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  • Laura Webb

Keeping our girls safe in relationships

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Although we try to look at the positives here at NeonDaisy, it is a sad truth that 1 in 4 women will be subjected to domestic abuse at some point in her lifetime (see Women’s Aid website), and for disabled women this is 2 in 4 (according to the Safe Lives website). These statistics are not about autistic girls and women specifically, but it would not be crazy to extrapolate that neurodivergence is well-represented in this higher risk group.

I wrote a blog post recently for Anti-Bullying Week, discussing how autistic girls are at a higher than average risk of bullying, and how helping to increase our girls’ self-confidence may help to reduce this possibility. Sadly, this risk also extends to domestic abuse too. The tactics used by bullies who use emotional manipulation are strikingly similar to those used in intimate partner abuse. Withdrawal of affection, making the victim responsible for the perpetrator’s emotions, needing proof of affection in the form of making the victim do things they might not otherwise want to do, shifting blame onto the victim for anything that happens, isolating them from their support network, and many others can be used.

One of the things which we feel passionate about here at NeonDaisy is working to keep our girls safe from being caught in abusive relationships – whether that be physical, sexual, emotional, financial or other forms of abuse. I can write about this with first-hand experience, and it was one of the things which ultimately led to me realising that I am autistic.

So, what can we do as parents and carers?

For all ages

  • As I discussed in my previous blog post for Anti-Bullying Week, one of the most important things we can do for our girls to protect them is to help them to develop a positive self-image. If she is happy with who she is then she is far less likely to be a target for manipulative behaviour. We can also help her to celebrate the positives of her neurodivergent brain and to see that being wired differently from her peers is not a bad thing.

  • Another thing we can do with our children, even long before relationships are a dot on the horizon, is to model respectful behaviour and to talk about what an equal friendship looks like. Talking about how her friends treat her and whether or not it was how she wished to be treated, and how to treat one another fairly is a good place to start. Pointing out where there may be inequality in friendships may be helpful to her (although may not always be well received at the time!)

  • Ensuring that we listen if our girl is struggling with the way others treat her is extremely important. The old message of ‘Oh, I bet he likes you!’ if a boy is treating her badly is a terrible message and teaches her that being put down and made to feel bad about herself is somehow a sign of affection. There is a very good blog post on A Mighty Girl which covers this brilliantly, and has a good list of books on consent and boundaries at the end.

  • Look at ways to talk about consent. This is key, for all ages – allowing her to say no to kissing Auntie Mildred at a young age will teach her that her body is hers and that she is allowed to say no when she is older too. A Mighty Girl has written a great blog post on this as well.

  • Find other families with autistic girls of a similar age to yours. Having peers with similar needs and similar outlook on life can make a huge difference, enabling her to unmask and to share experiences. I wrote about the difference this can make in a previous blog post here. Our warm and friendly Facebook group for parents and carers is an excellent way to find her some neurodivergent peers.

Once she is going through puberty

Of course, once your girl hits puberty, and hormones are in the mix, it can be very difficult to reason with her about who she is attracted to and whether or not he is treating her properly. I say this as an autistic woman who did not want to listen to my family or anyone else who expressed doubts about my choices. I made some reference to this in my earlier blog post, Why you should talk to your daughter about her autism.

  • If she has a crush at a younger age than you would expect, treat her feelings as if they matter (they do to her!) Having been told that I was too young to have romantic feelings towards boys at the age of my first crush, the message I actually took away was ‘I can’t talk to my parents about any feelings for any boy’. This meant that even as an adult, I did not feel able to confide in them as I had felt that this was a subject which I could not share with anyone. Keeping the avenues of conversation open is vital for later on.

  • Helping your girl to be confident about her autism and her sensory needs will help her to speak up and let others know that she does not see herself as a defective neurotypical. As I previously mentioned, being confident and happy in herself will help her to be able to speak up when she needs support.

  • Get to know her choice of partner, spending time with them together doing something your girl enjoys. Although you aren’t necessarily expecting it to end in long-term commitment, treat their relationship as if you are. If the partner does not fit in with the family, it will be more obvious to her. And by welcoming them, you will show her that you are taking her seriously. It will also make it obvious to him (if he does not have her best interests at heart) that your family is close and that he will not be able to isolate her from you.

  • Above all, be patient. All teenagers and young adults make mistakes, including in relationships, and autistic girls are no exception. It can be very tempting to tell her that her choice of boyfriend / partner is really unsuitable, and you may be right, but all she will hear is that you don’t trust her judgement and you think she has made a mistake. For many of us female autistics, it can be hard to hear that we have made a mistake. For something as important to us as a romantic partner, this can have the effect of making us dig our heels in and turn our back on the person giving the opinion, rather than looking at our choice to see why they have come up with that opinion in the first place.

And finally, remember that autistic women may be at a higher risk of abuse, but we can and do find happy relationships and fulfilment. It is perfectly possible for your girl to find and fall in love with a nice, kind person who will be supportive and loving and everything that you would wish for her. There is hope, and if you can help her as she is growing up by giving her a self-confidence boost and paving the way for self-acceptance, then so much the better.

Further reading

  • The NSPCC has some very helpful advice about helping children and young people to recognise and understand healthy and unhealthy relationships.

  • Government guidance says that children should be learning about healthy relationships in Primary School as part of the curriculum. You could ask her school for full details of what and how they are teaching this if you are concerned.

  • If you want to look at specific advice and information intended for teens, there is a course called the DAY programme, which uses media and discussion to help young people to understand issues around relationships and sexual abuse. It is written by Spark, a consultancy founded by an abuse survivor. There is also a version for Christian teens called DAY+. You could ask your daughter’s school or youth club to look into training and running one of them.

Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy


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