Abuse as it Affects People with Asperger's Syndrome and Autism

This is linked to pages on relationships and autistics, and relates to abuse in intimate relationships.

An ability to identify people on the Spectrum presents one potential hazard -- abusers who stalk people with disabilities. Fortunately such abusers are rare. It is possible (and very easy) to protect oneself from abusers who stalk by being alert for warning signs of these people.

("The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD and Kanner's autism. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".)

Just Another Internet Scare Story

Dating is not a dangerous activity. There is nothing in this article by which one should reasonably determine that dating is inherently dangerous. There are hazards in any enterprise and one which involves interactions with other people is no exception.

If you cross the street, there are lethal objects which by themselves have no regard as to whether they kill you. Someone warned you to look before crossing, and presumably you consider that sufficient. One wouldn't avoid leaving one's block because of those lethal objects cruising up and down the streets.

There is more risk involved in being alone than in establishing an intimate relationship. If you are concerned (or merely aware) about the risks of a relationship, that concern or awareness should in itself be sufficient to protect you.

The Motive

The motivation of the abuser can vary but mostly it is a degree of insecurity plus an interest in some skewed aspect of a relationship. In the case of autism abusers, the abuser may adhere to the myth that the autistic has no real human feelings, and so it is okay to abuse the autistic. Presumably not being able to read body language and some facial expressions is supposed to imply that the person has no feelings. (Does that mean that deaf people don't want to communicate?) The absurdity of this theory doesn't matter -- the issue is that seemingly good and gracious people will find justification for abuse.

The internal motive of abuse is not much different from ordinary interest in another person. The abuser wishes to interact with that person. The only difference is that normal interaction is skewed by a gratification from abuse. Instead of indulging in relationships, or in fantasy and fetish, the abuser needs to attain gratification at the expense of his/her victim.

I don't know what the ratios are, but this sort of abuse can and does come from both genders.

The efficiency of the internet for establishing relationships is also its Achilles' heel. On dating sites, a person can more easily "target" people with disabilities because of the expanded ability of scanning a large number of listings. This started to surface when it was found that men were searching on the net for bipolar women in their "mania" stage. That's quite different from autism, however, and there is a strong possibility that "targeting" autistics is engaged in mostly by women.

How it Affects Autistics

People on the Spectrum can be naïve when it comes to relationships and understanding people. That makes us vulnerable to abuse in some circumstances. If the onset of the abuse is gradual enough, it is possible to find oneself in an abuse situation without realizing it.

There's also the complicating factor that many autistics are less experienced in relationships, which tends to exaggerate the naïveté.

The ability to "target" people with disabilities and conditions is not necessarily a bad thing. It is possible for autistics to find other autistics on the web and elsewhere, and it is possible to focus a search in this direction. It is also entirely reasonable that some NTs enjoy the companionship of autistics. The only thing is to be aware of abusers.

There are NTs (neurologically typical people) who seek out and enjoy the company of people on the Spectrum who are not abusers. These can be very good people to meet. (One of several definitions of the term "AC" refers to NTs who identify with people on the Spectrum.)

Fortunately, in terms of autism, it is possible to use what NTs refer to as "codewords". Autistic characteristic or terms more familiar to autistics can be used to hint at Autism, examples being "direct communication" "___ more important than eye contact" "pretending to be normal together" "Anthropologist from Mars", etc. This sort of thing is less likely to attract random stalkers. (Next week's subject, "How to form a clique and talk about fashion." The following week, "Botox parties". (Just kidding here!))

Autistics as Targets

Major categories of abusers who target autistics include:
  1. Sexual Abusers (e.g. pedophiles)
  2. Psychotic Abusers, including stalkers and people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
  3. Criminal Sociopaths "not otherwise specified"
It is unlikely that any of these groups specifically target Autistics, but it is probable that they recognize weakness in defenses exhibited by Autistics.

One possibility is that social patterns of abuse are easily recognized by NTs. The abuser therefore becomes adept at spotting people who will not immediately retreat from the abuser. In the case of Autistics it is often the case that the Autistic will not immediately sense the abusive pattern, especially if nonverbal communication would disclose the abuser's motives.

It is likely that difficulty autistics have in recognizing social patterns is a significant factor in abuse of autistics by BPDs.

This is not necessarily an intellectual exercise; rather it is a conditioned social response, similar to the conditioned response one has to various people in society -- one doesn't see a panhandler and ask xem about the efficacy of aspirin or where to get good Chinese food. The abuser will quickly learn who to approach for a relationship.

Not a Gratuitous Attack on BPDs

This is not intended as a gratuitous attack on BPDs, but rather as a matter of caution. This is based on the propensity of BPDs to "latch onto" autistics or otherwise try to form a relationship with autistics.

If you are concerned about being in a relationship with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, learn the warning signs of abuse on this page. Learn the "red flags" (listed below).

Wikopedia entry for "bunny boiler"

Wikopedia entry for "Borderline Personality Disorder"
(referenced in the Wikopedia entry for "bunny boiler")

Recognizing Abusers

There are two fairly obvious questions about abuse that I'm sure would make people wonder. The first is how the victim could let it continue, and the second is how the victim could have missed the danger signs.

Fortunately, if you miss the first few "red flags" (warning signs), you will notice another one. It's only necessary to be aware of this sort of thing. If the underlying presumption is right or wrong, that should also become apparent, because you've recognized the problem and know what to look for. Once aware of a potential problem, it's much easier to avoid.

One way to avoid this sort of thing is to follow the cliché, "Trust, but verify." It's a lot easier to avoid a problem or to leave if one knows that there is a reason to leave. Do not try to balance the good things about a person with the bad, but simply look at the "bad". Determine if the "bad" makes it no longer worth saving the relationship.

Look out for classic abuse characteristics, such as isolation, oppressive behaviour in the name of love, excuses, etc. Most of these acts appear normal, because they usually are fairly normal. What you can see is the pattern, but only after you have alerted yourself by observing several "red flags" (warning signs). It's not the "red flag" that's of concern; it's the entire pattern of abuse.

In one sense, the danger signs are not that hard to identify. Before going into that, one must realize that if there is any behaviour which originates from human beings, that trait will appear in just about everyone. For example, if you look at extreme sociopaths who take pleasure at causing pain in others, you see the same trait in very kind people who may, in a friendly way, tease or joke with their friends. The differences are in the magnitude, which in some cases are simply subtleties.

This is important because realizing this allows one to recognize these types of people. It also allows one to recognize that most people are not in that category. As with may things, even though most people are not in that category, they will exhibit traces of the danger signs, so don't look at everyone as being dangerous.

One other way to see this happening is to watch the effects the person has on you. Is your reaction to other friends and relationships now different? There are some signs you can find in your own reaction to the person which suggest abuse. If the other person's greeting, whatever it may be, is a source of misapprehension, then something is wrong. Of course there are always moments of misapprehension, but the overall theme should be that you look forward from hearing from your partner unless you're the "stay out all night with your friends and don't go home" type.

Of course, remember that not everything physical or emotional is abuse.

You Don't Say

"You don't say" should be an expression of surprise, but in the case of abuse, look for things you are ashamed to talk about which are abusive. In particular, be aware of things you are reluctant to tell others concerning what your partner does to you when angry. Are you reluctant because of privacy or are you truly embarrassed to admit you are in an abusive situation?

"Red Flags"

Excuse the details, but responding to "red flags" is something that many people on the Spectrum don't do well. Many NTs don't do well with this on either, at least when it comes to relationships.

(a "red flag" is US parlance for a warning sign.)

In an abuse situation, there will be what some people call "red flags". These "red flags" are signs of abuse, but are not necessarily by themselves abuse. Once you see "red flag" issues, it is easy enough to use your autistic abilities of observation to thoroughly investigate them and act on them.

"Red flags" are indications that something is wrong. Sometimes it's something as simple as a previous criminal conviction, and other times it's something subtle that suggests something to be wary of. Often it's specific behaviour that fits a pattern of danger. A very obvious "red flag" would be abuse of animals which suggests sociopathic tendencies, but you won't always see that and of course it is possible for an abuser to be kind to animals.

"Red flag" gets its name from car racing. Unlike in a car race, "red flags" do not mean to immediately stop. They are really signs of where to look. In the case of a new relationship, one would be looking for "red flags", such as undue criticism about social interactions. Once alerted to that possibility, it should be easy enough to tell if it is part of a pattern or an isolated event.

This is convenient because running away from every suspicion results in isolation. Ignoring behaviour signs is also dangerous, as I have found out. By paying attention to "red flags", it is possible to judge the person's behaviour and make rational decisions. For Aspies, this is important because it allows us to use our strengths of rational judgement in relationships.

Most "red flags" are too generic to be litmus tests, but they do make good early warning signs. The "red flag" makes an excellent pointer of what to look for. Fortunately, if you miss the first few "red flags", you will notice another one. It's only necessary to be aware of this sort of thing.

So "red flags" are convenient because they draw on past experiences of the person or of others. If the underlying presumption is right or wrong, that should also become apparent, because you've recognized the problem and know what to look for. Once aware of a potential problem, it's much easier to avoid.

List of "Red Flags"

... from an article in Psychology Today describing gaslighting:

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
  2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
  3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend,, boss.
  5. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.
  7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
  8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
  13. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
  14. You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
  15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.

Additional "Red Flags" for Autistics

There is a plethora of information on the web about recognizing the signs of abuse. Other sources are women's groups and battered women's shelters. Almost every one will send free information on the subject. If you are a woman, be careful to tell them that you are looking in response to this article or for general knowledge on the subject, and that you are not asking because you think you are in an abuse situation (unless that is the case). Do not talk about personal experiences unless there is a reason to do so!

In addition to the "red flags" that affect NTs, be aware of the following:

This sort of behaviour described is fortunately rare. By being aware of the possibility, the danger of such abuse is pretty much avoided.

As I mentioned, these are rather minor compared to the "red flags" or warning signs you will find from anti- abuse groups. I only mention them because they are outside the mainstream of NT anti-abuse information.

These are only things to be aware of. It is possible for someone to comment about social customs or characteristics of autism without being abusive. Often the person is being helpful, sensitive and caring; not abusive. Also don't confuse joking with abuse.

How Abuse Affects the Relationship

Don't be taken in by the other person talking about abuse, or their making accusations. It is common for abusers to claim the victim is an abuser. If they have a history of abuse, they know how to disguise it and deflect attention. An abuser can make individual acts appear nearly normal, but once the victim recognizes a sign of abuse, the pattern will be there to observe. Use your autistic sense of observation!

A verbal expression of love or a physical expression of passion is not inconsistent with that person being an abuser. The abuser will always abuse the object of his/her affection.

In a good relationship, the "bad" things should be little nitpicky things that bother you; not harmful things.

Abuse in the Relationship Itself

This gets away from classic abuse because it concerns the relationship itself. There is a tendency to attempt to pressure people in a relationship. This is something that is easy to note and easy to watch for. Naturally one can expect a question requiring a decision to "lead" to the "right" answer. If someone is asking such leading questions, do ask the reason why the question is asked at a particular time. Sometimes that's easy -- "Why are you asking me this kind of question while I'm at work?" Sometimes it's asked at a time where discussion is entirely inappropriate.

How to look at the Relationship as a Whole

It is important to look at the bad aspects of a relationship separately from the relationship itself. The tendency to balance the "good" with the "bad" is dangerous.

As with any relationship, an abusive relationship has very good things. I'm not a "think of everything as bliss" type of person. I don't even use "positive" and "negative" to describe people. I believe in the power of negative thinking because good things can come out of it.

It's a mistake, however, to look at the good in everyone while neglecting the bad. In a relationship, it really helps to look at the bad, and only after looking at the bad, see if the good makes it worthwhile. Usually it isn't a balancing test if the bad is more than the common pet peeves.

Nevertheless, it's important to look at individual events in the best light; otherwise life becomes a complaining match.

Talk, Talk

One of the insidious things about abuse is the tendency to think that there is nothing that can be done about your own situation, or that the consequences of leaving are unacceptable. So the way out of an abuse situation is two-fold:
  1. Recognize the abuse as such.
  2. Get out.

The gettin' out is the hard part. That's why it helps to talk to people. If you're a woman, find an abuse assistance group. Just look up "battered" in a phone book or wherever. These people are there to provide advice and help. They know not to call and talk about the call to anyone other than the person who made the call, and basically how to be as discrete as required by the caller.

Realistically, no one (or almost no one) will leave the relationship immediately unless they've been in a similar situation before. There are other things to do, most importantly communicate -- right away if possible but, "It's never too late to tell." Tell someone about the abuse, write about it to someone, or whatever. Just communicate it.

Look for a list of early warning signs of an abusive relationship. Too many people keep telling themselves, "Well I don't like this but is it really abusive?" (If you have to ask...) If you see it in a list of possible abuse characteristics, it may be enough for you to trust your senses.

Landing a Plane

It's not important to spot abuse immediately. Spotting abuse is like landing a plane -- any landing 'you can walk away from' is a good landing. So any abuse situation 'you can walk away from' was identified in time! A 'great' landing is where most of the major parts remain on the plane and it can be flown again. So if you get out of an abuse situation before any major harm (emotional or physical), that's 'great'!

If you don't fly, you won't have to land, but to a pilot that's not an option! Same thing with relationships!

And if you're more interested in landing an airplane, go to my page on landing an airplane.


One obvious place to talk is one of the many abuse service organisations. Just look for "battered" in the business white pages of a phone directory.

If you are being abused in part because of your disability, let the people know. They will not be able to guess the disability. If you are on the Spectrum, they may think the call is contrived as a result of voice inflection (or body language if you show up in person). Telling the shelter people about your disability allows them to take this into account!

For male callers, there is a bias against vague sounding complaints, but only if there are not also specific examples. It therefore helps to be able to state specific instances and describe specific events. Remember these people had seen or heard about abuse but were not there with you. The examples lets them fit the pieces together. While these organisations are structured to help women, there is nothing to prevent a man from calling and asking questions or getting help. Most of these groups are aware that psychological abuse can be as devastating as physical abuse.

The Victim (and Choices)

Battered women's advocacy groups talk about people having choices; however some choices are made for us.

A choice is not "a decision made based on one's free will"; it's "a decision, based on informed consent, made on one's free will".

A free choice implies that the person making the choice has the knowledge of what they are choosing. You choose to date someone, and perhaps bring that person into your life. That does not mean that you choose abuse or even know how to recognize it. Being an abuse victim is neither a choice nor something one will automatically see happening. One does not have a choice in this sort of thing. To have a choice one must see what is happening, recognize it and realize what is going on.

If you are in a relationship which turns out to be abusive, you may never really understand the reasons behind it. Once you realize what is happening to you, it becomes obvious that you were systematically being abused. This is hindsight reasoning, which is always clearer in situations like that. It is unlikely that you will understand what the abuser had to gain, financially, politically or emotionally.

If abuse does affect your life, you will wonder what your life would be like without having gone through the experience, but you will never really know. You can never know.

Recognizing What's Not an Abuse Situation

There are three major circumstances which do not indicate a pattern of abuse:
Feedback from friends (either on-line on the Internet or in real life)
If you mention just about anything adverse to a group, it's likely you'll get responsive "leave the situation." That's a reflective opinion, meaning that you state a situation in a manner which is highly sympathetic to your own position, and get what should be the expected response. The response indicates that you are good at stating your cause.

On the other hand, if you've made up your mind and need reassurance from others, you can find support by going to groups, either on the Internet or IRL.

"It won't happen again."
If an abusive event (reaching the level of something unacceptable in a relationship) is truly a one-time event, then the person will react accordingly at the time. I hadn't seen this discussed elsewhere, but it seems that if a person commits an offence and immediately realises it's wrong, this isn't a case of, "It's only a matter of time before it happens again.".

This relates to immediate reaction, and not later remorse. It is fairly common for physical abusers to state that they are sorry after each incident. In that case, they may be sorry, but there is no indication it won't happen again. (The later remorse part is commonly described by anti-abuse groups.)

Tolerable behaviour
e.g., saying unpleasant things during an arguement. Of course saying unpleasant things and for that matter arguements are not desirable, but one should determine a degree of what is acceptable here.

One way to approach this is to ask whether you want the person out of your life right this moment or if you want this person not to be a part of your life period, full stop. Most people can make that determination even during an arguement.

There are other things which perhaps need to be addressed but which are not necessarily abuse:
Overassertive behaviour
It's difficult to distinguish between bullying behaviour and overassertiveness. Overassertiveness would be characterized by a strongly held philosophical belief. Bullying behaviour is achieved by the person using the philosophical beliefs as a tool to control or intimidate.

Bullying tactics
Bullying can certainly be a form of abuse, but it is possible that the person may be willing to terminate the bullying behaviour. An example would be demands which the other person know cannot be met, or conflicting demands (provided of course, the other person knows they are demanding something which is not possible).

In these situations, one should state the case as an objection to the particular behaviour.

Getting Out

After recognizing an abuse situation (e.g., recognizing a "red flag" and determining that there really is a problem), you can:
  1. Do nothing; or
  2. Get out (leave the relationship).
Dan Savage, who writes the "Savage Love" advice column, states it this way:
If he comes across as nice at first but it turns out he's an as*hole or a creep, and if he begins to treat you like you're stuck with him because no one else will ever want you ... dump the motherf*cker. It's better to be alone than to be with an as*hole who preys on your insecurities to keep you coming back for more abuse.   8-Apr-2011   (fillers to avoid being designated as an "unsuitable" website for search purposes)
Note that Dan Savage's comment does not suggest that the person should have recognised the abuse; only that, once the abuse is recognised, the person should quickly "dump" the potential abuser.



Relationships should be overwhelmingly pleasant experiences, and of course usually are. Once across the threshold, we thrive in good relationships. Despite the lack of empathetically picking up on social cues, Aspies fill in the gaps in conversation based on their mutual understanding of AS characteristics. I have been fortunate -- very fortunate -- to have met women with whom I got past the lack of familiar communication techniques and into the kind of communications all couples have.

Related Links

- article about con artists on internet dating sites

- links from BPDWORLD, including links relating to abuse. Most of these are discussion lists but there may be a few articles in there, including a link leading to a "mental health" page (part of "domestic violence against men")

BPD people occasionally present a serious risk to autistics for reasons I can only speculate on. Nevertheless, the links may have useful information in the links.

back to Relationships index

written in San José, California. Bunny boiler nowhere in sight!
First written 25 Jun 02; first posted 9-Aug-02. Last revised 11-Jun-14.

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