01 October 2016

Autism, Toxic Friendships, and Passing Privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theory that Autistic women learn to pass as neurotypical more easily because as kids other girls sort of take us under their wings and nurture us.
And I’m not wholly opposed to the concept. I did have some very close friendships as a kid, often with girls a few years older than me, who told me they wanted to take care of me and teach me to fit in and teach me about dating and all that fun stuff. And in a sense, that’s what they did. But what that story leaves out is how manipulative and abusive some of those relationships were.
Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have positive femmy-friendships as a kid. I did. I had… well, I had one. One major one. Still my best friend to this day. But she was my best friend in large part because we were BOTH awkward and dorky and more or less adorable little weirdos. Her less so than me, but put it this way - the first time I met her (now)husband, he didn’t understand the first ten minutes or so of our conversation, because it was entirely composed of Buffy quotes and hand-clapping games. She’s taught me a hell of a lot in the 25 years we’ve been friends. But none of it had the slightest bit to do with passing for “normal”. Together, we scoff in the face of normal.
Those “guiding friendships”, though, that the scant literature on Autistic women talks about - oh boy, I sure had those. Some of them taught me to fit in by encouraging my eating disorder. Some of them taught me to fit in by pressuring me into sex with their male friends. Some of them just seemed to exist in order to remind me constantly that I wasn’t a “real girl” yet.
People talk about the risk of abusive relationships or abusive sexual encounters for Autistic folks. They don’t talk nearly enough about the risk of abusive friendships. All of these relationships fell apart once these girls realized that their little pet project wasn’t getting any better - essentially, that I was still frustratingly Autistic (although I didn’t have the word then) despite their best efforts.
I am a glorious, perfect target for abusers. Maybe a bit less so now than when I was a teenager, but still moreso than I’m comfortable with. I have zero ability to recognize malice and near-complete trust in humanity. I desperately need to be liked. When I am out in public I move awkwardly (hunched penguin shuffle) but I smile at every stranger - a Sunday School teacher once told me I should, and I’ve never been able to lose the habit (pardon the Catholic pun). I’ve often relied on partners or people I’m close with to help me judge new people in my life. The last two men I dated both promised they were incredibly good at this, and often told me who to trust or not to trust. They both raped me (oddly enough, both of them later claimed that because I froze instead of screaming or hitting them when they kept going after multiple “no”s, I must have changed my mind and consented - because nothing says “yes” like traumatic paralysis). In retrospect, some of the people they drove me away from were probably good people.
Like many Autistic women, I’ve experienced sexual assault an alarming number of times (I mean, once is alarming. But I’ve experienced it enough times that my stories start to lack credibility - how do I keep finding these men? The answer, of course, is that they find me.) But some of my biggest scars come from my failed friendships - these lovely, nurturing relationships with women who helped me pass as neurotypical by acting as daily reminders that I was weird and broken and that no one would ever love me the way I am.
The friendships I have now are few and far between, but they have one thing in common - they are all with people who celebrate me the way I am. People who encourage me to flap my hands and stim around them, people who think it’s cool (or they at least, you know, good-naturedly tolerate it) when I ramble on about special interests. People who know to ask before touching me and who aren’t offended when I say no or when I get overwhelmed. People who love me. 
Let’s stop pretending that passing is some wholly uncomplicated privilege. Yes, women may more easily pass as neurotypical, for a whole host of reasons. But we’re passing at a hell of a cost.


  1. this made me sit up and wonder -- so many times over my career I was delighted when a "normal" girl would take one of my special fairies under their wing.... I would watch from afar and smile..........thinking I had done something right.

    Now I wonder if I should have observed from a much closer distance.

    1. Honestly, I think they usually mean well? In the same way that people doing ABA therapy for Autistic kids (therapy aimed at getting them to behave more like "normal" kids) mean well. It's just that what would be better would be to let us be our weird, awkward, selves, and to protect us from people who don't like that :)

  2. Find-out what RCIA means and join:
    your indelible soul's on the line.


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