Autism and Abuse: How Autistic Acceptance Helped Me Move Forward

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

This post was submitted by Jessica Benton.

Content note: abuse (including, but not limited to, bullying and sexual harassment), assault, brief mention of suicidal thoughts, gender binary

**I grew up not really understanding why I was the way I was, and I was treated pretty terribly throughout school. It left me wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t be like everyone else.  In infant school I had a lot of trouble connecting to other children and interacting with them, and in junior school I tried to make friends but I didn’t have the same social skills that other kids did – I would talk a lot about special interests and if I was happy or excited I’d rock back and forth and flap my hands. I would get strange looks and the other kids would avoid me. **

** Secondary school was when it all came to a head. There was a group of girls who would verbally bully me and spread rumours about me, and boys who would sexually harass me by doing things like grabbing my chest. When I was 14 depression and anxiety took hold and the bullying was at its peak. 

**One day I completely broke down and I was sent home from school. That day had involved more of the same bullying but it just pushed me over the edge – the girls were talking about how they had taken a mug shot of me and posted it to Facebook, something which I never found out was true or not. The boys were pulling my hair and trying to push me over or touch my chest.

My parents contacted  the school straight away. A school assembly was held for the boys in the year and although I wasn’t mentioned by name they were told about how serious sexual harassment was, and the girls were dealt with separately. I lived in fear of what would happen after school. I didn’t see myself having any friends or relationships, I couldn’t trust anyone to not treat me the same way. I had grim thoughts and didn’t think I would live past 18, but the combined efforts of my true friends and family helped me to turn things around.

When I was 15 I came across an online autistic community of activists – they were ordinary people on the spectrum who championed autism acceptance. They spoke about neurodiversity, which accepted autism as a natural difference in human brains, with autistic people needing to be accepted and accommodated by society instead of being looked down on or viewed as an abstract mystery to be solved by the next medical breakthrough. 

**The ideas of acceptance, autistic pride and diversity, without exaggeration, saved my life and made me a happier person. Autism activists speaking out and campaigning helped raise my self-esteem, and now I want to do the same for other people. I am now 19 and therefore lived past the age I once thought I wouldn’t. I have realised that the bullying and harassment I experienced was not my fault and that I didn’t deserve it. Society had lead me to believe that I, as the ‘freaky and ugly’ one deserve to be treated in an inhumane way, because sections of society maintain the mistaken notion that autistic people are less than human and are inferior. **

**Disabled women are more likley than others to be sexually harassed, assaulted or bullied whether the perpetrators know explicitly that we are disabled or not. We are told by society and media that we should be thankful we are receiving any attention or notion of our being desirable to others, so we should tolerate such treatment. Because there is still an underlying notion that our lives are lesser.  For anyone reading this, I tell you now that you don’t deserve to be treated like that. Disabled women have the same rights to control over our own bodies, emotions and lives as our non-disabled counterparts. Disabled women (and men!)  have rights to be heard and taken seriously, to be included in feminism and human rights activism. We have the right to love freely and be loved. This message goes double for disabled people who are LGBT+! **

I made a film with Fixers, the charity which gives young people a voice, telling my story and explaining how neurodiversity and autism acceptance have helped me to move forward. You can watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myUM7YNEg-s 

Thank you for you time!

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 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.

#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.

#ITSNOTOK Call for Submissions

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

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week is fast approaching, and we want to hear from you!

From 6th – 12th of February we will be giving you the opportunity to have your voice heard.

We are looking for disabled people who have survived sexual abuse/violence to create blog posts for us. This will help people to understand how we experience this type of abuse and what needs to change.

There is no right or wrong way to share your story or feelings, but we thought we’d give you 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 disability and sexual abuse/violence
  • 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 submission by email: info@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

Or you can send written submissions anonymously using this form.

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.

We hope you will consider helping us in our campaign to have disabled survivors voices heard!