I don’t know any late-diagnosed autistic women who were not sexually abused as children. We are vulnerable and often confused about social situations and so easy to prey on because of our gullibility and misunderstanding of what the rules of social interaction are. I was about ten years old when the abuse began. It was intermittent enough that at first, I thought I could just ignore it. It happened when other people weren’t around, and so I told myself that I could prevent this by making sure that other people were always around (a very straight-forward, autistic way of solving the problem). Then, just when I started feeling safe again, I was being felt up, kissed, fondled, and whispered at sexually.
As an adult, I can call this sexual abuse. But as a child, I had no words for what was happening to me. I mean this literally, because my parents’ version of their religion was to make sure that none of us had any language around sexuality. My mother taught us to talk about our genitals as “down there.” This was also the way we talked about evacuating urine and defecating. If anyone used any other word, they were punished by being told to go to their room or literally having their mouths washed out with soap. Words about sexual organs were as bad as talking about sexual intercourse, or taking the name of God in vain.
In addition to this problem, I can see as an adult that I experienced sensory overload to such an extent that I had what people in autistic circles would call a “shutdown” each time I was abused. This is what happens when we are so overwhelmed by sensory inputs by our brains that we lose the capacity to speak or to process anything else going on around us, other than the overstimulation of our brains. It is a little bit like our brains turning to the static channel on television. It’s not a useful response, but it means that for me, my earliest experiences of sexual abuse are bits and pieces and not a coherent narrative.
I don’t remember a face or a body. I remember a voice. And I wrote down a name in my journal, which I then crossed out in embarrassment and a weird sense of protectiveness for the abuser involved. But there are times when I actually still wonder if the memory of that name is a real one. It is because the memory itself is so fragile. I just remember turning off. I froze, though that word…