This article discusses various forms of abuse, which may be upsetting or disturbing to some audiences.
While every Autistic person is unique, there are many shared experiences within our community: experiences that are innately part of being Autistic, but also our experiences in a world that fails to accommodate our differences. Unfortunately, one very commonly reported experience is abuse.
Trauma is almost universally present in Autistic people in varying degrees, and the root cause of this stems largely from being abused in various ways – often from a young age. Some of us had abusive homes growing up – but almost all of us were brutally abused at some point in school, whether by other students, or even staff.
It really does not help that when you are Autistic, abuse is often seen as “love”, or “tough love” (which is, in my view, an oxymoron). After all, this is what has kept Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)as a “gold standard” “therapy” for Autistic children.
Abuse, as most of us know, takes many forms. It can be physical – this is likely the most common form of abuse discussed. Then, there are abuses that are less discussed, often due to stigma or ignorance. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse – psychological abuse.
In a sense, it can be argued that all abuse is inherently psychological– because all kinds of abuse has lasting, devastating impacts on a person’s psyche. However, there is one particularly devious kind of psychological abuse that focuses specifically on psychological manipulation:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which an individual is manipulated into questioning their own reality and experiences. In extreme cases, a victim can be manipulated into questioning their very own sanity.
From a tender age, Autistics are made to believe that our experiences of the world are inherently flawed. A great many of us have had this burned into our brains through ABA, but even aside from Autistic conversion therapy, we face a great deal of gaslighting from people in general.
When you start with the pathology paradigm, the mindset that Autistic brains are broken, everything becomes our fault. Thus, I grew up being told that any conflict, regardless of context or circumstances, was entirely my fault. Oftentimes, little to zero inquiries are made as to the nature of the conflict at all. Moreover, we are coerced into believing that our reactions, no matter big or small, were “extreme”, while those who seek to target or harm us almost always get away with it.
In my personal life, gaslighting has involved people deliberately taking my remarks out of context to make me seem dangerous, or threatening. It has led to people trying to explain my social relationships to me, because apparently as an Autistic person I am unable to mange those on my own.
In the broader scheme of things, gaslighting is something people in the disabled community experience on the regular. If someone needs an accommodation or support, people assume they always require it – and if someone asks for independence, the immediate assumption is that we no longer need any sort of support or accommodation at all; that our access needs have suddenly gone away.
Gaslighting takes many other forms, and like many forms of abuse, can occur in the workplace, at school, or in intimate and familial relationships.
When it comes to Autistics (and sometimes other neurodivergent people), however, gaslighting comes in an additional form, a special form of gaslighting that is so common, it is hard to believe that this is not more commonly discussed.
There are people who get a kick out of being cruel to people like us. And then there are people who, sometimes subconsciously, recognize the impact of gaslighting on our collective psyche. And when the sadistic enjoyment of cruelty, combined with a basic knowledge of Autistic meltdowns, combined with gaslighting, takes form, it creates one of the most toxic and harmful forms of psychological abuse Autistic people can face.
How many Autistics can relate to this following scenario?:
An Autistic teenager is at school, and some people decide that they want to get a reaction out of them. So, they start mocking them – perhaps they make mean or teasing comments, perhaps they try to create unpleasant sensory experiences, such as sudden loud noises or unpleasant visual stimuli. Perhaps they quietly throw terrible insults under their breath, or make obscene gestures. Maybe they make a show of whispering mean things making sure the target notices. Perhaps it is passive aggression with very thinly veiled insults.
At first, it may easy to brush off – a one time thing, people just goofing around, “I can handle it” – but it continues. Persistently. After all, the goal is to break down the Autistic’s will, to cause a meltdown. Maybe it persists, transitioning into personal attacks, blatant mocking of Autistic traits. Perhaps they say things on purpose to offend you. Slowly whittling down your defenses. Criticizing every single thing they can about you. Maybe they are shouting at you, on purpose, knowing it is hard for you to tolerate.
At one point, it becomes too much. Finally, you snap. What happens in that circumstance can vary. Sometimes it is a simple nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the Autistic person is the one who commences yelling. In a grade school setting, it can devolve into physical fighting. Maybe you decided that a threatening aura was the only way to get your abusers to back off. Or maybe, in a moment of extreme anger and pain, you said something equally or exceedingly harsh and cruel. Things you would not be prompted to say about people easily, in most other circumstances.
Suddenly, the bullies change dynamics. They go from being cruel and supposedly ‘strong’ individuals to people crying, begging for help – playing the victim. In a scene similar to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine pretends to cower at the hands of Mace Windu to try and sway Anakin against him.
Unfortunately, it works. Suddenly, the Autistic person, the person ruthlessly bullied, brutally harassed, is labeled the aggressor, for “overreacting”.
“It’s just a prank, bro!” “Lighten up, dude!” “Jesus, take a joke…” Or, another common one, “there was no excuse for reacting the way you did”.
This form of gaslighting has a name of it’s own: reactive abuse.
Put simply, reactive abuse takes place when an individual is purposefully trying to instigate a powerful reaction from another person, often of a violent nature – specifically so that they can then turn around, play the victim, and lay the entire blame of the situation on the real victim.
A common Autistic experience, this means people deliberately go out of their way to troll, bully and harass us through various ways, to trigger a meltdown. In some cases, they can be subtle – exposing us to unpleasant sensory stimuli, invoking dogwhistles, or coded terms meant to degrade us for being different – so that they can act like they did nothing wrong, and we get all the blame. In some cases, nitpicking and criticizing every single thing we do can also put us under a great level of stress and anxiety – and many individuals pick up on and capitalize on this.
All in all, it is a predatory action designed to entrap Autistics.
In my personal experience, reactive abuse came in two forms: criticizing and nitpicking every single thing I do – not in a friendly manner, but rather as a malicious way to frustrate me. Contrary to what people think, we Autistics can often pick up on bad intentions rather well, and can sense whether or not someone is interacting in good faith.
The other experience I have had is with more blatant forms of reactive abuse – bullying and mockery, all with the intent to provoke a reaction. Sometimes, it is at the hands of anti-vaxxers on the internet gish-galloping me repeatedly with dishonest arguments and constantly linking “studies” to prove Autism as a brain injury, while playing it off as an ‘honest discussion’, even though it is anything but.
Other, more nefarious encounters, involve (often anonymous) individuals repeatedly sending me harassing messages on social media platforms, often filled with slurs, and various horrible personal attacks – all with a jeering tone. I always try to respond as non-aggressively as possible, at least at first – but in these types of pressured situations, faltering is inevitable. In some cases, I may threaten them to back off. Or say something exceedingly cruel.
Reactive abusers prey on their victim’s insecurities, their main goal being to provoke a reaction just so they can do further damage to their target’s image and safety.
It is very important for people to understand gaslighting and reactive abuse in its’ entirety. It is important for Autistics to realize when someone is attempting to employ these tactics on you. When you know what is being done, it is easier to respond – sometimes, the most effective way to stop an abuser is to call them out on the very actions they are attempting to take.
For allistic(non-autistic) and neurotypical peers and allies, recognize when your Autistic friends are being targeted for gaslighting or reactive abuse. Assure them that they are good people, that you believe them, and offer them what help you can to cope with the situation. If it is safe to do so, stand up along with your friend, as reactive abusers lose their power once others catch onto their tactics.
For educators and professionals, it is crucial that you recognize and watch for reactive abusers who may target Autistic staff or pupils – and step in. Sometimes, it may be necessary to look out for gaslighting from your colleagues as well. Be someone the Autistics in your life feel safe and comfortable around. Listen to them and their story – and in the event that they are in a conflict, take any allegations levied against them with a freight car full of salt.
Lastly, if you are the kind of person who engages in gaslighting or reactive abuse toward Autistics, then quite frankly, you deserve the full brunt of whatever retaliation you receive.