When I was nineteen I worked at a fast food restaurant as a casual employee. This was my only income. My employer would roster me on for one or two shifts a fortnight and then, knowing how horrified I would be and stressed that I was about to lose my job, they would call me in every single day to do a shift. I remember my anxiety every time the phone rang at three pm as it was always my boss, but it never occurred to me to decline the shift or even to just let the phone ring out. This was 1993 – long before ordinary people would have mobile phones! I genuinely couldn’t work out that I was being played so would be delighted to get all these shifts, even being happy to do two all night shifts on the weekends. Looking back I imagine my managers thought I was some kind of fool for not realising that I was being played. In fact I wasn’t a fool but I was a person who used different ways of communicating and interpreting communication than my employer did.
I am writing this post because someone asked me to. I don’t generally do that. This is not so much because I am some arrogant princess thinking only I can come up with good blog post ideas but simply because a lot of the topics people want me to write on are largely beyond my knowledge so I would not write a very ‘real’ post and it might be more like a literature review or case study! However, the topic of autistic people being taken advantage of, manipulated and duped is sadly something all too common in my experience.
I think every autistic person has probably experienced this or still experiences it. There is an actual concrete reason that we tend to be taken advantage of and it starts with the difference in communication between autistic people and neurotypical people. Autistic communication is generally on one level. We are honest, up front and do not often do things like manipulation and deceit. We generally do not lie although many autistic people are capable of lying if they feel the need but usually it doesn’t come naturally.
Neurotypical people (or ‘allistics’ if you prefer) operate differently in how they communicate. Their communication tends to happen on more than one level. Mostly this doesn’t result in them being predatory or unethical and just results in some confusion when they meet an autistic person who operates differently. However there are some people who prey on others and when they come across an autistic person who sees things on one level and doesn’t realise others don’t and they become aware of the difference then predation can occur. It can be seen as the difference between visible light and infrared light. If you can only see visible light then it is hard to imagine what infrared looks like, even if you are aware it exists. I am forty-three and have been taken advantage of so many times I have lost count. I am better at working out that people are capable of doing this but I still struggle to see it happening until after it occurs. One thing which can happen – and which is certainly true for me – is that I have become hyper-vigilant about these things and often refuse to trust anyone I don’t know well, even people who are not trying to take advantage of me.
Some circumstances this kind of exploitation commonly occurs in include:
- People cold calling or approaching you about products for sale or in some cases charities seeking donations. Autistic people not only tend to struggle with realising they are being taken advantage of financially, they may also not feel able to practice assertiveness. I know one older autistic woman who would talk to scammers who called her on the phone thinking they were genuine software company staff. While she probably did an unintentional good service by taking up their time and meaning they weren’t calling others, it does seem a little like making a cup of tea for a burglar you surprise going through your jewellery box!
- Many autistic people are thoughtful and respectful and polite and don’t want to be disrespectful which can exacerbate this issue. Others find practicing assertiveness almost impossible.
- In some intimate relationships, autistic people can be manipulated and taken advantage of by their partner. This often takes the form of emotional exploitation and being controlled but can also involve abuse and violence.
- People involved in criminal behaviour can convince autistic people to carry out criminal activities in return for approval and ‘friendship’. If they are caught, an honest autistic person can take all the responsibility not realising they have been set up.
- Schoolyard and other bullies often use this promise of approval and friendship to convince autistic people to humiliate themselves publicly or online.
The more I know about all of this the more I find myself viewing everyone through a lens of cynicism. This is not a good place to be in either. We need to be aware of the potential threats and ways to avoid being victimised but also to remember that it is a fraction of neurotypical people who behave this way.
Some strategies which can help include:
- Compare notes with autistic friends and peers. We can learn from each other about situations which exploitation can occur and support each other to stand up to them and avoid getting involved
- Remind yourself that you do not HAVE to do things because others tell you to. If something feels wrong it probably is.
- Do some training or practice around assertiveness. I used to think it was impossible to learn assertiveness but I have learned to do it a lot better now. It can take a while but it is a great skill in this – and other – areas.
- Everything you do to support your autistic identity, build your self-worth and self-esteem is going to go towards equipping you with the skills and confidence to avoid being taken advantage of
- Reflect on where exploitation has happened to you or people you know. Think about what would have helped in the past situation. Keep a record of this and if a similar situation rises use the strategies you have identified
- And if it does happen, work through the issues and feelings but don’t ‘beat yourself up.’ You were not the person in he wrong and it was not your fault. As with all setbacks, try to learn what you can from it, get what support you need and move forward,
My final point is to remember that this behaviour is in no way the fault of the autistic victim. These issues arise as the result of a person or group of people intentionally taking advantage of a communication difference for their own gain.