A study finds that nine out of ten autistic women are victims of sexual assault, with over 50% of them aged 15 or younger when first attacked
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that one in three women have been subject to sexual or physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime. A UK-based study, which came out around the of the murder of Sarah Everard, found that 97% of women and girls had been sexually harassed.
Researchers have also found that rates of sexual assault increased over the COVID-19 pandemic, with women living in proximity to abusers more likely to catch the virus.
Situations of vulnerability, whether economic, physical, mental, sexual or reproductive, can be exploited by abusers.
“Women on the spectrum may be at considerable risk for sexual victimization”
Now, a study finds that 90% of autistic women are victims of sexual assault.
The findings, published in Frontiers, show that 56.28% of the victims were 15 years old or younger when they experienced the first instance of assault, with 67.8% of people aged 18 or younger.
The overwhelming majority of autistic women, 75%, reported several experiences of aggression. In contrast to the frequency of abuse, a small minority of these people were able to file a complain or receive care.
Young victims were also at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The authors said: “Given that being on the autism spectrum condition is characterized by experiencing difficulties in social communication, such as decoding hidden intentions and emotions of others, understanding implicit communication and elements of context, it is expected that women on the spectrum may be at considerable risk for sexual victimization, a hypothesis confirmed by all published studies on this topic.”
In a study of college students involving nine campuses, participants on the autistic spectrum were twice as likely to report unwanted sexual contact as students not on the spectrum. Interestingly, the majority of victims were female, with three non-binary individuals.
Looking at a range of existing studies, the authors found some new observations about sexual and gender identity. For instance, there was a large prevalence of autistic individuals assigned female at birth in the Queer community, “to the point that women who are cis-gender and strictly heterosexual actually constitute a minority on the autism spectrum.”
How can autistic women be protected from experiencing sexual violence?
When it comes to recommendations for protecting autistic women and girls from sexual assault, education about consent does not solve the issue – as the majority of victims were underage. Reflecting on this, the authors said: “Expecting minors with a disability to protect themselves thanks to education can be equated to another form of victim-blaming.”
So while sexual education is key, it is not a viable solution by itself.
The data proves that while prevention is crucial to real-world protection from assault, it comes through profound cultural changes. Both the WHO and Center for Disease Control say that the very root of sexual violence is actually gender inequality.
The very root of sexual violence is actually gender inequality.
WHO research proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that sexual violence is systemic and that vulnerable individuals are targeted on purpose by offenders. According to the researchers on this meta-study, it would “be a mistake” to assume that autism is mainly why women are targeted by sexual offenders.
In fact, the team say that the reason for sexual violence against autistic women is their womanhood. They further suggest that it is therefore reasonable to “consider that autism is not the cause of sexual victimization in autistic women but just a factor increasing their vulnerability.”