Seventy-two percent of people with autism also meet the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (Reuben, K.E., Stanzione, C.M, and Singleton, J. L., 2021) There are a number of reasons for this. In general, neurotypicals tend to find autistic people aversive. This can lead to social trauma from bullying and abuse. Autistic people also have difficulty reading social cues that neurotypicals take for granted. This social impairment is one of the defining features of autism and leads to autistic people being easy targets for abusers. Autistic people can struggle with loneliness and isolation so when someone is willing to let them into their lives, they often jump in with joy and are unable to see the red flags that surround people who are abusive and/or toxic.
Autistic often people long for relationships and romantic love. According to Grace et al. (2023), autistic people need relationships and struggle with loneliness more than the neurotypical population. This loneliness is critical to the high rates of abuse that autistic people experience. Autistic people are often desperate for acceptance. According to Douglas and Sedgewick (2023) autistic people experience “intimate partner violence and sexual assault” significantly more than other populations and experience less support. Autism creates specific vulnerabilities in intimate relationships.
What does this look like in real life? One client I worked with, Sally Q, married a man who was overtly emotionally abusive and frequently sexually abusive. He love-bombed her at the beginning of the relationship and made her feel like she was exceptional and beloved and after he had married her, he verbally abused and humiliated her. The problem was that she was unable to recognize verbal abuse as abuse. Sally had been bullied her entire life and her parents had also spent a considerable amount of time listing her autistic traits as the primary reasons their life was a constant struggle. To her, her husband’s behavior was normal. She didn’t understand the intricacies of normal sexual intimacy enough to fully comprehend how degrading and abusive the sexual acts he cohered her into engaging in were.
Sally was a successful engineer and a mother. She was loving and nurturing to her children, but she was blind to the abuse that was eroding her will to live. Through therapy and over time, Sally was able to see what was happening and leave her husband. She is still in trauma therapy with a therapist who specializes in EMDR.
Another case was with a man who married a woman who love-bombed him but then began to humiliate him verbally and emotionally after marriage. They had two children together and she had numerous affairs, but he kept believing if he stayed, she would return to her old, loving self. She particularly focused on his autistic traits as a source of humiliation and degradation and when he finally left, she called the police and told them he tried to kill her. She had him arrested and all accusations were proven to be false, but she used this to attempt to destroy his career. Even after he was able to stop this, she continued to use the children to manipulate, humiliate, and degrade him and stretched the divorce out over five years, finding every chance she could to prolong events. She still harasses him and falsely accuses him and those he loves of horrible acts on a regular basis. Despite this, he didn’t fully comprehend how abusive this relationship was or how abusive other relationships he had been in were. He couldn’t recognize red flags and his lack of social filter often led to him being ostracized or accidentally saying things that got him hurt.
According to Douglas and Sedgewick’s research, their “autistic participants were isolated even before their abusers began to cut them off and isolate them. They were more reliant on their abusive partner as their main relationship than many non-autistic people would be, again making it harder to leave or challenge the behaviors.”
This research is critical because early intervention should include education on intimate violence and emotional abuse. Working on support programs for autistic adults and adolescents that decrease loneliness and increase community are also critical. Currently, most funding for autism goes to early intervention programs for children that focus on integration into neurotypical communities. Very little funding goes into programs that aim at reducing loneliness, building community, increasing resources, and decreasing victimization. All these things are profoundly important. Every autistic child goes on to become an autistic adult; if we don’t treat and help autistic adults, we are failing our children in other ways.
As an autistic adult, the support group I am part of has been critical in abating the loneliness and isolation that we all struggle with, and it has also given us a place where we can talk about relationships and work towards building healthier relations. We work as a group to help each other identify red flags in relationships. This is the way that we change these numbers.
According to Douglas and Sedgewick (2023), “It is important to understand how autistic people may experience abuse differently to non-autistic people, so that better systems can be created to catch these instances earlier and put a stop to them, and to help autistic survivors recover from their experiences as positively as possible.”
When you are autistic life can be a struggle, but with the proper resources, things can be made better. Intimate relationships can also be profoundly healing for autistic adults if they are healthy relationships.
Haruvi-Lamdan, Nirit, Horesh, Shani Zohar, Kraus, Meital, & Golan, Ofer (2020). Autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: An unexplored co-occurence of conditions. Autism 24 (4). 884-898
Douglas, S. & Sedgewick, F (2023). Experiences of interpersonal victimization and abuse among autistic people. Sage Journals. Autism. 1-14
Leedham, Alexandra, Thompson, Andrew, R. Smith, Richard, & Freeth, Megan. (2019). 'I was exhausted trying to figure it out': The experiences of females receiving an autism diagnosis in middle to late adulthood. Autism.
Reuben, Katherine E., Stanzione, Christopher M, & Singleton, Jennifer L (2021). Interpersonal trauma and posttraumatic stress in autistic adults. Autism in Adulthood 3 (3), 247-256.