Why Autistic People Are Targets of Manipulation and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
I want to quickly state before I start that the opinions expressed here represent my conception of autism as an autistic person. I’m only one person with self-diagnosed autism (Asperger syndrome). I am pursuing a formal diagnosis, but don’t currently have one. I’m not trained in psychology or anything similar.
About four out of five autistic people get taken advantage of by those we consider friends. We make easy targets for the manipulative scum of society. I want to talk about why this is, what it looks like, and how to overcome it.
Why Autistic People Make Easy Targets For Manipulators
There are a few reasons in particular us autistics are so easy to manipulate. The first of which is we tend to assume other people are always telling the truth.
Implicit Trust in Others
I think the reason for this is due to a cognitive bias everybody has: we tacitly presume others are like us, that they do what they do for the reasons we would do them.
So us autistic people assume everybody is straightforward and rarely lies. The problem with that is first, the average person communicates mostly via body language and doesn’t say exactly what’s on their mind. And second, the average person frequently lies.
This is very hard for us autistic people to wrap our heads around. Why would someone not verbalize exactly what they’re thinking? Why wouldn’t they always be honest? We know people are indirect and deceptive in the abstract, but we never suspect it in our own social interactions.
Us autistics are generally bad at deception, so we’re also bad at detecting it in others. Since we’re always the least cool people in the room anyways, lying for popularity doesn’t usually work. Even if it did, we’re uninterested in the social hierarchy anyways. Our infrequent lying combined with the cognitive bias of assuming that others are like us means that when a “friend” or stranger asks for something, it doesn’t occur to us that they may have malicious intent.
When we’re asked to do something amoral, illegal, overly generous, or something that otherwise puts us at a disadvantage, we do it under the false pretenses supplied by the other person and end up suffering the consequences intended for them.
There’s a deeper problem though that runs beyond implicit trust. Although we may make for good social psychologists, we’re bad at predicting others’ intentions, thoughts, and emotions in our own social interactions.
We can be mocked and bullied without realizing it’s happening. We can fail to notice when physical violence is about to erupt. We can fail to recognize passive aggressiveness. In the case of social situations, what you don’t know can hurt you.
I’m guilty of all the above. To give an example, I’ve had adults make fun of me for things like not matching my clothes and “moving weirdly”. I used to think they were joking because I myself could never imagine someone bullying another person over such an irrelevant detail. As it turns out, it was only irrelevant to me.
Neurotypicals get very uncomfortable and even upset when they’re seen with someone who breaks society’s arbitrary social norms, even when breaking them is harmless. They don’t want to lose popularity points.
Dependence And Social Isolation
The last reason I can think of that autistic people are easy to manipulate is our dependency on others and social isolation. These two factors go together.
Four out of five autistics are either unemployed or underemployed. Unless we can find a fitting work environment, we suffer from sensory overload, social exhaustion, and burnout. So most of us are financially dependent on others. As an autistic person, if you don’t have a healthy relationship with the person you’re dependent on or they’re in denial of your autism, life can be downright miserable.
When we think of autistic people being manipulated and treated poorly, we think of “friends” and strangers doing it, but family members are probably the most common perpetrators. Many parents, rather than admitting they birthed an unemployable autistic person and making the best of a tough situation, they deny the autism and push their autistic offspring to repress their true nature, leading them into depression, anxiety, and self-hatred.
But financial dependence is only part of the equation. Since not many people want to associate with us, we become emotionally reliant on a small number of close relationships. We avoid crowds and the safety that comes along with them.
This goes hand in hand with isolation. The fewer people in your tribe, the easier it is for a manipulator to isolate you from that tribe and twist your mind to suit their purposes.
And as I mentioned in my entry Coming Out as Autistic, I used to prefer being around people that made fun of me to being alone. If I had to guess, I’m not the only autistic person who opted for that strategy.
What better target for a manipulator than a socially isolated and impaired, financially and emotionally dependent autistic person who implicitly trusts everybody and tolerates bullying? Is there any mystery why we’re targeted so often?
How Not to be Manipulated as an Autistic Person
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are strategies we can use to improve our situation and I think we have to use all of them.
Don’t Blindly Trust Others
The first thing is not to blindly trust everything others say. Ask yourself “Does what they’re saying make sense? Is it consistent with other things they’ve said? Is it consistent with their own motivations? Can I verify it? Do their friends know about it or believe it?” Just ask questions.
If you catch someone in a lie, figure out what sorts of things they lie about. There are different types of liars. Do they lie all the time or only in regards to this one thing? Are they lying to keep a secret? Do they admit to lying when called out on it?
I consider lying/deception a serious breach of trust. If someone lies to me even once, I’m skeptical of everything they say after. If they don’t stop lying, I cut them off. There’s no point being in a relationship with someone who constantly feeds you bullshit. It’s not a real relationship.
Find Your People
The next tip is to find your people. Avoid people who bully you and don’t accept you. If someone makes fun of you when you break social norms, they are not your people. That person is a bully, whether or not they intend to be. Find people who you don’t feel like you have to constantly apologize to for merely existing. The key question is “How does this person make me feel?”
Avoid people who ask you to do amoral, illegal, and dangerous activities. They’re not your friends. They’re using you. If a “friend” routinely asks you to do something above and beyond the ordinary expectations of friendship, do they become angry, passive aggressive, or violent if you say no? Do they not seem to take no for an answer? If so, they may be emotionally blackmailing you and you should probably avoid them.
Cutting toxic people out of your life can be hard, especially if you lack a support system. But it doesn’t have to mean being alone. Think of it this way: all the time and energy you spend on toxic relationships could be spent finding and cultivating relationships with people who respect you.
Stand Up For Yourself
My final piece of advice is to stand up for yourself. You live in a society totally dominated by neurotypicals who don’t understand you. Most aren’t interested in understanding, so the burden falls on you to stand up for yourself and not let others walk all over you.
How you do this depends on your circumstances. You have to find ways to set healthy boundaries with people. The reason manipulators prey on you is because they see you as weak and vulnerable. Research how to be assertive. Focus on your special interests to build confidence. Make your needs known. Try new things to get to know yourself better.
If you’re still young, you probably don’t know yourself very well. But as you get older, you’ll get to know your strengths, weaknesses, and values better and it’ll be easier to stand up for yourself.
These are good pieces of advice even for non-autistic people, but they’re especially relevant to the autistic. The tough part is always in figuring out how to apply advice in everyday life. Even if you read and understand all this, all the real work still lies ahead. So I leave it to the reader to figure out how to apply this advice.