Autism and Consent: It’s Time for a Rethink

For World Autism Awareness Week we are amplifying the voices of autistic survivors on our blog.

Georgia Harper is a Youth Patron for Ambitious about Autism, and has previously written for the Ambitious about Autism myVoice website. Georgia is currently studying for an LLM in human rights law at Queen Mary, University of London. In this guest blog she writes about autism and consent.

Content note: discussion of sexual assault and abuse.

It’s World Autism Awareness Week, so I’m going to start by making you aware that some autistic people have relationships, and some autistic people have sex, and some autistic people are taken advantage of in those contexts amongst a variety of others. Given that autistic people are people, this really shouldn’t be so surprising, but these simple facts are often overlooked in the way we talk about autism and consent – or rather, in the way we DON’T talk about it. In fact, some people still use outdated stereotypes around autism to attempt to excuse abuse and harassment, along the lines of “he works in computing, so he might be on the spectrum, so he can’t really know what he’s doing”.

Of course, autistic people can be perpetrators just like everybody else (and the assumption that none of us understand whether there is or isn’t a “yes” is frankly offensive…), but these attempts to pit survivors and autistic people against each other ignores the significant number of people in both categories.

There are various reasons why autistic people are particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse; for example, many cannot pick up the subtle signs of a person’s true motives, instead taking what they say at face value. Having said that, I think it’s really important to think about how much of this vulnerability is taught.

Our sensory experiences are often framed as “objectively” wrong and something for us to learn to hide or “get over” – so if you happen to be hypersensitive to touch, you might assume that any discomfort around touch is 1.) because of your autism and 2.) your own problem to deal with. I’ll let you do the maths.

Growing up autistic also tends to be a crash course in The Social Rules, often launched at us with no explanation beyond “because the adult says so” or “because otherwise people won’t like you”. This can be dangerous not only because those with more malicious intent may use very similar reasoning, but also because this rush to drill in social skills invariably (and conveniently) leaves out one of the most important social skills of all: learning to say “no”. And as for relationships – well, if it’s apparently so rare, we might be left feeling like we should be grateful if we have one at all, however unhealthy it really is.

These issues are further compounded by wider stereotypes around abuse. For example, in the UK, sexual assault is legally defined as any sexual touching without consent or reasonable belief in consent, but as a society we often have very narrow ideas about what sexual assault can look like – these ideas often involve a random attacker in an alleyway, even though most attackers are known and often trusted by the people they target.

Myths like these harm all survivors, but may present a particular barrier to autistic people coming forward as they are more likely to take the “assault is always a stranger in an alleyway” suggestions literally.

Those who do come forward then face the usual barrage of people trying to discredit them. For instance, “you don’t SEEM upset” might be said to someone who doesn’t express emotions in neurotypical ways – also ignoring the very wide range of responses that even neurotypical people show in the face of trauma. “You didn’t say no” is another common one – forgetting that your body is your own by default, and interference with that needs your express permission. This is particularly harmful to those autistic people who freeze or become non-verbal under stress – it shouldn’t have to be said, but shutdown is not consent.

These are just some of the reasons why autistic people may be both more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to receive the support they need in the event of abuse. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away – but perhaps changing attitudes towards autism and towards abuse will.

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