Tuesday, 5 June 2018
Autism: No, we're not stalkers, dear Church.
A few years ago, I was stalked. It went on for some two years, and, at the end of it, there was Police involvement. It was an horrific experience, and not one I would recommend to anyone. My car was nearly forced off the road. I was pursued by the person and their friends to such a degree that I had to run from them. At one stage, when I was in a secure room, whilst security services dealt with the situation, I made a decision that no person should ever, every have to experience stalking.
I worked tirelessly for charities, ensuring safety for victims. Listening carefully in support groups. Working with people to get them to justice and peace at last. Taking part in national research. Promoting safety resources.
I opened a publication for the Church of England. In it, an article about how some people in communities stalk church leaders. I felt that immediate empathy, that concern for them. I knew what it was like to have to live in that kind of way, always checking carefully before you are able to go anywhere, or do anything. Having to be concerned about every silent phone call, every time the person is caught outside your house when they had no business being there. The hate message, the anger, the destruction.
....then I saw that one of the key things for this was allegedly being autistic. That autistic people (Asperger Syndrome) meant someone was likely to be a stalker. And... it was like the world stopped for a moment, in horror.
You see, I'm autistic. So are my lovely family. So are many of my friends, and colleagues. So are quite a few of my Clergyfriends, and my companions and fellow workers in all the church work I do. In the charity work I do, there are my lovely autistic fellow leaders. In the world of academia and conferences, so many valued autistic speakers, trainers, writers, authors, poets. Every single one of them working towards peace, towards respect, towards collaborative caring and good outcomes.
I wrote the national guidelines for welcoming autistic people to church. I'm no stranger to church life and how autistic people can fit within it. Nor to experiencing some of the strange myths around autism, based on the behaviour of a handful of young boys who had multiple disabilities or other conditions that affected judgement and control.
So, we'd better see if there's any actual evidence to support this strange idea that Clergy should fear autistic people.
Firstly, we know from robust evidence that autistic people are, by a huge majority, the victims of crime, including being victims of stalkers and every other kind of predator out there. Most of the two million of us in the UK have experienced crime of some sort against us. 3 out of every 10 autistic women have been raped. Most of us have responded only with love and forgiveness, with social action and good solutions. It's been a pleasure to work with the Police for some years, as a member of the external training team. We know that very few autistic people are criminals, although some are turned into 'stooges', doing the bidding of manipulative others who get them to do criminal things without realising it's criminal. That's not malice by us - it's a brain that may assume that people are telling us the truth. A vulnerability, not a criminal mindset. Are some autistic people also criminals? Yes. So are some people with size 6 feet, and some people with short hair. Having size 6 feet does not make you a criminal. Nor does being autistic.
We know that autism is a communication difference. We use social communication differently, and find it very hard to interpret subtle signalling from non-autistic others, so need really clear instructions from non-autistic people. We are often effectively 'blind' to subtle hints to leave someone alone, or to stop talking. That isn't malice, any more than it would be if we were Blind or Deaf. and missed the cues that way.
We also, as a people, tend to communicate a lot of information, and will happily repeat it until the other person signals that they have understood. In our own culture, this often is polite, and expected. It is not a sign of malice. Different cultures across the world have their own set of 'social rules' about what is too much, or too little, communication.
We also, as a people, tend to want to know a lot about someone. Not in a stalkerish way, but because we're genuinely curious. And may genuinely, within our own culture, expect that the information-gathering is a good thing. This is sometimes misinterpreted as 'obsession'unfortunately. If one is not able to see a person's face clearly (because many of us are faceblind, and read face clues differently), trying to get clues about what the person thinks of us is very hard. Finding out information is a way to fill that gap, to prepare ourselves for possible conversation, not malice.
I then tried searching for this data on how many autistic people are stalkers. Given the research I do, I assumed that this would be easy to find. After all, if we have professionals claiming we're this bizarre risk to the UK's humanity (er, all 2 million of us?), they must have seen that robust data showing the statistics, yes?
I can find a few vague references from stuff a long time ago. From before we even knew what autism is, on the modern DSM V understanding. Before we even really knew that half of autistic people are not male, that most are not young. Before we knew that autism wasn't anything to do with 'bad behaviour', or lack of empathy.
I can't find data showing that autistic people are more likely to be stalkers, anywhere. I can find good articles from the CPS and from researchers showing groups of people who are likely to be stalkers. None of those groups are autistic people. This academic paper for example or https://victimsofcrime.org/docs/default-source/src/mohandie-k-meloy-r-green-mcgowan-m-_-williams-j-2005.pdf?sfvrsn=2 which has no mention of autism. What we do have is mention of some stalkers having personality disorders or some forms of mental health conditions. Autism, as I am sure we know, is not a mental health condition, nor a personality disorder. In fact, research has shown that having autism is generally a protective factor against crime, not a cause of it.
In that newspaper, the quote by a healthcare provider about autism and stalking seems to relate to a quote by one of their colleagues in The Sun newspaper in 2016. That was, in turn, based on a quote in a book in 2002, well before the modern understanding of autism. And without a hint of actual research to back it up.
It's quite something to have your church leaders, from the place you trust and respect, looking at an article suggesting that I'm some sort of threat to them. That my family might be. That my friends and companions, colleagues and fellow researchers might be. It is a great sadness, given that the entirety of the argument appears to have been invented. We are no more likely to be criminals than anyone else around you.
I would love a world where we learned that communicating differently is not a sign of malice.
I would love a world where we learned to honour and respect difference, rather than assume that different = monster.
And I would love to pick up a church publication and read about the realities of autism, not myths and overblown horror stories.
Our autistic children are going to enter a world where their average life expectancy is 54, thanks to the level of poverty, bullying, crime, lack of access, and hate that they will experience.
They will face a life where they have a nine times greater risk of taking their own lives, because of that stress.
They will endure the humiliation of being described over and over again as things they are not.
And on top of that, feared in church, when they go in to share fellowship and hope with other Christians?
If we, as fellow Christians, want this for autistic people, how far from the love of Jesus have we strayed? It is heartbreaking.
Find out about us. Because we're already your friends, and already sharing life with you, in peace.