Self-Protection by Yenn Purkis

I was in a documentary alongside three other autistic people which aired in 2010. In one scene, the four of us are having a conversation. One person, Akasha, said ‘The amount of money I have been ripped off is getting close to $500,000’. The other three of us all nodded in a very knowing way. I’m not sure about $500K but I have definitely been ripped off a lot of money over the years. I have been victim of scams and cons, plus toxic and dangerous people have manipulated me and taken advantage of me in many different areas of life. In the worst of these incidences I ended up committing crimes and going to prison to please my ‘boyfriend’ because it took me so long realise he was a dangerous criminal. Sadly, none of these things are confined to my own experience. Many autistic people are on the receiving end of scams, confidence tricks, get taken advantage of and used and abused. This is the bane of existence for so many of us. I spent my teen years and early twenties feeling like I had a sign on my head that said ‘victim’.

So why is this such a common experience for autistic people? A lot of the issue seems to be related to the different way autistic people communicate. If you imagine autistic communication and neurotypical communication are two valid but very different languages then this might help to conceptualise the issue. In the autistic ‘language’, most of the communication comes from the words. We tend to operate on one level so what we say is what we mean. Neurotypical communication can be very different to that. With neurotypical people, the words spoken may mask a range of subtext and hidden meanings. As neurotypical people speak this ‘language’ they tend to be much better at seeing hidden meanings and may — but not always — be more able to avoid being taken advantage of.

Another issue is that some autistic people are very ‘nice’ and trusting. If we can’t imagine ourselves doing something dubious then we can find it hard to spot when others are doing something untrustworthy. Most people view others through the lens of their own experience, autistic and allistic alike. For us it can be hard to imagine that anyone could be toxic or manipulative because these may not be options that we have in our own interactions.

We may feel very socially isolated and lonely and, even if we know that our ‘friends’ are taking advantage of us, we let it slide thinking it is better to have a friend than not. This was a major factor in me getting involved with a criminal — he provided company and approval and I was desperately lonely and wanted to belong. This made me squash down my concerns to the point that I did dreadful things which were destructive to several people’s lives and were not things I would ever conceive of doing if I didn’t have the approving ‘friend’ that I wanted to please.

Another issue relates to assertiveness and boundaries. Autistic people can struggle with these but they are a key part of staying safe and avoiding being taken advantage of. If you can’t set boundaries or disagree with a ‘friend’ it is very hard to protect yourself from a range of poor behaviour from others.

Thankfully there are a few things we can do to help address this problem.

It is important to note that while building autistic people’s skills and strategies around self-protection is important, the problem is caused by the perpetrator rather than the victim. This is not autistic people needing to ‘fix’ some failing of theirs but a means to stay safe when faced with the problem behaviour of others.

Some strategies can include:

  • Building your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It is harder to take advantage of someone who likes and values themselves. This is not an easy thing to build but it starts for many of us with recognising our value as autistic people rather than blaming and disliking ourselves.
  • On a similar note, building assertiveness can really help. I can tell you that as someone who always thought assertiveness training didn’t work, I managed to get to a point where I can be assertive even with strangers now. It’s really hard but it is also really effective. It basically comes down to setting boundaries and maintaining them and it comes straight out of the capacity to like and value yourself and believe you deserve better.
  • If you have a neurotypical friend — or an autistic friend who is good at this stuff — use them as a sounding board. If a situation seems a bit iffy, then talk with them about it and see what they think. They may be able to pick up on predatory behaviour before you do.
  • Refer to past experience. Predatory behaviour often looks similar so if you are getting flashbacks to, for example, when your ‘friend’ borrowed money and then disappeared without paying you back then listen to your concern and don’t lend another ‘friend’ money!
  • Understand that just because a person says something does not make it true.
  • Try to get in contact with — and listen to — your ‘gut’ instinct. Often when someone is about to take advantage of us we get an uncomfortable feeling or thought. Generally this feeling is a warning sign from our subconscious that something is wrong. The more you do this, the more adept at noticing your ‘gut’ you will become.
  • Don’t feel that you need to do something that someone asks you to. Often we will avoid confrontation and conflict by just agreeing to something, even if that something will cause us disadvantage. Saying no is a very valuable skill. And if your ‘friend’ becomes angry or hostile or blaming when you say ‘no’ then that is a good thing in a sense because it demonstrates that they are probably not a friend at all.

Issues around being taken advantage of can happen to anyone but autistic people experience it a lot. We have the right not to be ripped off and manipulated just like anyone else does. And if it happens, don’t blame yourself. Blame to perpetrator because they are responsible for their poor behaviour, but do use the experience and the tips in this article to hopefully avoid it happening again. We deserve so much better than being victimised. Everyone does.

About Yenn Purkis

Yenn Purkis (formally Jeanette) is an author, presenter, autism advocate and community leader. Yenn is the author of six published books on elements of autism and has contributed to a large number of journals, books and websites. Yenn is a presenter and facilitator and regularly gives keynote presentations including at the 2013 TEDx Canberra conference. Yenn is a member of a number of committees and reference groups and is has a number of awards for leadership in the community, including the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year.