Co-authored by Elizabeth Liu and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
A recent study of 4,500 Swedish twins found that girls with autism from ages 9 to 18 years were three times as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to their neurotypical counterparts. This statistic is particularly alarming as girls and women with characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) already face difficulties receiving the diagnosis, with the average age of diagnosis being 16 years of age.
Why Risk Is Higher
Kirsten Lindsmith, an autism advocate and blogger with ASD, explains that these girls are at an increased risk for sexual assault for several reasons. People with autism have a kind of manual transmission brain, as they have to learn social skills, instead of it coming naturally. This combines with patriarchy, consent culture, and issues with sexuality. People with autism don’t cognitively multitask very well, and reading social situations doesn’t happen intuitively. In society, a lot of how sexuality and courtship works is indirect, not overt, and requires this dance of nonverbal communication. People with autism are not inherently equipped unless they learn it painstakingly, and then it often still takes a lot more effort to maintain. It’s a disadvantage.
Not only do social deficits put them at greater risk for sexual assault, but it is also the continuous social rejection that is often a part of growing up with autism. This can lead to increased receptivity to positive social attention, making it difficult to distinguish true, warm friendship from predatory behaviour. In other words, having that directed positive attention can be so hypnotizing for someone with that background. There’s a level of social trauma in autism that will frequently make people really grateful to someone who is directing a lot of positive attention. Sexual desire from predators can look a lot like positive attention: being friendly, really liking you, thinking you’re funny, all these types of things that don’t come from indirect courtship. They’re going to talk to you specifically more than other people, smile at you, look at you more, maybe stand close to you, touch you a little—all those things that someone with autism may be starved for.
Counteracting This Risk
When it comes to what we can do to counteract this risk of sexual assault for girls and women with autism, Lindsmith suggests several strategies that may be helpful, such as asking direct questions when feelings of discomfort arise. Lindsmith cautions that saying no outright is often dangerous, and asking questions can have the same effect with much less danger (e.g., “What are we going to do there?”). Being authentically yourself when you’re confused or angry is very protective.
Other options include implementing a buddy system and finding ways to have open conversations with trusted friends and family on boundaries in dating. Being able to discuss one’s thoughts and feelings is not only a helpful source of support but also allows others to give people on the spectrum concrete advice on how to navigate difficult and uncomfortable situations. However, this option is generally more accessible for girls and may place boys with autism at a disadvantage. Lindsmith explains that the buddy system is one of the resources that girls and women with autism often have that isn’t as easy to access for boys and men with autism. Tony Atwood calls this the “Mother Hen friend” phenomenon, where girl gender culture encourages nurturing, guiding behaviour. Girls are much more willing to take someone under their wing, and this can make things like going to a party safer when you go with your Mother Hen friend, whom you trust, and don’t leave their side.
With all of this in mind, one of the best ways to reduce the risk of sexual assault for people with autism may simply lie in awareness. Facilitating this understanding of this risk for the individual, their friends, family, and therapist can improve access to the right kind of support. The increased risk of sexual assault that girls with ASD face is real, and the first step in protection against it is for us to think about it, and talk about it.
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.