The Dangers of Autism

People with autism expose themselves to danger by not recognizing social cues.

ByABC News
November 5, 2008, 2:13 PM

Nov. 6, 2008 — -- Liane Willey's father always told her that, if she was ever in trouble, she should find a policeman and ask for help.

In college, Willey befriended a young campus policeman. Recalling her father's advice, she asked him to escort her home late one evening rather than walk alone. Instead, the officer drove away from campus, took her to his trailer home, and raped her.

"I don't get the warning signs. I don't feel the creepiness," said Willey, who has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. "I get lured into the dark places."

Failing to recognize social cues -- that a "creepy" man might not be safe to go home with, for instance -- is a classic example of how people with autism spectrum disorders can get into troublesome situations. And trouble can rapidly become dangerous.

Most people may not associate having autism with being in danger. But many of the 1.5 million Americans with autism spectrum disorders face potentially life-threatening issues as a result of their inherent traits and behaviors.

"[Danger] is not the first thing that comes up, nor should it be," said Dennis Debbaudt, a lecturer on autism for first responders. "You're thinking of a lot of things when your beautiful child is diagnosed with autism. It's tough to get through the first 90 days or six months or one year.

"But we can't ignore this," he said. "It's when we ignore risk management ... that you're in deep trouble."

Autism lends itself to guileless and trusting behavior, which makes people with the disorder prime targets for abuse, thievery and scams. According to the Department of Justice, people with developmental disabilities, including autism, have a four to 10 times higher risk of becoming crime victims and are twice as likely to be sexually abused as people without those disabilities.

Making matters worse, sexual assault crimes are already underreported. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that only 300 out of an estimated 1000 rapes that occur each day in the United States are actually documented. Hampered by poor communication and language skills, people on the autism spectrum may never be able to speak out about abuse, even if they are not held back by feelings of shame.

The incident with the policeman was not the only time Willey was the victim of sexual assault. She was kissed and groped on two other occasions, once by a professor and once, years later, by the director of a play she was taking part in.

Following her professor's assault, Willey felt so disturbed that she became suicidal for a time. Her sense of disorientation ballooned to the point that she felt things were not as they seemed.

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"It's almost like a drug induced trip," Willey said. "I go to touch things and find it's not there. I turn around and it's a monster."