“Hate crime” is a common term used to describe abusive verbal and physical behavior which targets someone on the basis of his/her gender, race, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation. Children and young people on the autistic spectrum are also at risk of a more subtle and devious manipulation known as “mate crime,” a relatively new term to describe a feigned friendship to gain trust with the specific aim of exploitation.
In 2015, a UK autism charity conducted a survey which found that a high number of people had been subjected to mate crime; 80 percent of respondents over 16 years old reported that they had been bullied by someone they thought was their friend. As people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) commonly face challenges making friendships, it can be hugely positive when relationships start, names of others are mentioned in conversation, and arrangements to socialize are made. Confusion about what friendship is and how it is formed, as well as a lack of understanding of social situations and appropriate interactions can make children and young people particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous ploys to engage with them and secure their trust. They are then susceptible to abuse including physical and verbal assault, intimidation, theft, and even coercion into committing crime. This places an obligation on educators and parents to take steps to help children and young people recognize and resist being drawn into abusive relationships.
Analyzing friendship and the particular dynamics of it is complex. It is a natural part of life to have favored company, uneven dynamics within relationships, and to face “give and take.” It is an element of friendship to make allowances for the aspects of a person’s character that we like less, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to do favors for one another.
It can also take time for the real agenda to become evident, which can mean the betrayal can be more devastating for the victim as they may not have realized they had been taken advantage of if they did not recognize the behavior as abuse.
On other occasions, if so eager for friendship, a person with autism may tolerate aggressive and unpleasant behavior from the outset if it means they are not alone. The company of an abusive person is still company.
So how can we support children and young people to distinguish genuine friendship from harmful relationships and negative influences?
We can ask 10 questions to serve as a conversation prompt to establish whether the child or young person is at risk of mate crime:
- Do your friends sometimes make you upset?
- Do your friends ever call you names that you don’t like?
- Do your friends ever hurt you physically?
- Do your friends ask you for money but don’t pay it back?
- Do your friends take, use, or damage your belongings?
- Do your friends use your phone, or ask you to use your phone to take photographs or send messages that you don’t want to send?
- Do your friends bring other people to your home that you don’t know or didn’t invite?
- Do your friends only want to meet you alone?
- Do your friends encourage you to do things you know are against the law?
- Do your friends pressure you to do things that make you feel bad?
Asking these questions or having to tell a child or young person that someone is using them is not a message that will be easy to deliver. It may be that they seek to justify the behavior if they are convinced the perpetrator is their friend and feel a sense of guilt at the prospect of reporting them. There may be added feelings of embarrassment and humiliation.
It is also important to add that people with autism can of course be perpetrators and not only the victims of mate crime, and they will need support to understand as well.
The shocking figures relating to the rise in mate crime compel us to take steps to safeguard against it without becoming cynical ourselves or instill mistrust. It is possible that genuine relationships can form and that people can befriend those on the autistic spectrum without an agenda. Educators and parents can see these relationships as part of the social and emotional support that can be given to children and young people to empower them to distinguish real friendship from fake, and enjoy positive, healthy friendships with others.
Kate Sarginson has been a teacher for 16 years. She has a master’s degree in inclusive education and post graduate qualification “National Award in Special Educational Needs Coordination.” She is working towards an MPhil from the University of Manchester, focusing on training teachers and influencing best practices for pupils with various special educational needs. Kate has experience in specialist residential college for young adults with learning difficulties, mainstream high school, and, currently, independent boarding school. Her current role is head of learning support at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, England.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions