Feminist Aspie

On Autism, Boundaries and Consent

on May 2, 2014

Before I start, I should probably apologise for abandoning FeministAspie for several months… again. Sorry about that. I don’t have a particularly good excuse for it, either; just being really busy with uni then worrying so much about neglecting the blog that I was too scared to sort it out, I guess. In an attempt to reduce all this worrying about it and actually maintain a consistent blog again, I’m planning to focus more on actually writing and reading blog posts as opposed to attempting to keep a fast-paced and often-full-of-conflict Twitter feed under control, so I probably won’t be on Twitter that much apart from posting links to blog posts I like, at least at first. Anyway, the following is an attempt to coherently write about something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

I generally tend to be very wary of the rhetoric surrounding teaching autistic people to be “socially appropriate”; often, this is merely code for “preventing harmless stimming because neurotypical people think it’s weird” or “forcing eye contact because that’s what neurotypical people do” or “do everything in your power and more to magically be neurotypical regardless of what actually helps you” or, well, “conditioned compliance”. (For more on that sort of thing, see “Socially Inappropriate” by Musings of an Aspie). As a general rule, if so-called “behaviours” aren’t actually causing any harm to anyone, it’s none of your business. Yet there often seems to be so much more emphasis placed on suppressing harmless autistic body language than there is on encouraging actually important social skills that can and do cause upset for all involved parties if things go wrong. In other words, amongst all the “if you just try harder you’ll become like us and we’ll see you as a full human being” ableist stuff, there are aspects of social appropriateness which are important. Consent and respect for personal boundaries is one of them.

It makes me really uncomfortable when people (especially neurotypical people) try to explain away incidents of harassment, disregarding lack of consent or sometimes even assault with the “autism is to blame” mentality, particularly when the perpetrator’s neurotype is unknown and people are making huge assumptions often based on probably-false stereotypes. (The plan is to keep this gender-neutral for the most part; I do think it’s really important to take patriarchy into account, but I’ll get to that towards the end.) For a start, it’s hugely ableist to assume that autistic people are incapable of understanding boundaries and/or consent issues. By no means am I saying this isn’t an issue at all. In hindsight, my early teenage years and first few crushes were a series of messy, steep learning curves about how to handle those feelings, how personal space worked, and general Not Creeping People Out 101. It wasn’t pretty. But eventually, after a few bad experiences, rounds of “you can’t do that” from other people and later being introduced to consent issues through feminism, I picked that stuff up. I imagine this is much easier for some people than for others, and I’ll get back to the importance of education on consent issues later, but for now, my point is that equating “autism” with “not taking no for an answer” does a lot of harm to autistic people in terms of stereotypes.

It also overlooks that autistic people are often more susceptible to being victims of this sort of thing than our neurotypical peers, for various reasons. Firstly, there’s the whole “not picking up on ‘obvious’ social cues” thing. Secondly, many autistic people, even those who are normally very verbally fluent, begin to lose verbal ability under stress, when overloading or for countless other reasons; in a society where even a clear “no” or “stop” is often discounted and anything short of that is seen as a “yes”, this can be and has been exploited. Thirdly, sadly, conditioned compliance is a thing (TW for description of rape, abuse, compliance training and ableism in the link), making it even harder to “escape” these situations.

In addition, this mindset takes the blame away from a much wider culture which contributes to lack of respect for consent. Not all autistic people show complete disregard for boundaries (although, as with any group of people, of course some do) and likewise, not all people who show complete disregard for boundaries are autistic (although, as with any group of people, of course some are). Further, to assume that problems such as these are caused almost solely by being unable to read social cues is to ignore other factors such as the more general male entitlement phenomenon and, well, a society which tends to not really let people say “no” very much (and not just in sexual/relationship contexts, either). In fact, the “autism is to blame” fallacy is also guilty of favouring the perpetrator; there’s a lot of emphasis on the possibly-autistic perpetrator potentially not picking up cues any less subtle than a clear “no”, but little thought for their possibly-autistic victim who, having gradually learned (or been actively taught) over time that their dissent is just over-reacting and that they should cause as little fuss as possible, unwittingly finds themselves being assumed to want something they don’t and doesn’t have the tools to object. I’ve been there. It’s pretty awful.

As well as, you know, not massively stereotyping autistic people and throwing us under the bus unnecessarily, what we really need is a shift towards consent culture, where clear communication of consent (or lack thereof) is the norm, as opposed to simply assuming consent unless stated otherwise. We need more widespread education on these issues, for people of all genders and neurotypes, and this includes giving people the tools to set boundaries without fear as well as to respect them. We need to get rid of the “boys will be boys” mentality, and I think that in particular ties in really well with the concept of presuming competence in neurodivergent people. Assuming that somebody is incapable of understanding boundaries so not even trying to discuss it only creates a vicious circle. And that contributes to stereotypes which, frankly, we could really do without.


36 responses to “On Autism, Boundaries and Consent

  1. I love this post. 🙂 And I’m glad you’re writing again. And this is short because my brain is fubar today.

  2. autisticook says:

    General Not Creeping People Out 101 is a course I still haven’t mastered. 😦

    • Oh dear 😦 I think as a teenager “picking it up” was more a case of “my parents/friends tell me off when I do that”, but that only really worked some of the time!

      I also think the whole feminism thing has really helped me out in terms of essentially just clearly setting out the rules of consent.In my opinion that sort of thing should really be taught from the get-go rather than leaving it all implicit and malleable; the current hush-hush around it isn’t good for autistic people for obvious reasons, but it also means people can exploit the implicit-ness by blaming victims/survivors for not expressly saying “no” when they’ve been taught all their lives that it’s impolite and selfish, and not taking “no” for an answer even when it is expressly stated because they can still get away with saying it’s somehow more complicated (so basically the whole Blurred Lines thing).

      Finally, and of course this isn’t something I chose or something I want to happen to anyone, there was all the awfulness with Ex A (yes that means there’s an Ex B now, but that’s a story for another day). Being on the not-having-your-boundaries-respected side of things meant that I now know that certain things he did made me really uncomfortable so I also need to not do those things. In fact, I think it’s made me a tiny bit over-careful, but I guess that’s the opposite of a problem?

      • autisticook says:

        For me it’s mostly that I come on very strong (a side effect of autistic obsession: when I become interested in a person, I become REALLY interested), and as long as people keep giving me mixed signals, I fail to pick up on the fact that I’m crossing boundaries. The few lucky times where someone has explicitly told me that they weren’t comfortable or wanted me to back off a bit, I’ve been so incredibly grateful for them telling me.

      • YES. People need to do that more often, but sadly we’re all made to feel like we can’t.

  3. Seth Gordon says:

    To my mind, someone who truly commits sexual harassment out of autism-spectrum-related not understanding boundaries would be just as likely to harass someone with the power to do them harm: a boss, a police officer, a woman in the presence of her burly husband, etc. I’m sure that kind of thing must happen once in a while, but I don’t hear about it happening.

    The typical story that I do hear about is a man who harassing a less-powerful woman in a situation where he has “plausible deniability” (e.g., waiting until they are in a private place before putting the moves on her), and when she goes public with the complaint, it turns out that other women have had the same problem with the same guy but thought they wouldn’t be believed. AND THEN the guy’s apologists say “well, maybe he just acted that way because he is on the autism spectrum”. I am unconvinced.

  4. chavisory says:

    Hells to the yes.

  5. Aharona says:

    I loved everything about this post. I totally related to it. Thank you for posting this. It made my day! ❤ (heart)

  6. earthwinn says:

    Reblogged this on Trisha Winn and commented:
    Really important post about consent, autism, and feminism.

  7. Aggie says:

    Great post. I can really relate to it. I have spent 5 years in an abusive relationship, where I had no right to say no when my ex wanted something from me. Never again. I would prefer never to be in relationship again, then to be forced to defend myself from psychological abuse. Sadly, a lot of people think it’s ok to pressure others into saying yes. I hate that.

    • Sorry for the delay in this comment appearing, for some reason it got caught in the spam filter. Anyway, thank you! Sorry to hear that, that sounds awful :/ Consent issues are so much more important than a lot of people realise.

  8. “I don’t have a particularly good excuse for it, either; just being really busy with uni then worrying so much about neglecting the blog that I was too scared to sort it out, I guess. ”

    I have the EXACT same problem with posting or doing anything with pretty much any kind of long term deadline. Like, right now I can’t even open my email because I’m too stressed about having neglected it…which means I’m neglecting it even more as a result. Anxiety sucks. 😦

    My trick has been to simply warn people that I might get too stressed out to reply but that it has nothing to do with them and just ask for understanding in advance. And, for some reason, once they tell me it’s fine and they understand I don’t tend to run into the problem of getting too stressed to do _____ anymore, because the stress of having to reply to them is removed.

    Hopefully it works for you, too. 🙂

    Also, great post!

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yeah, I had the same thing; I set up a specific e-mail for FeministAspie a while back, then found I couldn’t make myself open it. It’s not nice. :/

      • I feel like we shouldn’t be so anxious about this stuff. My email inbox is for Autism Spectrum Explained (which I’m forcing myself to still check now, but I haven’t emailed a parent, because I was setting her autistic son up with another parent’s autistic son so they could be email and have a friend, as part of ASE’s penpal program, but one of the parents has just not been replying to any of my emails and I think they dropped out of the program and I feel so bad about it that I don’t want to email the other parent to tell her, since she and her son are going to be so disappointed…. 😦 ) and I feel like, since both our emails are autism related, people should be pretty understanding about issues like this. Only, probably not in my case, because I refer to myself as neurotypicalish, since I seem to be more BAP than autistic and no one seems to know what BAP is, and therefore I don’t get so much in the way of understanding, but I think people should be pretty understanding for you if you explain after it happens and/or warn them in advance.

        Also, since I’ve voiced the source of my anxiety now, it’s a whole lot easier to confront and I’m going to go RIGHT NOW and email that parent before that feeling goes away. So see! This rambling almost stream of consciousness had a point! haha

        But seriously, I do love your blog posts. My sister (who is Autistic) read several of your posts and declared that she had found the person she was going to marry. I, too, am rather literal and was thinking that she really meant she wanted to marry you, lol, but that was just her way of saying that she SUPER connected with what you said and it was awesome. I recommend your blog (and link to the post about neurotypical privilege on our website) to all my friends, even though I haven’t posted before. 🙂


      • Awww, thanks so much!!! 😀

  9. […] On Autism, Boundaries and Consent | Feminist Aspie […]

  10. Aaaaaaaaagh, I found a really long not-spam comment that got caught in the filter for some reason, and I accidentally deleted instead of restoring it 😦 Hoping you’ll see this here, I’m really sorry, do you happen to remember any of it?

    • Being anonymous this time. says:

      Would that be this really long not-spam comment? I kept it temporarily as a text file, in case it fell into one of those electronic holes. I know, this is a real Aspie-longcomment, but I hope it’s worth it.


      Thanks for writing this excellent post. This is a subject I’ve been giving a lot of thought to.

      When I finally received my diagnosis (as an adult) I thought I might finally be able to get a grip on my poor social skills, since I now finally knew what the problem was. I read up (Aspie-style – which is to say intensively) on nonverbal communication, and attempted to follow the advice of one of my (and this matters) socially vulnerable female friends to go out and interact, and be more open, because I had become very closed in.

      The short version is that this failed dismally, largely due to my inability to read nonverbal communication, and led to a lot of self-hatred and the final collapse of my social confidence (which wasn’t high to begin with). I’ve spent the last year obsessing over the problem, and I see a whole swathe of issues. I like it when people presume competence, but there is a limit to that, because I’m tearing myself apart over the question of the too many points of incompetence.

      Let’s take a scenario. I’m in a coffee shop. I see a woman (I’m going to say woman here, because this is the most problematic case, but much of this also applies to talking to a strange man) with a copy of a book on something I find interesting open next to her. I think potential friend and want to approach her. It probably doesn’t matter whether my limbic system thinks “phwoaar!”, because the problems that follow are identical either way – which is to say she might think she’s being chatted up when she might not be, but also that I don’t see the problem with chatting someone up until the other person perceives it as infringing on hir space.

      I attempt to strike up a conversation, perhaps by asking if she finds the book useful in our mutual line of interest, staying around one arm’s length from her, and ensuring she is not in a corner.

      Now, if she welcomes the conversation, both by finding someone interested in that field and by her limbic system thinking something along the lines of “ohhh, yeah!”, everything’s fine. Coffee, chat, dinner, and a year down the line, who knows?

      If not, speaking as an Aspie living in a kyriarchical society, everything now turns really messy.

      Virtually all the guides on how to handle this kind of situation begin with something along the lines of “Is your interlocutor making proper eye contact?” Erm. I’m an Aspie. I score in the bottom percentile on S B-C’s Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. This is in lab conditions when I can stare at the stimulus, which is no use talking to a strange woman in a coffee shop. It’s creepy. Even I know this. I couldn’t recognise proper eye contact if someone were to figure out how to wrap it round a brick and hit me over the head with it.

      She wants to get rid of me, and thinks she is sending “clear” nonverbal signals, which I can get right well under 50% of the time, as far as I can make out. I’m really *not* good at this, and I suspect the only way to learn is to practice, which is to say put myself in more situations like this. For reasons that I think are already clear, this is not a good idea.

      I mention I’m an Aspie, may be getting my signals wrong, and please could she tell me if she wants me to leave her alone. I’m hoping for a yes (continue) but am assuming – or at least checking for – no. In other words, I try to ensure I am not crossing her boundaries, and am seeking consent for the conversation to continue. This is fine in theory, but there are a lot of men out there who will become verbally or physically aggressive in such a situation. I’m not a big guy (163cm/5’4″ and not very well built, but I can see why she might fear this, especially if she’s smaller than I am and, well, some slime carry weapons). She tells me (conditioned compliance is also found among allistic women in patriarchal societies such as ours) that everything is fine, while her body language, as far as she’s concerned, but which I can’t read, is telling me otherwise. She’s creeped out and intimidated by the weirdo.

      This, ultimately, is where I think the weak point in your article is. I’m asking for a clear boundary, but social conditions mean she feels she can’t give one. I suspect this is largely behind the fiasco I mentioned above. If I know where the boundaries are, I will recognise them, but in an early interaction there is no way for anyone else to know that, and good reasons to fear, because there are plenty who won’t.

      The fact remains, however, the growing fubar is ultimately *my fault*.

      She drops “my boyfriend” into the conversation. There is a whole discussion on why this is a problem here: http://skepchick.org/2013/09/boyfriend/ As far as I’m concerned, this is more complicated than it sounds. It can mean:
      * “My boyfriend came up in conversation, so you can forget romance, but I’m okay with being friends.”
      * “I think you’re flirting and really don’t want you to, so please stop.”
      * “**** off!”
      * I’m told that on rare occasions, among a few women, this is an odd sort of come-on, which is probably backed up by a range of other signals there is no way I could think about deciphering. One of my allistic female friends has mentioned, for example, that she doesn’t have a problem with sleeping around outside her relationship provided her boyfriend doesn’t find out. I have a different moral standard, and didn’t even try to find out if she was hitting on me. If you read the comments BTL at the skepchick link above, the author is running three different boyfriends, presumably consensually. I do know that this would be extremely unlikely at all, and even less likely in a first encounter in a coffee shop, so I think we can discount this.

      There’s another complication here. One of my few remaining friends tells me that many allistics send non-sexual bonding signals identical to flirt signals. She suspects, and I have no reason to doubt, that my observation of allistic social behaviour may have led me to confuse some flirt and non-flirt social signalling. In other words, I may well be inadvertently *sending* some very mixed messages. This is consistent with a few very embarrassing incidents involving both men (I score zero on the Kinsey Scale) and women who I wasn’t interested in.

      In terms of sex, however, this means no, even if I haven’t been asking the question, nonverbally or otherwise. I tell my reptile brain to shut up, and attempt to persist in making friends. She mentally drafts an entry on Everyday Sexism. http://everydaysexism.com/ There is genuinely a massive problem with male entitlement. That said, there is also a backlash against the “autism is to blame” mentality and, as a formally diagnosed autistic, I’m feeling it. I understand many of the norms, and will back off when asked to, but my understanding of “clear” (say something, because the fact remains I’m not likely to pick up reliably on anything less than a clear “no”!), and the understanding of many women of “clear”, at least as regards body language and all the shifting exceptions to rules, seems to differ.

      This is before we get into the nasty mind games of “playing hard to get”. More on that here: http://feminspire.com/why-i-never-play-hard-to-get/ I have a simple rule for this. If she says no, she means it. If she doesn’t mean it, she’s playing with my head and I can do without someone like that in my life.

      In this case, I’ve unwittingly crossed a line. If I find out, I’ll get back across it, sharpish, and make a grovelling apology (again) for having messed up (again), but *she doesn’t know that*. I can’t blame her for not sending a clearer (verbal) signal, and I need to take responsibility for getting it right (hence this post, because I admit I don’t know what I’m doing).

      I’ll conclude with a few axioms, which might be debated.
      * I don’t want to be one of those sad, lonely old men. I want to make some friends, even find romance.
      * It is likely that in trying to do so I will inadvertently make others uncomfortable as a result of my social ineptitude. Given that I know this, acting in such a way is morally reprehensible. A diagnosis of Asperger syndrome is not a licence to act like a dick, even when I’m doing my level best not to.
      * The only way to learn the social skills is more practice, which is clearly morally reprehensible, given the likelihood of fouling up any given interaction.

      What’s most likely to happen is that I will assume no without engagement, and miss out on a potential friend, even a life-changing encounter. I don’t want to talk to people who don’t want to talk to me. I want to talk to people whose company I enjoy and with whom that sense is reciprocated, but to do that I have to be able to tell the difference.

      I see no way out of that paradox, but I’d love to hear some suggestions, and it seems clear you have also been giving this a lot of thought. I can’t be the only Aspie having this problem.

      I’m also very hesitant about attempting to engage with the problem on many forums, largely for fear of it being perceived as an attempt to focus the problem of a lack of consent culture on me, rather than as an attempt at engagement in good faith. There is a problem. I don’t want to be part of it, but spending weeks without meaningful social contact is doing damage, and I’m sure there are people out there who I could get along with, even just as friends, and who would welcome that themselves.

      Sorry for the essay (there is a longer version, but I don’t have a large readership on my own blog), but this is complicated, as I’m sure you realise.

      • Yep, that’s the one! 🙂 Thanks for keeping it in a text file. Basically, I signed in to find your two identical comments lurking around in the spam folder, trashed one, then forgot to change the action to “not spam” for the other. Really sorry about that!

        *actually reads the thing*

        Yeah, I get a *lot* of what you’re saying. In terms of the paradox, I think the problem is that people (especially, but not exclusively, women) are conditioned to feel that they can’t give clear boundaries. If, instead, we were to encourage the setting of clear boundaries, this would not only make it a lot easier for people like us who can’t really do subtlety (this may not necessarily be limited to autism? I’m not sure), but also more generally to prevent people who know exactly what they’re doing from exploiting the current system. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

        I’ve never understood the whole playing-hard-to-get thing, to be honest. I can totally understand pretending to have a boyfriend in order to tell someone to back off, so I really can’t understand why people would say the same thing to mean the opposite. I’d love to hear everyone else’s views on this?

      • Being anonymous this time. says:

        Thanks for that, even just for reading it. I think that was longer than the initial blog post! I get, well, thorough, I think is the polite word.

        I think that setting of clear boundaries thing is ultimately the problem. As I said, I don’t think the barriers to setting clear boundaries begin and end at conditioned compliance. It’s undoubtedly part of the story, but it’s not all of it. What evidence we do have, such as studies on reading the mind in the eyes, says that the ability to read nonverbal communication exists on a spectrum, with women on average slightly better at it than men, on average – differences that are really only statistically significant once you start getting big samples. My own abilities at such things are down there in the ultraviolet end of that spectrum.

        This means that you are going to have people, especially women, able to recognise some very subtle cues, and be able to respond appropriately and have no more grasp of the fact that I can’t do that, than that I can really get a handle on echolocation. These people are going to *think* they are setting “clear” boundaries by saying “I’m busy” (which can mean “get lost” or “let’s do coffee on Thursday”, depending, presumably, on those nonverbal signals), or even by sending a conscious barrage of nonverbal signals that go right through me like a bunch of weakly interacting massive particles, which I need specialist equipment to even detect, never mind analyse.

        Many of these women are going to be rightly aware that some men will respond aggressively to being told to get lost, as I mentioned. I imagine it’s very difficult to distinguish between an inept Aspie and a sexist PUA sample of surface biofilm on the eutrophic pool that is much of human society.

        There is also the danger that an Aspie may be triggered into meltdown. That’s probably more dangerous for the Aspie than for anyone else, but most people probably don’t know that, and it’s not pleasant for anyone. This unfortunately happened to me when I found out I’d been systematically lied to when attempting to ensure I wasn’t crossing boundaries, and may well have simply reinforced the notion that they were right to have tried to avoid being up front with me. The problem actually lay with learning how badly I’d actually been fouling up, and with the dishonesty of the allistics involved. That ended with the *******s in black being called and a trip to the nearest mental hospital.

        Then words like “perpetrator” are thrown around. At one level, that really hurts. At another, I can see it’s fair comment. Like it or not, I *am* making these mistakes, and I *am* making people uncomfortable, however unintentional.

        Unless I can find some way to resolve that the only socially responsible thing is to shut myself away from society, with all the connotations of shut-in (linked in many minds to those who send abusive messages to women for, well, being feminists), loser, scrounger, object of pity, and the rest. I think it’s an understatement to suggest that this is not conducive to mental stability. The winners are those who want to keep oddballs on the fringe of their society.

        I can see why many of us become very withdrawn, even misanthropic.

  11. towharmony says:

    In the event of the current events in the world and in India more specifically, I have been working on an article about consent and how it should be taught young and early to both boys and girls. It should be one of the main objectives of sex education trainings too. Male entitlement being another important issue to discuss.
    So thank you for this, very interesting read. I would love to link your article to the one I am working on for an Indian women’s health website. Is that ok?

  12. […] On Autism, Boundaries and Consent | Feminist Aspie […]

  13. une catho progressiste says:

    Reblogged this on Blog d'une jeune catholique progressiste.

  14. Alex says:

    What would you recommend to ensure autistic people as well as men/boys in general don’t come across as creepy? When I say ‘recommend’, I mean, from the perspective of someone who spends all their time trying not to look creepy, not from the perspective of an NT feminist who isn’t necessarily aware that people can seem creepy without meaning to.

    Also, I’ve noticed what strikes one person as creepy can strike others as not creepy (although some things almost always are, for everyone).

  15. Alex says:

    I don’t mean things like consent which you’ve discussed already, but what to do if you are coming across as creepy generally, before you get intimate enough for sex or fondling.

  16. Alex says:

    NB: Just read your response to Being anonymous this time. Perhaps you’ve given a little more advice than I thought. Yeah, basically, I have the same sort of problems, and as for the “playing hard to get” thing, I understand it superficially, but I’m afraid that mentioning it might make it seem like I’m endorsing it. I took the “playing hard to get” thing waaay too seriously when I was still at school, and the people who teased me often tried to get my hopes up merely as a way of making fun of me and winding up the girls I had crushes on.

  17. Alex says:

    One of the girls I fancied was red-haired and had mood swings, she got a lot of irrational dislike from other people in the school. The other was popular and conventionally good looking yet stood out from other people, and I think the other boys fancied her as well but wouldn’t dare approach her, preferring to make fun of her (so they could be sour grapes) and me instead (because knowing someone less attractive/social adept/popular had rejected her made them feel better about themselves). Actually, I don’t know if that’s what they thought (though they certainly wanted to make fun of me) or what either girls thought of me, really, but that’s the problem.

  18. Alex says:

    *been rejected by her*

  19. […] can’t be coherent about it. This post explains my feelings so much […]

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