TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
A seven-year-old girl sits in her tree house mending a Barbie who has just suffered catastrophic injuries. Plastic army men, following the orders of her two younger brothers, lay scattered on the wooden floor. Ketchup drenched plastic arms are wiped clean as bandages are delicately applied. They have escaped justice by heading back into the house (the brothers that is- not the plastic army men).
It is summer and school is out. The only other girls in the neighborhood are much older, and they have no interest in hanging out with a little kid. In addition to her own two brothers, several boys of different ages live on her street. One family, whose parents keep trying for a girl (a baby sister who would postpone her arrival for several more years), has nine boys. When playing all-day-street-baseball, those guys shared snacks. When they had sleepovers, she was always invited to tag along with her brothers. They treated her like a princess. In her world, all boys were this wonderful. They were all her brothers. Big brothers, little brothers, it did not matter because boys were fun to be around, even when they kidnapped her dolls.
“What are you doing up there?” a strange teen boy from a few blocks over yells up at her.
“Barbie was wounded in battle,” the girl states, obviously mimicking a phrase picked up from one of her brothers.
“Can we come up and help you?” asked a second teen boy.
“Yeah, we are doctors,” the first boy giggles.
“We will teach you how to use a thermometer.”
On that day, I was taken hostage.
Recently, some people have harassed sexual abuse survivors. Why did the victim never tell anybody at the time of the assault? Why did the seven-year-old me spend the next three years living under the same roof as her parents without uttering a single word about the horrors happening once she stepped outside?
Being an autistic child, I experienced the world very literally. I remember when I was about four watching, for the first time, the holiday special “Frosty the Snowman.” With the vividness of a savant (which I am not), I recall the excruciating pain in my heart watching Frosty melt. Ironically, at that very moment, my father’s friend from work came in dressed as Santa. He had brought our Christmas gift, our first puppy. I wanted nothing to do with Santa or with the puppy. Following me into the bedroom, where I had dissolved into my own puddle, mom attempted to reassure me. Frosty was only a cartoon. But I did not understand. Frosty had been right there until he melted. So he was real! And his melting shattered my little-kid heart.
Eventually, mom made things better by watching the show with me. She lovingly hid my face during the traumatic melting scene. And she celebrated when Frosty came back to life! Order was restored.
On that first day with those two mean boys, I was taken hostage by their horrible promises. Using my doll as a demonstration, they detailed what would happen to my mom, my dad, and my brothers if I told anyone about what they did to me. Their threats of cutting my family into small pieces and mailing them back to me was a description that gave me night-terrors well into adulthood. Know what? I believed every word.
After that day in the tree house, I tried to avoid those two boys as much as I could, but it was not always possible. All the kids our age walked to school in a group. Usually, that was safe. Usually. But sometimes the gang would splinter away several blocks before my street. One of the older boys in our group liked disobeying the rule against cutting through the alley. It did save us from walking a couple of blocks. As I was told to stay with these older kids, I had no choice but to also walk through the alley.
Unbeknownst to me, that alley was a trap. The two mean boys would randomly ambush our group. The boys were always at war in those alleys. They took each other prisoner, tied one another to trees, and blindfolded prisoners leading them a few blocks away before releasing them. So I thought nothing about it when they scattered before the enemy leaving me to fend for myself. If my brothers happened to be with me, they would attempt a rescue; but they were sent away with threats of harm to me and with promises of freedom after interrogation.
As a prisoner, I did whatever I was told to do. Complex PTSD still causes random flashbacks to the gruesome threats they made to burn my mom alive and skin my dad. Assured that their deaths would be my fault alone, do you think I said a word to anyone? Not on your life.
Until one day when I did.
Due to ASD, my social awkwardness made it almost impossible to make friends. When a pretty new girl joined our class, I was hopeful. Because she was so quiet, I felt I had a chance to make a friend who would not tease me. I tried to befriend her, but she would not talk, so I left her alone. But I watched her because I understood her in a way I could not explain at the time. She was somehow different. She was like me.
The two mean boys liked to hang out around our school when adults were not around. They approached the new girl and began harassing her. As long as I stayed with my guys, they left me alone. But this girl did not have a gang of nice boys to protect her. I told my guys that I was worried about those two hurting her. They told me to not worry about it. They scampered away when her mother drove up.
Several weeks later I saw the new girl swinging by herself after school. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, but she just got up and walked away. Something in her eyes was too familiar. I did not understand empathy at that time, but I knew she was crying because of something those two mean boys had done to her. The boys’ threats had been against me telling an adult about what they did to me. This scenario had not been mentioned. I finally had a logical loophole, so I told our female teacher about the boys.
My teacher was anything but kind. When she asked for my proof against the two boys, I broke my silence and spilled the beans. I told her what they did to me. I told her about the threats. I told her everything. Having learned that bad people went to jail, I expected the teacher to immediately call the police and have them arrested. Instead, she said something I never outgrew. What she said, the words she used, her sarcastic tone, her condescending laugh, all of that is etched into my cellular memory.
“You don’t want to be the ‘Little Girl who cried wolf!’ Now, do you?”
Those of us with Autism are often hypersensitive to responses. Unlike our neurotypical allies whose brains automatically do most of the heavy lifting, ASD folks must manually process social encounters. Many hours are spent dissecting each encounter, attempting to understand the other person’s words, and scrutinizing each response. Once we have digested the conversation, we manually add the evaluated experience to our social inventory for future application.
As a result of that teacher’s nescient response, these are the “facts” my nine-year-old autistic brain added to our social inventory:
My prioritization of events was incorrect. I was worried about something that was not important.
My perceived threat to the girl had no basis in reality.
What might happen to the girl and what did happen to me was not a big deal. These were things adults did not care about.
There was nothing illegal about boys’ sexually assaulting girls.
Boys were more a lot more valuable than girls.
Girls did not matter in this world.
Truth had no value.
Being abused was my fault.
I did not matter.
I was totally alone.
The long-term impact of these events is apparent to my therapist, even if it is not always apparent to outsiders. Trauma survivors develop remarkable emotional camouflage. It is not apparent to those demanding answers to the imbecilic question “Why didn’t you tell?” Those people cannot comprehend how the resulting low self-esteem primes children for a potential lifetime of further abuse.
They do not see my body, scarred from cuts made during attempts to ground my mind during flashbacks. They have never worn the heavy guilt that frequently blankets the soul of the survivor. Even still, almost a half-century later, my mind wears it like a worn out robe as it paces through memories, dusting them off, contemplating the things those two boys must have done to that girl, or to other girls. Asking if those things would have still occurred if I had gone to the police on my own.
The ones who ask that question are not the people who wake up in the morning disappointed to find Death has once again failed to keep his promise.
After finally being diagnosed with autism as an adult, I was able to move forward in rescuing that little girl in the tree house. I knew that being autistic had not made those bad things happen to me. That guilt belonged only to those boys, and to the teacher who ignored me. However, I began to understand the vulnerability of an autistic child. It was easy for the abusers to manipulate me through fear. I believed every word of the threats those boys made. I did not understand the role adults had in keeping children safe. Having autism made me an easy target.
With the help of therapy, most of those heavier chains fell away. I could update my social tools with the following realizations:
Children with autism believe threats made against them. Regardless of how “silly” those threats may sound to an adult, the threats are literal facts to that child.
I did the right thing by telling the teacher my truth.
It was the responsibility of the teacher to tell other adults what I had disclosed.
Anything that happened to that girl (or others) was NOT my fault.
What happened to me was not my fault.
I do matter.
The words of the women and men who are now sharing their truth, help me understand my own trauma. And while reading their stories, I think, “You too?!” It is then that the final chain drops: I am not alone.
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.