This article was originally published on theEstablishment.co and is republished with permission. Trigger Warning: Mention of sexual abuse of autistic children and of autistic adults.
After much confusion, anguish, flashbacks, self-blame, and subsequent therapy regarding a traumatic period in my own life, it finally occurred to me that autistic adults like myself might be at heightened risk for domestic abuse within romantic relationships.
After all, there has been abundant research indicating a strikingly high prevalence among autistic people when it comes to being mistreated even by those we believe to be friends; we’re also much more liable, for example, to be bullied in school and abused as children.
Such betrayals may be associated with the typically good and trusting nature of autistic people — but they are primarily caused by the complex ableist structures and attitudes writ large in society. There is no obvious reason to think these forces wouldn’t make autistic adults more at risk for domestic abuse, as well.
Strikingly, though, when I began researching the matter, I could find almost nothing addressing the topic. In the scientific literature, a clear correlation had been found between being autistic and an increased risk for experiencing sexual violence during adulthood; a recent small-scale study detailing the general experiences of autistic females found that 9 of 14 had been sexually abused, many of them by their partners. But I found no systematic studies specifically regarding the prevalence and causes of domestic abuse within romantic relationships. It was almost as if this paradigm simply hadn’t occurred to researchers as something to look into.
One recent study found that 9 of 14 autistic females had been sexually abused, many of them by their partners.
Things were even worse in the wider media. Sure, there were countless discussions among neurotypicals regarding the possibility of domestic abuse perpetrated by autistic adults, but almost nothing on the possibility of it being the other way around. Blame was automatically laid at the feet of the autistic person, rather than acknowledging that empathy and communication problems between members of different neurotypes are always relational and two-way. Notably, these discussions were also often remarkably ableist, as in this case, where autistic people are characterized as “excessive burdens.”
Given this combination of ableism and lack of research, I decided to dig further into the issue myself. I began by joining and then posting a rather tentative ad on a closed Facebook group for autistic adults, in order to ask if anyone had any relevant stories to share for an article. I didn’t think I’d get many, or even any, replies, due to the traumatic and private nature of the question.
I was wrong.
The very next day, I found my inbox flooded with message requests from autistic people who had been continually subjected to domestic abuse, and who felt their abuse hadn’t been taken seriously. The response was so overwhelming that, over the following days, I was compelled to continue digging deeper — speaking, in the end, to literally dozens of survivors, as well as to experts and clinicians.
The personal stories were harrowing. One autistic woman told me of being punched in the stomach by her abuser when she was eight months pregnant, while neurotypical people looked on without saying anything. An autistic man told me about how a narcissist moved into his house and convinced him to look after her young children while she stole his disability allowance, before racking up thousands of pounds worth of bills and then suddenly leaving him — penniless.
Some, especially females, but also males, feared for their lives due to threats and acts of violence. Many reported developing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress — including flashbacks, anxiety, and suicidal ideation — after ending their relationship.
Listening to the stories of autistic abuse survivors, it was not hard to begin spotting recurring patterns, with three things (beyond physical and sexual physical violence, which were slightly less common) striking me as particularly prominent.
The first common theme regarded the abuser using the typically unassuming and trusting nature of autistic individuals to gain control over them, and to then begin to, slowly and subtly, use this control for the abuser’s own ends. The survivors I spoke to said their abusers were also attracted to them for more legitimate reasons — autistic people, after all, typically make for very good friends, have a strong commitment to honesty and social justice, and are often highly rational and talented in a variety of ways — but noted that they often felt targeted for being trusting.
As one autistic woman — Rebecca* — put it, “being autistic we find it difficult to read between the lines,” which attracts those who “can sense a more vulnerable person almost like a bird of prey catching its next meal.” Another person I spoke with, Gary, seconded this, noting that when it comes to identifying vulnerabilities, those with a need to control and dominate others “can always sniff it out.”
Listening to the stories of autistic abuse survivors, it was not too hard to begin spotting recurring patterns.
In turn, a second common theme was being subjected to “gaslighting.” This refers to a subtle yet pervasive and deeply traumatic form of psychological manipulation, used to make the victim systematically doubt their own lived reality, often including the validity of their feelings in relation to the abuse itself.
In this regard, there were many reports of the victims being repeatedly told they were, as one man put it, “just too sensitive.” They also talked about having their suffering systematically dismissed or ridiculed, to the point where they began to distrust their own perceptions. “The brainwashing convinced me it was all my fault,” said Ruth. “I still question myself about that now after all these years.”
Luke emphasized how “the person I was involved with certainly made me feel that he was the victim.” In this sense, the burden of blame — especially when the abuser manifested narcissistic tendencies — came to weigh down the victim rather than abuser, leading to an ever-increasing spiral of confusion and despair.
Perhaps most worrying of all was the third theme that emerged: abuse that was being reported went unnoticed, overlooked, or not taken seriously — even in one case where it was reported to the police. Many thought this was partly due to the relatively superior ability of the non-autistic abuser to subtly control the wider public perception of the relationship, with abusers often using their superior social fluency to make the abuse seem trivial or nonexistent.
As Vicky, who was both emotionally and physically abused, explained, “Everybody on the outside of the relationship thought he was charming and would never do anything wrong.” Other abusers convinced friends and family that the autistic partner was the controlling one in order to either hide or justify the abuse, sometimes by playing on misleading stereotypes regarding autism — a theme I’ll return to below.
At this point, I should stress that my findings are without the scope or methodological precision of a large-scale scientific study. Notably, too, my own experience of unnoticed emotional abuse (followed by the emergence of what I have now been told is a fairly textbook case of Narcissist Victim Syndrome coupled with post traumatic stress) may have influenced my interpretation of the patterns.
Nonetheless, what I found echoes what world-renowned clinician Doctor Tony Atwood— who has over 40 years of experience working with autistic people — later told me.
“I do think that people with autism are susceptible and vulnerable to domestic abuse in a relationship. We have yet to determine precisely why, but those with autism seem to be a magnet which attracts predators, not only from bullying and teasing at school, but also relationship predators. There can be a tendency for such events to be occurring behind closed doors and great difficulty and courage needed to disclose what is happening. One of the inhibitors of disclosure can be self-blame and thinking something is wrong with yourself rather than realizing that you have been a victim of abuse.”
Given how many people I easily found so eager to share their experiences, and the various common themes that emerged, the domestic abuse of autistic people began to seem to me like something terrible, systematic, pervasive, and yet — shockingly — strangely ignored. As soon as I thought to look, I found it everywhere, and yet nobody was really noticing it, let alone talking about it.
Bearing this in mind, the questions of why autistic people might be particularly susceptible, why such abuse has seemingly been overlooked, and what we can do about it, emerged as particularly pressing.
Regarding the possibility of heightened vulnerability, some survivors I spoke to noted the relevance of factors they took to be characteristic of being autistic. Sarah stressed how the fact that “we want to see the best in everyone, especially those we care about,” might be a factor in both being seduced into, and then staying in, abusive relationships.
Another survivor, George, hypothesized that “a lot of on-the-spectrum people will take others at their word” before being made to “wonder if they are the crazy one for feeling unloved” when actions and words don’t line up. Another survivor, David, mused that “we might be more easily gaslighted, because some of us can be very emotionally sensitive, so it can lead us to wonder if [we’re] overreacting.”
Significantly, though, others pointed to wider social factors in regards to how autistic people are treated, which might also contribute. In the words of Karl, “due to years of conditioning I automatically think a problem is my fault and try to fix it, to be less of a burden or inconvenience to those around me. [This is] something that maybe other autistics can relate to since we’ve been conditioned to believe we’re burdens.” In other words: Society already systematically gaslights autistic people, and so we can internalize this oppression and thus become more susceptible to the same tactic from manipulative individuals.
The domestic abuse of autistic people—I found it everywhere but nobody was really noticing it.
Others suggested they simply hadn’t been taught to identify abuse: One woman, for example, had been emotionally abused and raped by her husband for 20 years before finding out during a work presentation that consent must be given for sex to not count as rape. This resonates with some researchers’ suggestions that the heightened susceptibility of sexual abuse among the autistic population may partly come down to insufficient relevant education being offered to autistic persons. It stands to reason that it may be the same when it comes to all forms of domestic abuse as well.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are, then, both complex and deeply intertwined with wider social structures that lead to the disablement of autistic populations. But this doesn’t answer the other question at hand: Why has this dangerous dynamic gone largely unnoticed among both the public and researchers?
“I am not sure why no one has looked at this area,” said Doctor Atwood, “but I do encourage further investigation and hope that one day, someone will conduct research into this area.”
For my own part, I initially suspected the reason might be that it just never occurred to researchers or the general public that autistic people often can and like to have romantic relationships. After all, despite the fact that there is little difference between autistic and non-autistic adults in regards to physical desire and/or companionship, until fairly recently it was widely (totally wrongly) assumed that autistic people were cold, emotionless, and uninterested in love or sex.
Beyond this, survivors I interviewed offered further relevant factors in explanation. Worryingly, some thought that their abuse was not taken seriously because they were male. As Wayne put it to me, “as a male presenting person, nobody either cares or believes you if you’ve been abused like that.” Part of this deeply gendered issue undeniably revolves around the prevalence of men occupying the abuser role; the lack of research may be predicated on the belief that male victims are too much of an anomaly to be studied. (Although autism is currently diagnosed in roughly five men for every one woman.)
Another reason highlighted was that, due to ever-present and deeply misleading media representations that couple autism with violence — including what one victim called “the autistic rage stereotype” — it’s often assumed that the autistic partner is more likely to be the problematic one in a relationship. (Some survivors thought such stereotypes helped their abuser make themselves out to be the victim.) All this despite the fact that the media-generated association with violence is vastly exaggerated, and the further fact that autistic persons are more likely to be victims of violent crime rather than its perpetrators.
Finally, others stressed that some symptoms of abuse were mistaken for (what are often assumed to be) characteristics of autism — anxiety and withdrawal, for example — rather than stemming from traumatic external factors. Notably, this conflation is in line with how symptoms of sexual abuse among autistic children have often been mistaken for baseline characteristics of autism. It should come as no surprise that this dynamic might be occurring in cases of domestic abuse as well.
So what are we to do about all this?
Some of the survivors I spoke to offered advice to other autistic persons, notably highlighting the need to trust actions over words. “Believe nothing said, and everything done,” said Eric, while Jonathan emphasized, “If you tell them something makes you feel uncomfortable and they don’t change their behavior, something is wrong.” Others stressed the need for people with autistic friends or family members to regularly check whether there might be a possibility of abuse, even if the relationship seems very happy from the outside. In the words of Mary: “Be aware of the signs of manipulation and abuse. Always listen and speak up and tell the person that what they’re experiencing isn’t normal or healthy.”
But since the problems aren’t just individual, but societal, the change can’t stop there. I suggest these three initial steps toward dealing with the issue of domestic abuse on a systemic level:
1/ As individuals and as a society, we need to begin learning to listen to autistic people more attentively, and to empathize with autistic suffering.
As another interviewee, Sammy, noted, we often forget that autistic people “all have the same feelings as the next person.”
2/ Those in positions of power need to fund and/or carry out research designed to identify and prevent such abuse; we need hard data to expand our understanding of the worries explored in this article.
And we need to examine them as social rather than individual medical issues, in order to get to the wider causes of the problem and to avoid victim blaming.
3/ We then need to imbue entities —including the police and social services — with the power to implement policy and training based on the findings of this research.
In-depth investigation must be paired with tangible policies and action.
Above all, what we cannot do is go on pretending that domestic abuse of autistic people doesn’t happen. For the issue is widespread, systemic, and, for anyone who cares to look — clear to see.
All the names of abuse survivors have been changed