I am autistic but I am very social and have many friends, two of whom got married on a hot August day. The dress code was no suits and wear purple. I had bought a purple dress to wear. That evening I took a friend to a blues gig in a cultural centre.
I went over to the bar where a man who was about 20 years my senior and maybe a foot taller than me picked up my hand and started kissing it. I was scared; I took a step back and tried to look disinterested, then he said: "If you were a man, I would be gay", followed by "that was a joke". I declined his offer of drinking beer with him.
I'm autistic, my social skills are learned and I really didn't know how to make him leave me alone. I feared he might hurt me, and because I have a visual impairment, I thought I might not see an attack coming, plus I wanted to get a drink from the bar and wasn't going to let him stop me!
Later in the evening he tried to dance with me - I said no!
I went to the loo and my friend managed to stop him sitting on my seat.
When the gig finished I went to the nearest Tube station thinking it would be the safest way home.
Then from the platform I heard: "hello baby!" and I thought, "oh no". If I left the Tube station I would have been out of CCTV range, so I just concentrated intensely on my phone until the train arrived. When I got on the train he followed me on so I went over to two folding seats, put my bag in front of one to block him from sitting down, but he insisted on pulling it down and sat extremely close to me. He started kissing my hand again and I felt really uncomfortable. He tried to start a conversation but I kept my answers as brief as possible and didn't make eye contact. I feared that if I said: "please leave me alone!", that he would either hurt me or say something that I felt ill-equipped to deal with.
He asked me for sex and I told him I had a boyfriend. He said: "Nothing serious." I said: "I think my boyfriend will mind." He was obviously very drunk and he had a Polish accent, which I found hard to understand. For me being autistic means that I need additional time to process auditory information, sometimes accents can slow down this process, especially if the person speaking to me is quite slurry due to alcohol. I just couldn't process everything he said fast enough, then he suddenly gave me a CD which alarmed me even more.
When the train arrived at the next station, even though it wasn't my stop, I jumped off and waited for a while before travelling home.
I emailed a male friend and asked what he thought I should do if this happened to me again. As an autistic woman I didn't really have socially skilled friends as a teen to learn the basics of dealing with social interactions, situations like this that require you to predict how someone might react are really difficult for me when the situation is unfamiliar.
This experience left me really shaken and embarrassed, I don't feel comfortable in my own body because I feel like a target for men and I really don't want that so I usually don't wear dresses.
So how do you spot an autistic woman? You can't - and that's the problem for many women like me. We get missed or get the wrong diagnosis and even when autistic people get a diagnosis there is often very little in the way of post diagnostic support. Centres like the National Autistic Society's Lorna Wing Centre, and BASS (Bristol Autism Spectrum Service) are important - BASS help other clinicians learn to diagnose autism including in women. The Lorna Wing Centre has a lot of expertise in women.
To get a diagnosis as a female you need professionals who know how to recognise autism in females.
Society needs to recognise that autism looks different in different people because it's a spectrum which is wide, with people like myself able to live independently (but consider what might of happened if I had not had a friend to go to ask for advice and information which is the situation many are in), to people who do not speak, have a learning disability and/or need 24/7 care.
Robyn Steward is a 29 year old autistic woman. She trains professionals in autism and is author of The Independent Woman's Handbook For Super Safe Living on the Autistic Spectrum
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