, or autistic folk you employ.
I include some personal stories. Some a little rough… to bring this urgent issue home.
And… I offer 9 concrete actions you can take to protect your autists.
But sexual assault is traumatic. If you experienced it… or love someone who has… this episode could disturb you. In the US, the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline offers support at 1-800-656-4673. Day or night. You’ll find a link in the transcript. Also further reading.
I call this one, “The Cavalry Never Comes.” Because it never did.
Most folks’ picture of child abuse? Must come from movies & media. Where child abuse only happens among movie stars. Wealthy professionals on Manhattan.
Sometimes, demon-possessed parents. Down somewhere called the Bible Belt.
But I do not have exotic horrors to relate. A few paragraphs summarize the sexual abuse in my life…
Even so, I cannot summarize the effect on my life… and through me… the effect on other lives.
An autistic kid is at great risk of sexual abuse. Grownups, too…
Just because we are autistic. Walking the streets. In a society not built for us.
And… autistic abuse… even more, sexual assault… can leave deeper scars for us than most folks. Children or adults.
We may experience trauma from “milder” abuse. Even when a brother or sister went through similar… or worse… without damage.
We may struggle to recognize abuse…
We may avoid.. or cannot… communicate any abuse.
Bottom line, we have difficulty finding help.
No two autistic children are the same.
Some distinctions are obvious. We may speak… or not. Experience intellectual challenge… or not. Behave differently… or not.
Yet, other differences are invisible. How we feel. How we think. How we hurt…
Whether events cause lasting trauma… or don’t? Different for every autist. Like our ability to heal… or will to survive.
Still, at the same time… A lot of us share traits that make us vulnerable…
Maybe even more so back when we were kids. For example,
I was uncommonly open, optimistic, trusting. Every new kid was my friend. Every adult would take care of me. Everything new? Something exciting to explore. I took risks.
I didn’t understand important social norms… boundaries, expectations, reciprocal behavior.
I was lonely… seeking approval… affection… attention… by trying to please others.
I had difficulty with autonomy, leading my own action… following others.
I was awkward, uncoordinated… unable to defend myself.
I was out of touch with my body. And my emotions. Not always recognizing pain. Missing important internal warning signs of danger or damage.
I lost track of time or my whereabouts… Often. At first my parents worried. But over time, they no longer noticed me gone for long periods.
Everyday situations could overwhelm me. Grocery stores, playgrounds, large gatherings. Leading to poor decisions, impulsive actions, strange behavior, panic…
I had trouble communicating. Stammering, meltdowns, becoming mute in stressful situations. Many autists are nonspeakers. Or selectively mute, with difficulty speaking under stress.
We may have different sources of trauma than the average kid.
Because when you watch an autistic kid awhile, you may see…
They may be hyper-conscious of rules. Worry about doing the wrong thing. May blame themselves… feel deep shame… and hide, rather than reveal, what happened.
They may learn… early… to not discuss feelings. To mask behaviors. To hide thoughts that others won’t approve of. I had no other human to trust… to tell. Not friend, teacher, minister, counselor… parent.
They may be shy or prudish about nudity. Avoid unwanted touch. Of any kind. By any other person.
When autistic folks suffer from trauma, even experts confuse the signs with common autistic behaviors.
Mayo Clinic has a good checklist of general child abuse symptoms, the link’s in the transcript. Here’s how my childhood stacked up. Notice how autism and abuse overlap.
So, symptoms of general abuse
☑ I had few friends or activities. And withdrew from those I had.
☑ Another, my behavior changed during many periods toward aggression, anger, hostility, hyperactivity.
☑ A third, I had a host of fears, nightmares, and more… from a violent childhood.
My father beat me for the first time at 3. He got frustrated as I tried to help diaper my infant brother. I developed sleep disorders, including sleep walking.
My first memory of sex? Muddled with anger, shame, punishment. Opening a door… to my parents doing something I didn’t understand… Anger. Screaming. Being grabbed. Carried to bed. Slamming doors. Fear…
☑ Then there’s poor adult supervision. I had little. Some folks preyed on that.
The kid around the corner took me behind a neighbor’s garage to fondle my penis. My parents were angry & punished me. “You should know better….” I was 4.
At 6, a male bully groped me in a public park. His friends cheered. I was the “new kid,” sent out by parents to make friends…
☑ My parents placed me in adult roles they did not equip me for.
From 2nd grade, I babysat my brother when my parents engaged in binge drinking. Waking up in the morning to a silent house… as my parents slept it off.
☑ An important symptom to look for. I was frequently absent “sick” from school.
Things were rough at home. School was worse. Teachers bullied me. And then, there were schoolmate humiliations… and assaults.
In 1st grade, a group of boys groped me. In my Catholic school restroom.
I didn’t go on toilet breaks again until 7th grade. I needed treatment for my constipation. Cuz I ignored the pain in my gut from “holding it.”
When I feared wetting myself in class, I learned to make my nose bleed. Then I’d raise my bloody hand and ask to go to the lavatory. So I could escape between bell breaks. Safe. No one else would be there.
7th grade… we moved to Westchester, a wealthy suburb of New York. Some teachers mocked me in class. But my new schoolmates’ escalated…
Explicit attacks on my intelligence, behavior, sexuality, dress, speech… were daily occurrences.
Just as common was casual physical attack. Ripping off my shirts from behind. Scattering my books. Body-checking me in the hallways. Stealing my things. On and on. Day after day.
Then there was the time the “popular” captain of the Jr High wrestling team threw a chokehold on me. After the shower in gym class. Wrestled me to the cement. While a ring of friends cheered on. Perhaps you understand the sexual abuse element for me in this attack. And the shame… even if no one groped or raped me.
☑ Another category. I didn’t like to go home.
I was uncomfortable having friends over. And I had very few.
☑ A glaring warning sign. Many abused kids runaway.
I didn’t run. But I left home after highschool. In the end, putting the entire continent between us.
☑ Yet another loud alarm… fierce rebellion. As a parent, don’t fight it… or ignore it.
Defiance defined my teens. Toward family, teachers, religion, politics… There were frequent fights with my parents. I was never violent. My father was.
☑ Finally, suicide. It’s not a cry for help. It’s what you do when all your cries go unanswered.
I attempted at 17, first time. I became dissociated and crashed head-on into oncoming traffic.
Not one of these classic signs resulted in a report, note, conference. They passed without remark. Sailed right by parents, teachers, clergy, counselors.
For context, I was raised in a managerial/professional-class home. By college-educated parents. In a wealthy suburb of New York City.
Now, here’s where I stood on the signs of emotional abuse.
☑ My emotional development was delayed. So parents & teachers said.
☑ I had little self-confidence.
☑ I withdrew from classmates & family.
☑ I avoided school, parties, public places.
I survived riding the school bus by escaping into internal fantasy. Or sleep.
☑ I sought approval & affection… everywhere I went.
☑ My school performance varied in wild swings.
From “gifted” level. To failure. Later, this was true in work & career as well.
☑ I lost skills that I excelled at… during shutdowns & burnouts. Arithmetic, vocabulary, reading comprehension…
Here are signs of parental or caretaker abuse:
Parent or caretaker shows little concern for the child.
In my case, my mother did not show affection. During untreated postpartum depression, she failed to bond with me.
Appears unable to recognize physical or emotional distress in the child.
Blames the child for the problems.
Consistently belittles the child or describes the child with negative terms.
For me, over performance goals I could not meet.
The adult expects the child to reverse roles. To care for the caretaker. Especially meeting their needs for attention. They may become jealous or angry… when the child pays attention to others.
Uses harsh physical discipline.
Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance.
I imagine this may also apply to “ideal” weight, appearance, and gender standards. They did for me.
Some abusive caretakers limit their child’s contact with others.
I avoided most classmates. So I didn’t experience that restriction.
Offers unconvincing explanations for a child’s injuries. Or makes no excuse at all.
Remember… this applies to emotional injury as well.
There are professional resources on sexual abuse under “Further Reading” in the transcript. Unfortunately, written by non-autists.
There is much good information. Great information. From keen, but non-autistic observers. Who 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’m keenly aware that most autism research focuses on causes, “cures”… and creating productive adult autists in modern society.
There is little research on sexual abuse of autistic children. Even less on parental or caretaker abuse.
Research gaps? Always grab my attention. I suspect connections to what funding sources want.
Autism research? Mostly paid for by groups that represent parents. Not autists themselves.
That’s why the research meets the needs of parents, doctors, teachers… not us.
So… Here are a few things my caretakers could have done…
That would have changed my life.
- Consider… honestly… how closely you need to monitor your autistic child. Any child can drown in minutes. Be groped in seconds… Both are more likely for an autistic child.
- Remember, anything you consider “common sense”? Your autistic child may understand differently. Same may go for a teen. Or adult. Are you comfortable they make reasonable decisions without supervision?
- Sincerely consider how long the autist you care for is safe out of hearing range…
If you yourself are NOT autistic…? If you haven’t experienced our uncertain skills and internal confusion…? Consider cutting your first safety estimate in half.
And by “hearing range,” I mean of an adult. Who you absolutely trust. Someone you know… for certain… will respond to a call for help. From your child or adult.
- Consider assigning a “designated caretaker” at all times.
That means, 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 who you also know has hands-on experience taking care of 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.
- There are unique challenges to caring for autistic folk. Combined with autists’ vulnerabilities… they can lead to all kinds of abuse. In secret. Even when couples or families share the care.
Take personal responsibility for ensuring your child is safe with your spouse, lover, any one.
My father began grooming me for sexual assault in my bath at 4. He continued abuse and assault through high school, as I described in Part 1. At home. On vacations. On business trips.
- Do NOT pressure your child to make friends.
Trust your child when they tell you they feel safe. Or not. With whom, when, and how often they feel comfortable.
Do not be afraid to chat with a new friend’s parents. Make sure you’re comfortable with their home before your child visits.
Personally? I can’t imagine sleepovers. Unless at a “designated caretaker’s” house. If then….
- Give thought to never using a babysitter. As in, never. Only a “designated caretaker.”
In 5th grade, one male babysitter “talked dirty with me”… and engaged in touching. A female babysitter removed her top and also talked sex with me.
- Believe your child…? Seriously, just believe your child.
That principle alone would have changed my life. If applied.
Multiply EVERYTHING I wrote above 10x for nonspeaking & selectively mute kids.
A final note…
I told my mom.
Over and over, she explained I did not realize how much my father loved me. What he did for our family. That I must not exaggerate. And more of the same.
Even when I told her about the molestation I describe 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 around the corner in the kitchen. At home. Just like all but one of his other attacks.
I’d like to end simply. I may come back to this topic from time to time. It is close to my heart. And there’s more to talk about. Especially on recovery.
Next week… expect a collection of 5 spoken songs on autism, friendship, and love.
And… If you share my belief that discussing autistic abuse… of all kinds… is vital… please share this episode on social media. Better yet, email it to a friend who you believe… cares.
- National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline
- Signs & symptoms of child abuse, Mayo Clinic
- Protecting Children with Autism from Sexual Abuse
- How to Protect a Child With Autism From Sexual Abuse
- Personal account of an autistic woman raped at 14.
- According to National Autism Association, there are no specific data on sexual abuse of autistic children. T hey speculate it may be like the rate for children with intellectual disabilities. Roughly 4 times higher than the general population of children.
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