Sexual Assault, Autism, and the case for Comprehensive Sex Education for Autistics and the Disabled

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault discussion

I am lucky as a disabled woman in our society. I’ve never been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, unlike so many of my peers. When I say ‘seriously’, I mean that no one’s ever held me down, no one’s gone under my clothes without permission, no one’s not accepted ‘no’ for an answer. Not that other forms of sexual assault aren’t serious, but I don’t quite know what other word to use to differentiate between what I’ve experienced, which has been relatively minor, and the deeply traumatic pain that’s been inflicted on others to an extent I can’t comprehend. With that disclaimer for the limitations of the English language, let’s discuss what I have experienced and how it applies to the topics of sex education and autism.

I have had a few brushes with inappropriate men in my life. Two in particular stand out to me, since I’m going to ignore common things like catcalls for now (they’re their own nightmare for another time). The first happened in seventh grade, at twelve or thirteen years old. I was in the school musical, and we girls were backstage in our dressing room getting on costumes and make-up. Without any warning, announcement, or request for permission, the videographer the school had hired to film the production decided to barge in and record us. Most of us were at least half naked, or in only underwear. He was a grey-haired, older man. I still remember the creepy, wide, toothed smile he had on his face as he ogled us. He seemed entertained by the panicked reaction he’d gotten. I was infuriated instantly at the sight of him, at the gall he had to do such a thing, and put myself between his camera and some of the practically naked teens and pre-teens who were trying to hide their bodies from him to try and ruin his shot. I screamed at him to leave. I believe some others shouted at him too, but the details of that are fuzzy because I was hyper focused at the time. He was practically giggling with how giddy he was, but we did get him to leave.

Later, he was instructed by one of the adults to come up to me privately and apologize, as if I were the only one offended because I’d been the loudest. It was explained to me that he was simply trying to get filler backstage content, and that it wasn’t that big of a deal, that lots of films about stage shows and musicals had that sort of footage of actors getting ready, but that he was sorry he’d offended me. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember questioning myself as to whether it was a big deal or not, since none of the adults seemed to think it was to my knowledge. I never mentioned this incident to anyone until recently when talk of the appropriateness of authoritative older male figures barging into pre-teen dressing rooms came into question during an uncomfortable conversation. I realized it had happened to me, and how deeply wrong that is.

The second incident happened in tenth grade, when I was a little older. My school had a fencing team, and the coach had always been just on the edge of being possibly uncomfortable to me, but never crossing any lines – or at least not being reported for it. I do recall him grabbing one of the moms he knew was married and kissing her on the lips against her will, without being reported for it. I said nothing because I was a child and she was an adult, so I figured if she didn’t say anything then it wasn’t my place to. Other than that, he always gave me the vibe of someone I shouldn’t let myself be alone in a room with for long. He would sometimes get a little too close for comfort with me. When I asked about buying my own gear, he said I could buy the standard ‘male’ outfit, but I’d look a lot better with the female tailored outfit to show off my curves (I was fifteen). When giving awards to those participating in a competition he would shake the hands of all the male students and kiss the cheeks of and hug all the female students. Those who know me well enough know that I absolutely loath hugging people I’m not comfortable with, and kisses from people I don’t want kisses from make me want to scream for multiple reasons. But I grit my teeth and dealt with it because I didn’t know how to tell him not to without coming across as reading too much into it, or as ‘weird’ for not being okay with something everyone else felt was normal (back when I refused all hugs from non-family I’d been accused of having ‘something’ wrong with me, and for a long time I lived in fear of coming across that way). The action that went over the line was when he decided it was appropriate to lay his hand on my behind. I had a fencing sabre in hand and instinctively spun around and struck him with it, causing him to berate me for attacking a teacher while I screamed in tears that he wasn’t allowed to touch me like that. It was an embarrassing, confusing spectacle in front of the whole fencing team. I stormed out when he wouldn’t apologize and walked home early from school.

I remember thinking to myself… maybe he didn’t mean it the way I thought he did. Maybe it was appropriate in some ‘sporty’ way. Maybe my pants were too tight – he’d commented on my tight clothes before. Maybe somehow it was my fault, or I’d read the situation wrong. These thoughts shocked me because I knew they were wrong, but they wormed their way into my mind anyway. What kept me secure in the knowledge that he had done wrong and I had done nothing wrong was the education I’d received about my rights to my body, and also my right to defend myself. The confident message I’d always received from my parents that no one had the right to touch me if I didn’t want them to. I mustered my courage and went to the principle first thing the next school day. The coach was fired – which I’m grateful for considering how many schools don’t handle sexual assault well – and I never saw him again.

These are ‘minor’ things in the grand scheme of sexual assault, but I want to talk about them for a very specific reason: how I conducted myself. I didn’t put up with it. I knew consent was something I needed, and that it wasn’t okay for men I didn’t want to film me nearly naked or touch my privates. I’d been taught about consent, and had classes on comprehensive sex education. No means no, and nothing else.

Not all autistics or disabled people get that education. In fact, when it comes to mental disability, it’s sometimes not just neglected completely, but messages opposite to ‘no means no’ are taught.

Five-year-old Johnny doesn’t want to hug his parents. His therapist tells him he has to. He shakes his head, he avoids eye contact, he tries to wiggle away, he has a meltdown, he gives every signal he can to show how deeply uncomfortable and physically painful this is for him. His parents think it means he doesn’t love him because they can’t understand that physical contact and love aren’t necessarily connected. His therapist spends hours, weeks, years training him to hug on command regardless. His no does not mean no. He is not allowed to say no, because his therapists and his parents don’t believe he has a right to his own body.

When Johnny is in middle school, his parents don’t let him take sex ed because they feel it’s not something someone with his neurology needs. Then his PE coach makes inappropriate comments that go unchallenged. The coach makes him give hugs that last too long after class. The coach slides his hand between Johnny’s legs. The coach says they should shower together, that it’s okay and it’s what adults do. The coach wants to show Johnny other things adults do. Johnny obeys because he’s been taught and trained and forced to submit by his parents, his therapist, and his teachers. He’s been taught that his body isn’t his, and that he has to do what others tell him to do, even if it makes him uncomfortable, if he doesn’t want to, if it doesn’t feel right, or even if it hurts. He doesn’t know it’s wrong. He learns what sex is from his coach. Sex is a painful act forced on him for the purpose of someone else’s pleasure. He has never learned anything to tell him that’s wrong, that sex is supposed to be something else, something good. That a relationship isn’t supposed to hurt.

There are a lot of horror stories around compliance training – most I hear about come from traditional ABA therapy. Therapists forcing their young clients to hug on command, and those clients growing up not to have a concept of bodily autonomy, making them perfect victims for sexual predators. I’ve read the stories of victims and survivors, and it makes me sick to my stomach. I think of all the people out there not taught about sexuality or healthy relationships because it’s deemed inappropriate for their autistic brains, despite them potentially being sexual beings like all other teens and adults.

I think how easily that could have been me if I’d gotten an early diagnosis and my parents had sent me to a bad therapist simply because they wouldn’t have known any better.

Maybe instead of trying to keep that videographer from filming us, thirteen-year-old me would have just stood there and allowed myself to be filmed in my underwear by a man old enough to be my grandpa. Maybe he shows me that inappropriate footage and tells me that if I don’t take off the underwear in private, he’ll send the film to my classmates and parents. Maybe instead of getting my fencing coach fired, fifteen-year-old me would have remained quiet, giving him the ‘signal’ that I wouldn’t report him if he progressed to more horrific actions.

Not being labeled as autistic or disabled may have saved me from a terrible fate, but I shouldn’t need to suffer through nearly two decades without a term for my own brain to have access to the education to learn to stand up to assault, to learn about healthy sexuality. Autistic and disabled people deserve appropriate, comprehensive education. We often have mature sexual bodies. We need to learn about what that means. We need to have full knowledge of the concept of consent, and about what healthy relationships are like, what they look like with us in them. Healthy relationships are about mutual respect, friendship, love, and potentially also include pleasurable sex (including lgbt+ sex – not all autistics are straight). While this is desperately needed for everyone, I feel there’s a heightened need for those of us with social disability to have education on this because social norms are something we need to learn across the board. A relationship is a social construct, and if we aren’t taught about them in a good way, there’s the potential for someone to teach it to us in a bad way.

If you are the parent of an autistic, don’t assume that because of their difficulties (non-verbal, no eye contact, intense stimming, severe sensory disorders, or any other issues) they don’t need to learn about adult matters. Consent is not a luxury for the able-minded or able-bodied. Autistic children become autistic adults. We have adult bodies and we need to know about them, about our rights to them. I am what happens when you do things right – a strong individual capable of standing up for her right to say no and eventually finding fulfilling, happy, healthy relationships in the dating world. Your child, who will become an adult, should be too. Please, don’t neglect us.

Thank you.

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