Why Autistic People May Be More Susceptible to Abusive Romantic Relationships
Are you an autistic person who has been in an abusive romantic relationship? I am, and I know of many other autistic people who have been through this, as well. While anyone of any race, gender, sexual identity, religion, or ability can find themselves in an abusive relationship, there are certain groups of people who are more susceptible to it than others.
Since the only experience I can speak on with any true authority is one I’ve faced myself, I’d like to focus on autistic people and why we might be more vulnerable to partner abuse.
Disclaimer – Abuse is Always the Fault of the Abuser, Never the Abused
Before I begin, however, I’d like to point out that I’m not victim-blaming in this piece (or in any of my pieces). I’m simply stating the reality of how the autistic brain works in a neurotypical world, and how that has a profound impact on every aspect of our lives, including dating and romantic relationships.
In fact, I can think of nothing more disgusting than a person who sees another human being who may be more trusting and innocent and then purposefully choosing that person to abuse.
So, what makes autistic people more likely to be targeted for abuse?
- We Take People at Their Word
Autistic people, by and large, say what we mean and mean what we say, and our default setting is to go out into the world, at first, believing everyone else is the same way. I know when I was younger that I truly had no idea how many people in the world misrepresented themselves on a daily basis; either for the purposes of cruelty, to further their own social agenda, or because they’d become so entrenched in their own false persona, they started to actually believe it. No matter the case, taking people at their word can make autistic people a target for abuse because we may not think to question words or behaviors that a non-autistic person might look at through a more suspicious, critical lens.
- We Can Miss the Subtle Red Flags
Autistic people are literal and rely heavily on words to receive information from other people. This can tie into taking people at face value in that we listen to the words, believe the words, and act according to the words. However, we may miss changes in vocal tone, facial expressions, or body language that could clue us into emotions that do not match the words being said.
Using myself as an example:
I can usually tell when something is “off” with another person because the words they are using don’t match the “vibe” they’re putting off, but I won’t always know what it is that seems off or why it’s off, which has gotten me into situations where I was in way over my head before I realized I was in danger.
Subtle red flags that a non-autistic person might pick up such as an abusive vocal tone, a disgusted facial expression, or a threatening body posture may be missed by the autistic person whose brain is primarily focused on words.
(Although those of us with complex post-traumatic stress disorder MAY pick up on all of these things and even question them, the abuser may explain our concerns away with words, so we remain a bit emotionally off-balance, questioning our perception of reality. This is what is known as “gaslighting”, and an abuser can and will do that to anyone they’ve chosen to target, regardless of neurotype.)
- We May Subconsciously Attract the “Misfits” of the World
As an autistic person who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s with no diagnosis and no support, I didn’t know how my brain worked or even that it worked in such a drastically different way from the non-autistic people around me. I just knew people didn’t like me, didn’t want me around, didn’t believe me, and thought of me as a strange, unknowable creature that was best avoided.
I didn’t understand why, but I did know that I never wanted anyone else to feel that way, so when I saw others in the “misfit” and “outcast” category, I tended to befriend them. I also tended to understand them and they me very quickly, and it almost felt like magic when it happened!
The problem was, in addition to attracting other kind-hearted neurodivergent people, I also attracted abusive people. They all seemed the same to me; people like me, people from the “same planet”, so to speak, just as misunderstood and abused as I was–or so I thought.
We’d skip the small talk altogether, and have deep, philosophical conversations and trade trauma stories like Pokémon cards. Friendships and romantic relationships formed fast, rode high, and dropped like a flaming meteor.
Authentic, stable relationships usually take time to build, small talk and boring stuff included, but my younger autistic self did not know or have a prayer of understanding that at the time, which left me vulnerable to people who would take advantage of me.
“Love Bombing” – An Abuse Tactic That Everyone Should Know About
I don’t think fast connections are always bad or potentially abusive. However, abusive people WILL do something called “love bombing” that can sweep you off your feet and have you met, “in love”, and living together in a very short period of time before you even know what happened.
This is an abusive tactic meant to create a drug-like “high” around that person to keep you addicted to them, so even when they drop the act and start mistreating you, you stay, hoping they will “change back” into the person they used to be, when what they really are is an abusive person who tricked you into getting into a relationship with them, and the side you see after the love-bombing phase is who they were all along.
- We Are Often Used to Being Uncomfortable
Autistic people, especially those who are undiagnosed and unsupported are more likely to be misunderstood and mistreated both at home and at school. Sometimes, this is the result of chronic misunderstandings related to the difference in the way autistic and neurotypical people communicate–not outright abuse. However, this type of childhood environment does lead to a chronic state of stress for the autistic person that our brains and bodies have to automatically adjust to if we are to survive our formative years.
This can make us wired for mistreatment later in life because we’ve been conditioned to live with physical, mental, and emotional discomfort to the point where we may not even recognize it for what it is until the abusive behavior escalates from subtle and occasional to an onslaught of verbal and physical violence.
- We May Not Know We’re Uncomfortable
The inability to recognize our own physical and emotional discomfort due to alexithymia (the struggle to identify and describe one’s emotions) and poor interoception (recognizing physical needs such as hunger, thirst, need for the bathroom, etc.) can also make autistic people more vulnerable to abuse.
When you’re not aware of how you feel in your own body and brain, you may not recognize someone’s covert abusive behavior until it escalates to the point where you are at risk for physical and emotional damage.
- We May Be Financially Dependent
Not to delve too deeply into politics, but I’m 100% for UBI (Universal Basic Income) for this exact reason. Autistic people are grossly unemployed and under-employed, and this can keep us financially dependent on toxic people just to survive. Whether it’s a hostile work environment, a bad roommate situation, a toxic family dynamic, or an abusive romantic relationship, many of us do not have the luxury of simply “walking away” from these situations and surviving without assistance. When financial dependence is involved in an abusive relationship, it complicates things that much further and makes it even more difficult to escape.
- We Don’t Cope Well With Change
Autistic people don’t cope well with change. Someone who didn’t fully understand how incapacitating change can be for some autistic people may not believe that it would be a factor in continuing to stay in an abusive relationship, but I can tell you, from experience, that it definitely is. Change, even positive change, can be paralyzing due to anxiety and executive dysfunction. It’s no small thing to end a relationship, even an abusive one, especially if there are assets, moving, police protection, and potential homelessness to consider.
- We May Not Have Anyone Else
This is a punch to the gut to even write, but the stark reality is, there are those of us who have ZERO emotional or financial support. We may not be able to secure stable employment, drive a car, or successfully navigate the complicated ins and outs of the neurotypical social arena, so the thought of leaving the one person who is essentially keeping us alive by sheltering us, driving us to work and doctor’s appointments, and easily making friends and connections can feel like pulling the plug on a hospital patient toward the end of their life. In cases like this, it can be just as terrifying to leave as it is dangerous to stay.
Autistic people are more susceptible to abusive romantic relationships and may be forced by their circumstances to remain in them. This problem will not be solved with hotlines and shelters alone. The fact is, autistic people need to be understood, supported, accommodated, and listened to; the sooner in life, the better.