Autism is a challenging topic because there are a lot of people who don’t understand it or the perspectives held by autistic people. There are even movements to call us “people with autism” in ignorance of our perspective, just as there are organizations who believe we want to be cured of our autism and that we must bury our autism and act normally, even when doing so harms our mental health. Autistic people are treated as if they aren’t autistic in the criminal justice system and even outside the justice system. These are several areas within this topic that do pertain to the prevention of child sexual abuse, and it is my hope to unpack some of that.
Let’s start with what autism is, from an autistic person. There are good articles out there that give an overview, but I’m after something different. I want you to see our perspective, as unique as it is, because that’s going to vary from autistic to autistic. The simplest way to explain autism is that we experience the world differently from you in such a way that it is wired into our neurological system, our brains. This difference in experience is often unique to each autistic person, though there are some patterns.
We experience sensory input differently – many of us feel certain sensations more strongly or more weakly than others, often in ways that don’t make sense. Most people can tune out these kinds of sensations – the noise of a fan or the murmur of a crowd. My brain tries to make sense of it, so if I’m trying to listen to “background music” and it’s unfamiliar music, it’s distracting. Many times, neurotypical people can use these sensitivities to take advantage of and mock autistics. My own mother has been known to do this by calling me “defensive” with sensory issues, or she would mimic bugs crawling on my skin with her fingertips, knowing full well I don’t like that, and let me be clear: This is abuse. When someone uses our autism against us, to anyone without autism this may seem like lighthearted fun. For us, it is abuse. It is harmful. And it should not happen.
Sensory information like touch, sound, light, smell, or taste isn’t the only thing we process differently. We also process information differently. When it comes to sudden or unexpected information that’s new, it takes a little longer for me to process the information, and so it takes me a little longer to learn new things. The difference is, once the information is there, it’s difficult to forget, even intentionally. If I had reason to remember something, I remember it. I can tell you the memory of having a swim after ear surgery when I was two years old, or an injury from when I was three just as much as I can tell you what I learned in a college class over ten years ago. This means that I know social rules well enough to pass for “normal” with most people, even those familiar with autism. I do make eye contact, and I know to look away briefly so it’s not uncomfortable. I look normal even to people who know about autism.
Even so, there are deficits, areas where I am different. I place different significance on information, for example. From birth, a neurotypical (non-autistic) person typically has stronger emotional health because their ability to process emotional information is usually better than ours, though there are autistic people who have greater ability to process emotional information than factual information. The areas of social skills that I have now mastered did not come in the same innate way they do for most. While I place greater importance on certain kinds of information and topics, I intentionally disregard others so as to not become overwhelmed and have too much information to process. That is probably why I have such narrow interests that have persisted for a long time.
These things can be exploited by people. Peers can intentionally use unfamiliar concepts to confuse and harm autistics, and adults can use these things to deny that children have autism. It’s easy for us to tune it out as irrelevant when it’s valuable information that we can use to protect ourselves from people who try to harm us. It can also mean we have a difficult time accurately perceiving both our own behavior and the behavior of others. In other words, we can perceive helpful behaviors as harmful, and harmful behaviors as helpful.
These are areas in which autistic people can broadly struggle: Knowing what is and isn’t appropriate, socially, legally, and emotionally. I didn’t understand what “appropriate” even meant until my late teens. The meaning of the word seemed to change every time someone used it. Someone would tell me that something isn’t appropriate in one situation, while it was expected in another situation. Without a clear and explicit explanation for why something was classified as appropriate or not and the rules behind the social etiquette that most people take for granted, things would be confusing. I would either disregard it, try to figure it out all by myself, or end up asking people about it. Trying to ask someone about a social situation when you’re trying to understand it yourself is daunting. It’s like asking a 4 year old to do calculus.
So then, for some autistic people, things like the law sometimes lack sense because they’re built on complex rules of social etiquette. Imagine what happens when someone disregards it, or asks someone about it and gets an unclear or confusing answer. They get arrested and they may not understand why. All they know is that someone they don’t know is placing their hands on them and putting them in a deeply uncomfortable situation. Maybe they have some idea, maybe they understand enough of the law that they know technically what law they broke.
Imagine the compilation of overwhelming sensations and information they are now forced to process quickly, and because they look neurotypical, nobody knows they have autism. So rather than acting with empathy and compassion, people can explain things to autists in ways that lead them to completely reject what is being said because the information is simply not able to be processed. People can mistreat us, whether they know they’re doing it or not, placing us in a very vulnerable position. Constantly. Because it’s hard to tell that we’re autistic, it’s hard for people who know how to be helpful to us to even be helpful to us.
Here’s the worst part, though. Because of how autism works in all of these ways, it makes it exceedingly difficult for the criminal justice system to treat autistic people fairly, simply because it is designed for neurotypicals, not people with special needs. The typical criminal justice system approach is exactly the wrong one. For many autistic people, all it would really take to correct the undesirable behavior is a long conversation with someone patient enough to be peppered with questions and not stigmatize us for not understanding what’s obvious to everyone else, not confinement, handcuffs, humiliation, and whatever additional consequences await. It is an unfortunate fact that the criminal justice system discriminates against minorities, and autistic people are no exception to this. One advocate in this area, Nick Dubin, has written and spoken frequently on this topic. To be treated as if we have the same brains as everyone else is just as unfair as treating people better because they have money to bribe the government with, or treating people worse because of their skin color.
Autistic people may need some explanation for why the laws and social rules are in place beyond what most neurotypical people are prepared to explain. In this sense, peer support for autistic people can be important so that we can discuss points of confusion with others who understand them and understand why we’re asking such questions. However, it’s also important for neurotypical people to be patient with and explain these finer points to people.
That can’t happen if we’re not aware of and practicing inclusivity in our daily interactions. To me, inclusivity and being sensitive to the unique needs of others – whether they are autistic or not – is such a fabulous solution. If we can be kind enough to go out of our way to learn how others wish to be treated and treat them that way, we can avoid a plethora of harms before they even happen. If we can help autistics understand and process information vital for us to make wise decisions and act within the bounds of the law, then we can prevent child sexual abuse.