Blog Post by CJ James
“In other words, I walked right into it.”
There have been a lot of changes over the last decade of my life, but one constant. I have been a victim of stalking and cyber-harassment (which is just a very specific form of stalking) for the last ten years. It started in Texas with multiple instances of the same man approaching me in person and online. It continued when I moved to Québec, though it is exclusively online for now. As an Autistic woman, this stalking has made my life extremely difficult from an organizational and emotions-management standpoint. For about a year, it also made it difficult to get my Vitamin D. Victimhood is not easy for anyone, but I want to explain how being a victim of stalking is even more complicated for an Autistic person. I will explain how these events have affected me personally, illustrate how it affects my relationships to others, and discuss how the solutions that are available in society are not adapted to the needs of Autistic people.
Need for routine
One of the first recommendations you will receive when being stalked is to abandon routine and habits. It makes sense. If you use the same path to walk to your car at the same time everyday, then it is easy for someone to learn your routine and insert themselves into it. Same with, say, having a favourite bookstore.
On the contrary, one of the more famous quirks of Autism is our reliance on routines. We aren’t like this just because we want to be difficult; we need predictability to function. Surprises require more on-the-fly thinking, which is a common challenge for Autistic people. I am no different.
I need my routine to keep track of my keys, remember to feed my dogs (and myself), and to wake up on time. Without routine, I struggle with the basic-life organization that more normative people call “adulting”. I could not live in an environment where evasion was a daily goal. In the end, it felt like I had the choice between retreating entirely or living with regular, dangerous interruptions due to stalking. I chose to retreat to another country. It gives me room to breathe, but it still negatively affects me –frequently.
Difficulty reading danger
Another difficulty that’s somewhat unique for Autistic stalking victims is that reading the danger of a situation is very context-specific and can be confusing. Behaviour that makes sense to an Autistic person can be very dangerous coming from other people. For example, when I was bullied as a child, I kept getting up and repeatedly put myself in situations where I could have been rejected. Over practice (and some help from puberty), I developed the social skills that garnered me a minor, but peaceful social existence. For me, I respect when people try again and again, but in this case, it is not healthy nor respectful. That said, it took me years to recognize that I was being stalked because, to me, he was just trying really hard.
Another example of this is a lot more harrowing now that I am aware of the connotations. One time, around one in the morning, he confronted me in my apartment complex’s laundromat. For me, I was overwhelmed by the hyper-social nature of Texas social norms, so the surprise that someone was hiding in the dark for me was no different than the stress I experience when someone else is using the laundromat at the same time as me. I just didn’t want to engage in small talk or anything like that. Both situations were annoying in an overwhelming sense, but I had to cope with being overwhelmed all the time.
Before I even realized that I like being closer to the door than the people around me (I also have PTSD), I had ”played it cool” to the point that I was further into the laundromat than he was, making him closer to the door than me. In other words, I walked right into it. Keep in mind that this is Texas. It’s a violent place and he, later on, threatened my life. What sort of weapons or intentions resided in him? No one knows because, in my attempt to play it cool, I eventually got him talking. I learned that he was there because he was obsessed with me and he was moving away in a few weeks.
He had envisioned meeting me as a last hurrah. I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t pretended to want his number. Certainly he’s so unstable that even he doesn’t know what he intended if I openly blew him off. That said, the danger inherent in a “last hurrah with a woman you’ve been obsessed with for many years” did not occur to me until about a year after I walked out of there. My avoidance for the year after that event was simply my frustration with unexpected social interactions. About the same time I realized the danger I had been in was about a month after he started making unsolicited comments to me about having a gun. I was like a lobster in boiling water.
Strategies that don’t make sense on first impression
Another thing that affects stalking victims is that their strategies of stalker-management rarely make sense on first glance. Experts in the field themselves do not agree on how to manage prolonged cyber-harassment, so victims often have to make their own decisions about how they want to manage the threat.
I have years of evidence of his stalking and harassment due to my strategies, but it’s really hit-or-miss if I am able to explain the methodology to another person. When making my strategy, I just did not care how it looks to other people, so I allowed cyber-harassment on my public posts from a single Facebook account of his for one main reason: the harassment doesn’t stop when I block him and it’s easier to prove all the harassment is coming from the same person if I allow him one account that I do not block.
I’ve since abandoned this strategy because it was causing social rifts with people perceiving me as “letting it happen” or “wanting it”. Because I am on the spectrum, and because this factoid was public knowledge, people were highly critical of my management strategies, rather than accepting that I had consulted experts and built my own expertise. Ultimately, I just wanted good evidence to put this devil-on-my-back away for a long time and I did not care how other people perceived it.
I’ve already hinted at this a little, but stalking is already a difficult crime to communicate because the danger comes from the fact that it’s not a single occurrence. Additionally, there’s some classical conditioning that happens. Not every act of stalking is sinister on its face. However, every act is a reminder that the sinister acts of stalking did happen, could happen again, and might escalate. What a stalking victim feels is not easily communicated.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably wondered if I’ve ever contacted the police. There may even be a few comments from people who didn’t finish reading this who are convinced that this would not happen if I had just contacted the police. Sadly, people’s reactions to this crime I experience are becoming more and more predictable to me. However, I did actually try to talk to the police about this crime. A lot.
There are significant communication differences between what police expect from a victim and what comes out of an Autistic victim. There’s a book and a lot of academic papers about it. In some countries, such as the UK, due to these differences, an Autistic victim can ask for an investigator to report to who is specially trained to communicate with Autistic victims.
I would love to see something like this in Quebec, as I’ve had mixed experiences reporting my stalker’s activity here. Sometimes they are very understanding, but one time I got dragged out instead of being allowed to report the crime occurring against me. As a result, I have a deal with my éducateur spécialisé where he goes with me to the police station to report my stalker’s more sensational threats.
I can’t imagine still having this problem in Texas, where I am from. There are no éducateurs/éducatrices spécialisé.e.s in Texas, but they should not be needed anyway. I am lucky that, right now, the stalking behaviour is exclusively cyberharassment, which is Criminal Harassment in Canada, a serious crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This lack of urgency, due to the distance, means that I can wait a few days after I receive an especially salient threat for my éducateur spécialisé to be available to go to the police station with me. If the threats were occurring in person, I would not have the time to wait and we would be back to the same problem. For a whole year in Texas, when the stalking escalated to in person contacts, I left my house as little as possible out of fear, cutting me off from sunlight.
While still in Texas, I tried interacting with the police through a very helpful women’s shelter, but they had no knowledge of Autistic communication so they did not really understand the problem either. It did not help that their funding comes from domestic violence grants and I never dated this man who is stalking me. Autistic crime victims need more than just helpful people, though they do help; we need specialized support when we go to report to the police.
…With friends and care workers
There are social challenges in just being an Autistic person, but stalking adds another layer. I often feel like I am on trial as a victim with the people around me such as friends, acquaintances, and care workers. There’s high stakes to strike the right tone with your victimhood/survivourness and absolutely no one to learn it from. This means that minor grievances, such as the way I give walking directions, can transform into full critique of my life, such as the way I manage my victimhood, quite rapidly.
Everyone has an opinion about how they would handle it if they were you. It’s hard enough to be a victim of a serious crime with heavy psychological effects on my person, but there is an extra layer that comes from people criticizing my decisions, good ones and faults, as everything is under a magnifying glass. This is an extra social challenge to negotiate. No one wants their decisions under a magnifying glass, especially as a result of a crime. As an Autistic person, additional social challenges can feel like an insurmountable mountain. It has been much harder to build my new circle of friends here in Québec as a result.
Sensory issues and communal shelters
Lastly, stalking victims are often pushed to start over in the shelter environment. This is because starting over is very spendy, but, even when you’re not disabled, stalking conflicts with generating income. The emotional experience of stalking is another weight on your “adulting” skills and the act of stalking often interferes with employment. Thus, the free shelter enters.
But there’s a huge caveat. Autistic people can be too sensory sensitive and socially different to survive in communal environments (without other Autistic people).
While some shelters can place a person in a private room, crowding and understanding are barriers. Most shelters do not recognize the specialized needs of Autistic people well enough to accommodate them. Personally, I could never have started over if I hadn’t been especially good at crowdfunding and then also had some seriously lucky outcomes. One time, when I was a homeless new arrival in Trois Rivières, the CLSC paid for me to stay in a cheap motel for the weekend and then placed me (and my dogs) in supported Autistic housing the following Monday. This was especially lucky because I had nowhere to go, crowdfunding was in a lull, and staying at the only shelter in town was also not an option. One of the many reasons why I volunteer my writing to Autism House is because they are aware of the Autistic community’s specialized housing needs and their goal is to eventually provide it. I think that will save lives we haven’t even heard about yet.
Overall, stalking is a difficult crime whether or not you are Autistic and this review of our unique challenges as stalking victims is not intended to downplay other stalking victims. It is always hard and there is always someone who has survived worse. Before the 90s, neither stalking nor Autism were widely recognized, but the confluence of the two has some unique traits that, frankly, suck. Every year, both issues gain general awareness in the global zeitgeist. I hope that this work can make a meaningful contribution to both as well. Please share!