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 In fact, some people still use outdated stereotypes around autism to attempt to excuse abuse and harassment, along the lines of “he works in computing, so he might be on the spectrum, so he can’t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.

If you have been affected by this post, or would like help to find accessible services in your area, please visit our support page by clicking here.

Autism and Hate Crime: When ‘Mates’ Only Hate

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

This is a guest blog by Jack Welch, autism advocate and active campaigner on anti-bullying, besides many other causes. Jack is a Youth Patron for Ambitious about Autism and a supporter of numerous charities. Here he writes about his experiences of ‘mate crime’.

Over more recent years, there is an obligatory question I have to ask myself about people: is there an ulterior motive behind it? Even for the most good natured and well-intentioned individuals, I can’t help but wonder what might be the thoughts behind the words of someone’s comment. This is the lasting legacy of ‘mate crime’, as it’s described, and perhaps much worse for those who have experienced these acts.

While mate crime can take shape in many guises, whether it be pushed into a situation a person may not feel comfortable in or potential forms of sexual exploitation, let’s be clear about one thing: mate crime is another extension of hate crime. For people on the autistic spectrum and/or who have a learning disability, which would include me, we are typically at greater risk of encountering this kind of abuse.

In my case, I would be approached by other pupils in my first year of secondary school to give small amounts of change, with the assurance that it would be returned to me. Generally those who I regarded as ‘friends’ would benefit from this goodwill that I would like to believe would be reciprocated in turn, or ‘give and take’ as many of us would define it. In seeing that money back again, I was for the most part mistaken. Stationery equipment, namely pens, would also have a similar fate. There were many other aspects which made me detest that school (a boys-only environment) before I would move to a mixed comprehensive in a new town a year after, but that example was a formative experience in changing my attitudes about people around me more completely.

Some might ask me why I was so gullible or trusting to believe that I would be so misguided to give without any certainty of a redress. For neurotypicals, it may be harder to believe, but I wanted to convince myself that they could be good friends and this was how friendship was supposed to be. As years have gone by, I have accepted that people are much more complicated (especially when there were any conversations about boyfriend/girlfriend issues among my friendship group) and that there would be those who are prepared to exploit any sign of kindness they see.

Would giving small change or pens be realistically taken to court? Probably not, but the personal impact is not one to underestimate. Understanding the fine nuances of what might be seen as a favour down to criminal exploitation is easier for some to determine than others, especially if a person is isolated and unfamiliar with social conventions. A report by the formerly named Wirral Autistic Society (now Autism Together) found that 54% of 12-16 year olds from their survey had money or other possessions stolen. We should be worried as a society that this will be the connotations of what ‘friendship’ might mean to many autistic people from a young age.

For me, it is evident that qualities like trust and honesty are not rewarded so lightly and there are many who simply do not deserve that privilege if they feel entitled. While having good friends around me is vital and being able to share my thoughts/feelings, trying to shed any doubt or scepticism is something that may not foreseeably happen again. Even among those I would describe as friends, asking a simple favour can be a difficult ordeal out of fear of what might be asked in return later. If there’s anything to learn about mate crime, or other kinds of hate, it is that emotional scars can last much longer than anything on the body.

For information on how to spot and stop ‘mate crime’, please click here. And to learn how to report it, please click here.

Supportline offers confidential emotional support to all people, including those who are experiencing bullying, ‘mate crime’, and hate crime. You can contact them by telephone, email, or post.

Autism and Abuse: I Can Forgive, but I Cannot Forget

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

The following is an anonymous submission. If you’re interested in submitting, please click here to learn more.

Content Note: This submission references abuse and violence.

I can forgive, but I cannot forget. I cannot forget the stinging blows. I cannot forget your raised voice. I cannot forget the way you screamed, Holding your face against mine. I cannot forget the little things, The ways you tried to change me for who I was. I cannot forget any of it, Though I can forgive, And I have. But most of all, I cannot forget you, You who come into my dreams every night, Only to not be there When I wake up. I miss you, I love you, I forgive you, But I cannot forget you.

If you have been affected by this post, or would like help to find accessible services in your area, please visit our support page by clicking here.

World Autism Awareness Week – Call for Submissions

Disabled Survivors Unite is taking part in The National Autistic Society’s World Autism Awareness Week 2017.

From 27 March – 2 April, we will be raising awareness of autistic people’s experiences of abuse and sexual violence by amplifying their voices on our blog.

We welcome all autistic survivors who have experienced any form of abuse to submit a blog post. Please note this includes people who have self-diagnosed.

This project is for people who have experienced any kind of abuse or sexual violence. This includes, but is not limited to; bullying, hate crime, institutional abuse, domestic abuse, abuse by family, unwanted touching, sexual assault, rape. If you identify as a survivor (or a victim), we welcome you to take part.

There is no right or wrong way to share your story or feelings, and we encourage you to do this in whichever way you would like.

Here are a few ideas;

  • Write a letter to someone
  • Share a piece of art you have created or a photograph you have took
  • Tell your story
  • Share information that you think people need to know about autism and abuse
  • Write a poem
  • Offer advice

If you would like our help to create a blog post, please get in touch and we’ll be more than happy to assist you!

You can send all submissions by email: a.stephen@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

Or you can send written submissions anonymously by filling in the form at the end of this post. We will keep all blog posts anonymous unless you ask us not to. Please read how we ensure all survivors stay safe when sharing their story.

If you get in touch with us by email, you can still choose to remain anonymous and do not have to give us your name.

If you send us your blog by email, we can let you know what day and time it will be published.

We hope you will consider helping us in our campaign to have autistic survivors voices heard.

Write for our blog


 

Support Ratifying The Istanbul Convention

Purple and white logo. The female gender sign with a clenched fist in the centre. Text says "#changeherstory write to your MP to ratify the Istanbul Convention"

This Friday MPs have the opportunity to vote on the third reading of a Private Members Bill which supports the ratification of The Istanbul Convention.

To read about how this Convention will protect disabled women and girls against violence, please read our previous blog post.

100 MPs must vote on Friday to ensure that the Bill makes it to the next stage, but most will be in their local constituencies rather than Parliament.

By asking your MP to vote, you could make a difference. In December 135 MPs supported the Bill, many of who were encouraged to vote because they were asked by their constituents.

We have created a template letter which you can email to your MP, please click here to download it. You can also Tweet your MP and ask them to vote using the #ChangeHerstory hashtag.

To find your MPs email address, Twitter handle, and Facebook page, click here.

For more information about IC Change’s wonderful #ChangeHerstory campaign, please visit their website.

It’s Not Okay to Overlook Violence, Abuse, and Exploitation of Disabled Children and Adults

We’re very pleased to share a guest blog by Parmi Dheensa, CEO of Include me Too. She has kindly written this in response to DSU participating in this years Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

Include us too as ‘it’s not okay’ is the key message of Disabled Survivors Unite activist organization who highlighted key issues of sexual abuse and violence experienced by disabled girls and women during Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

The campaign amplified the voices of disabled survivors for more awareness, support, intervention and prevention. It echoed the sentiments of ‘UK Says No More’ campaign and in addition the urgency of confronting the impact of consistent failures of stopping the increasing scale of violence and abuse of disabled victims.

There have been several research projects carried out internationally and here in the UK with similar findings regarding disabled women’s experiences.

15% of any population worldwide are people with disabilities of which half are women and girls. Disabled women have experienced violence two to three times more often than women in the average population. But disabled women also experience severe barriers in accessing support, information and services after violence.

Violence and abuse against disabled girls and women is present in many forms and the lack of specialist support, resources and prevention is disconcerting. Many of the issues I will be highlighting here are known to those already advocating in this area however it is imperative we share this information widely to end a culture of denial within our society and gain support and realisation that ‘Its Not Okay’.

A recent EU funded project in four countries including the UK highlighted:

  • Many disabled women were attacked in institutions, by carers, or at home by partners or male relatives.
  • Perpetrators isolated them, threated them, took away equipment or over-medicated them, to stop them from speaking out, or escaping.
  • Forms of violence and abuse experienced included psychological violence, impairment-specific violence, physical violence, forced sterilisation, forced marriages, sexual violence, abuse in institutional settings including disregard and violation of privacy and neglect.

All disabled or deaf women who took part in the survey interviews wanted a society in which ‘being disabled and being a woman’ did not mean having inaccessible services and being less valued, but where their safety mattered and their future life chances are supported in a violence-free life for all women in the future. 

In the UK the following statistics also amplify why not addressing these issues and stopping violence and abuse ‘Is Not Okay’:

  • Disabled children and young people compared to their non-disabled peers are three to four times more likely to be abused and neglected, according to the NSPCC.
  • Gangs of boys who don’t have a disability are grooming girls who do according to Respond.
  • Disabled women are twice more likely to be assaulted or raped as non-disabled women. The perpetrator is more likely to be someone they know or trust, a family member, carer or partner, according to research by Women’s Aid regarding domestic abuse.
  • Men (5.2%) with a long-term illness or disability were victims of partner abuse in 2013/14 compared to women (11.1%) in the same situation, according to Mankind Initiative.

Another survey looking into domestic abuse highlighted the dependency, lack of control and barriers to break the circle or seek help experienced by disabled women, sadly echoed the many stories of women and families I have listened to and supported even those nearly 20 years ago when managing mental health and women support services.

In this survey the majority of abusers were partners and ex partners 53% of the women who took part in the survey stated their dependency on abusers as carers, sympathy for partners, a panic of lack of support if they left, lack of alternative accessible housing and fear of losing their children all contributed to their inability to leave the situation resulting in women enduring abuse over long periods of time.

Physical neglect was a common theme with women commenting that personal care i.e. bathing, assistance to the toilet, eating etc were regularly withdrawn.

Women stated: “We are sometimes dependant on abusers as carers. How are you supposed to get anyone to believe you if everybody thinks he is a “Saint” because of how he helps you” “I sat dirty for days…he said I was demanding, disgusting and ungrateful. I said sorry loads of times but he ignored me…”

This ‘Is Not Okay’.

A way forward…

Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy 2016 – 2020 acknowledges government’s duties and responsibilities within the Equality Act 2010 and victims’ legislation, this strategy also needs to refer to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

A commitment to strengthen the involvement in the implementation of the strategy and voices of disabled women and girls including autistic women and girls is required. The strategy refers to peer support network, national helplines, awareness raising in schools and amongst the public and accommodation based services for example. However there is no real emphasise of the specialist provision required to ensure accessible, inclusive, appropriate responsive services and support for disabled women and girls. Allocation of resources to support a disabled women and girls peer support network, specialist helpline, specialist/inclusive accommodation based services these areas could be a good start to thread through the strategy and strengthen the implementation for effective change in ending violence against disabled women and girls.

Disabled Survivors Unite are uniting with Include Me TOO to campaign and raise awareness of ending violence and abuse against disabled persons including harmful practices. Include Me TOO look forward to supporting Disabled Survivors Unite through strengthening diversity, equality, and safeguarding within a cultural framework approach addressing harmful practices which include forced marriages, grooming, exploitation, witchcraft accusations, FGM awareness and intervention to end violence and abuse against disabled persons.

We all have a responsibility to build a safe and inclusive society for all that can be okay.

#ITSNOTOK Campaign Roundup

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

For Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week we ran a campaign to amplify the voices of disabled survivors.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated and supported our campaign. Thank you for helping to raise awareness of disabled people’s experiences.

At its heart, Disabled Survivors Unite is an activist organisation, and we will continue to campaign for change.

Why not catch up on the blogs we’ve posted this week?

On Monday, a disabled survivor shared their story which helped us to better understand the relationship between disability and rape.

On Tuesday, we announced that we’d be hosting a disability-themed #itsnotok Twitter Q&A with Respond.

On Wednesday, a disabled survivor wrote a letter of support to other disabled survivors.

On Thursday, we published a piece of writing by a disabled survivor who spoke about healing after sexual violence.

On Friday, I wrote a piece on the importance of accessible support after abuse and sexual violence. We also hosted the Twitter Q&A and we are delighted with how many people participated. You can view the Storify of the Twitter Q&A by clicking here.

On Saturday, we asked our Twitter followers to write messages to disabled survivors and published these.

On Sunday, our co-founder Ashley wrote an honest account of life after sexual violence.

Would you like to keep up to date with our work? Please sign up to our monthly newsletter here.

Life After Sexual Assault #ITSNOTOK

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

For Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week we are amplifying disabled survivors voices on our blog. This post is by one of our founders, Ashley, who is a disabled survivor.

Content note: this post is about sexual assault and rape. It also mentions a suicide attempt.

Disabled Survivors Unite means everything to me.

I’m sitting here, writing this blog after spending nearly six hours down the street from where I was raped. It’s past midnight, but sleep won’t come. This isn’t the first time I’ve been back. In fact, it’s been a couple years now since the attack even took place. Yet, I still found myself scanning every face, wondering if I’d run into my attacker. I scoped out the nearest exits. I made contingency plans. This is the reality of my life after sexual assault.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote “People don’t want to hear your story until it has a happy ending. But I’m stubborn.” I stand by that. Some stories need to be told with their awfulness intact, especially for things like Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week. The horrific must have a place in this discourse. I’m going to share my story with you today, because I don’t want others to feel ashamed or alone.

My name is Ashley Stephen and I was raped.

I was drugged and raped in London when I was 21. Due to my autism, I often go non-verbal under stress, yet I was very clear that I did not want to have sex with this man, this stranger. What I wanted was of no importance to him.

I fell into a deep hole that no one seemed prepared to help me out of it. The knowledge wasn’t there for someone like me, a rape victim with autism and other disabilities. And so the months went by without proper support. With each passing moment, I retreated further into my head. No one knew what to do.

Upon hearing that my case would not go forward, I tried to kill myself. I remember waking up in the hospital bed with an apologetic doctor explaining that England didn’t have any support set up for “people like me.”

I struggle every day with the knowledge that my situation is not an uncommon one. Through the people who have opened up to us, I know just how common this is. My work with Disabled Survivors Unite has made it extremely clear to me that sexual violence is an epidemic that is rarely discussed with us in mind.

People like us often go unheard. Disabled people are desexualised to such a degree in the eyes of the public that the possibility of us being victims doesn’t even occur to people. When I was raped, my disabilities were ignored by those in charge of helping me. It’s vital that this changes.

As I said at the start, Disabled Survivors Unite means everything to me. All four co-founders pour our hearts into this, for you. I want each and every survivor out there to know that I love and believe you and will fight for you with everything I have. I want it to be known that it’s okay not to be a “good survivor,” whatever the hell that even means. You’re allowed to be a broken mess, you’re allowed to identify as a victim. I sometimes still identify as a victim, too.

Living after sexual violence can be a constant, messy, and completely isolating challenge. You can pour everything you have into recovery and feel as though you haven’t moved an inch. One of the biggest things I learned was to allow myself the space to fall apart. In picking up the pieces, I’ve begun to stitch myself into something resembling a patchwork quilt, completely of my own design. Therein, I started to find my strength. More than anything in the world, I want to help you get there, too.

Please reach out to us. Please know people are there who truly care. More than anything, please know that you are believed and that you are loved.

For information about how we can help you to find accessible support, please click here.

Ashley runs the (re)storytellers, a project which gives disabled survivors the opportunity to write and anonymously share their stories. You can learn more about it here.

A Message for Disabled Survivors #ITSNOTOK

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

Yesterday, Disabled Survivors Unite and Respond hosted a disability-themed Twitter Q&A. We asked participants if they could say one thing to a disabled survivor, what would it be? Here are their responses.

“You deserve life. To be happy, to be free. It’s ok to laugh and allow yourself to feel.”Holly Scott-Gardner

“I believe you, it shouldn’t have happened. We can listen, we are not afraid to hear what you need to share.”Noelle Blackman (CEO of Respond)

“You’re loved, you’re worthy, & people are fighting for you. You’re never alone. Your experiences are valid. We believe you.”Disabled Survivors Unite

“It wasn’t your fault. Regardless of what they said, or how they tried to blame you, it wasn’t your fault.”Applewriter

“You survived, you’re strong and you know the truth and therefore you’ll know if someone is trying to silence you.”Respond

“You’ve survived – there’s hope now to find a way to live again and beyond the pain.”Jack Welch

“NEVER blame your impairment (only the abuser) and fight all you need to regain absolute pride in yourself, just as you are.”Merry Cross

“I’ll always be here for you and you mean the world to me. You’re never alone. I love you.”Ashley Stephen

“You are not alone, and you never will be.”Alice Kirby

“I find sharing stories helps survivors, shows that we can get justices.”Mandy Sanghera

I would like to personally thank each and every person who took part in the discussions we had yesterday. The Storify of the Q&A can be found by clicking here

Do you need support? Please click here.

The Importance of Support #ITSNOTOK

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

For Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week we are amplifying disabled survivors voices on our blog. This post is written by one of our founders, Alice, who is a disabled survivor.

Content note: this post is about the impact that lack of support has on disabled survivors.

“Often it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain, but the lack of support after.” ― S. Kelley

This quote is one of my favourites because it reminds us just how important support is after experiencing abuse and sexual violence.

In my work at Disabled Survivors Unite I have heard a countless amount of testimonies from disabled survivors, and the theme that runs throughout them all is the devastating impact of being unsupported. It is also a theme that I have experienced throughout my life.

Many disabled people we hear from have not gotten the support they need, whether that be therapy or emergency accommodation, simply because it was not made accessible to them. In their time of need, they are turned away.

Others are forced to have inaccessible support which is harmful to their health and wellbeing. It is crucial that we recognise the detrimental effect this can have on a persons life.

Some disabled survivors speak out about what has happened to them, but their stories are ignored or dismissed because of their disability. Others are blamed for the abuse they have endured, or are told that their disability was the cause.

With government cuts affecting the vast majority of front line services, it can sometimes be hard to see hope for disabled survivors. Many services simply cannot afford to make adaptions to their buildings or redesign what they offer, they are already struggling to operate on their budgets.

But I do see hope, Disabled Survivors Unite are changing things. The services we consult with are keen to support disabled people, and we have shown them how they can be inclusive without the expense of having to renovate their building.

The message that we give to services is this – no matter what, welcome disabled survivors with open arms. Invite us to use your service, ask us what we need, make adjustments, provide alternatives, and help us to find somewhere that can support us if you cannot.

Being given the opportunity and ability to access support really is vital. It can help a victim become a survivor. And without it, we suffer.

If you would like to work with us to improve your service, please email: info@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

If you are a disabled survivor who would like support, or help to find accessible support in your area, please click here.