My Life With Asperger's

How to live a high-functioning life with Asperger's.

Autism and Porn: A Problem No One Talks About

Are people with autism more vulnerable to the lure of pornography?

I recently read a Daily Beast article on autistic males and child pornography by Temple Grandin’s mother.  I shared the story on my Facebook and was surprised at the mix of strongly positive and negative responses the story generated.  Whatever your thoughts about that particular story, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a subject that merits reasoned discussion. 

Sex crime is a distasteful subject, and the last thing I want is a negative association between autism and such behavior. Autistic people ARE NOT by nature sexual predators of any sort.  Multiple studies have shown autistic people are likely to to be victims far more often that we are perpetrators of crime in general and sex crime in particular. Abuse of people with disabilities is a well known and tragically common situation.  Let's be absolutely clear on that. At the same time, I feel I must speak up.  I say it here, and I'll repeat it later:  Very few autistic people will ever have trouble with sex crimes.  Very few NT people get involved in sex crime either, for that matter.  But those that do are highly visible and the autistic ones I have met needed help much more than punishment.  Ignoring that reality is like ignoring the teachers who locked autistic people in basements at school when I was a kid.

The opinions you read in this story are my own, formed after extensive involvement in legal cases where people with autism were charged with sex crimes, specifically with viewing illegal materials online.  All the crimes described were virtual - none involved physical contact. I look at the people, read the police reports, talk to the families and the individuals themselves and ask . . . what went wrong?  How did this happen?  How can we prevent it?  

Those of you who follow my service on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee know that I hold the interests of our autistic community close to my heart, and I want to end misunderstanding, mistreatment and discrimination in all forms. I have called for the Dept. of Justice to work with us to address issues like this, but the appearance of other articles promoted me to take the discussion to the public at this time too.

I speak to many people on the autism spectrum, and many of their family members, caregivers, teachers, and therapists.  Through those conversations I’ve become convinced there is a subset of our population who is very vulnerable to the illegal pornography that’s online today.  Some know it’s wrong, and go down the path anyway.  Others don’t really understand what they are doing.  Few of these people are truly threats to the public, yet all end up in terrible trouble when they run up against the law.

If you meet some of these people— as I have—it's impossible to lump them in the same box with other sex offenders.  The autistic folks I have met were not predatory, nor were they violent.  None had engaged in physical sex acts— all were viewing material online.  The thing that troubled me the most is that none of the individuals I met really understood what they had done, or why until later therapy revealed those answers.  Yet our legal system treated these people much the same as if they had solicited a twelve-year-old girl in a school yard, and had sex with her.  That, to me, is a miscarriage of justice.  Furthermore—and I make this point further down—devoting law enforcement resources to this group while true sexual predators roam our streets is bad policy and represents to me the "easy pickings" approach to law enforcement.

If it's recognition of autistic vulnerability that gets these people help instead of hard prison time, I am all for it. I have no wish to paint autistic people as potential sex offenders— we are not.  But I do feel our differences can place us at risk in some situations and this is one of them.  

For the past few years I have been speaking out about my own concerns regarding autistic people and porn.  I’ve also assisted in the defense of autistic people who got into serious legal trouble.  Meeting and talking to them, their lawyers, and their prosecutors has certainly opened my eyes to the scope of this problem, and how very different these individuals are from most sex offenders in the legal system.  I've also seen some striking ways in which they were the same, and while I have no firm answers, I speculate on the "why they may be similar" below.  

It’s easy to say this is a black and white issue— illegal porn is reprehensible and people who view it belong in prison—but when the defendants don’t understand what they did, what it means, or why it becomes much more complex.

Why do I think some autistic males are at risk for getting into trouble over this misdirected sexuality?  I’ll lay out my reasons, each of which should be considered separately as only one or two may apply to any particular individual.  Also, its important to remember that most people— with or without autism—will never have an issue with porn.  We are only discussing possible autism-related factors for those that do.

Reason 1:  Developmental delay may align young adults with kids.

Many people with autism experience significant developmental delays, and those delays are often imbalanced and even offset by exceptionalities in other areas.  For example, when I was twelve, I had the language skills of a college professor with the social intelligence of a five-year-old.

That caused me to do many stupid things, but I explained myself so well (while being totally clueless inside) that adults thought I was putting them on.  Harmless as that was, it shows the disparity between emotional and logical development that can exist in a person with autism. 

Thanks to this delay, some autistic people look at younger kids as peers.   You may see a teen with more severe autism playing with young children for this reason.  It’s harmless and innocent in most cases, but sometimes puberty intervenes . . .

When a teen with autism sees eight-year-olds as peers, and he decides he wants a girlfriend, he may look to those younger girls.  Not from any evil motivation, but because younger kids are the kids he identifies with.  Developmentally, in his mind, they are “like him.” When this happens with a teen, it’s a matter for schools and parents, and we hope it’s dealt with properly.  What happens when that situation plays out when the autistic person is 21 and the target of his affections is 13?   You have potential for disaster.

I’ve seen this all too often in real life.

But that’s not the worst of it—more often, young men with more severe autism have no luck connecting with real-world girls at all.  Consequently, some turn online.  That’s where a new danger arises.  A young man who identifies with younger people may—without understanding risks, rights/wrongs, or consequences—find his way to forbidden websites and thence to trouble.

It’s very easy to do this, and a person with severe autistic challenges may not intuitively understand either the risks or the moral issues.  In many tragic cases, autistic people were never “taught the rules.” 

They go looking for affection in a world that rejects us, and the object of their attention turns out to be a video of an underage person.  The autistic person means no harm, and has no evil intent.  He may know what’s he’s doing is wrong, or he may not.  Even if he knows it’s wrong his autistic social disconnect may make it hard for him to act correctly.  What it all adds up to is many paths to big trouble.

The scenario above applies primarily to people with significant elements of autistic disability.  What about Asperger people?

Reason 2: Weak Theory of Mind can make it hard to know right from wrong

Whatever your native intelligence, if you are blind to the emotional signals of others it’s hard to develop a sense of what is and is not socially acceptable. Adults with autism develop logic-based moral structures, but teens are not old enough for those notions to be fully developed.  In comparison to typically developing kids, their sense of what's appropriate and right may be very weak. I’ll give you a real-world example.

A teen with Asperger’s wanted to know more about some of the girls at his school.  So he took a small webcam and installed it in the shower one evening, hidden under a towel.

He downloaded half a dozen shower scenes before the camera was discovered and he was caught.  The school administrators called the police, and he was arrested and charged.

In the eyes of the law, he was viewing illegal porn when he watched those videos.  Today, he is a convicted sex offender.  Prior to trial, he said he knew what he was doing was wrong, but I believe lack of Theory Of Mind kept him from fully understanding how his actions would affect the girls (they were traumatized); how it would affect him (potential incarceration);  and how his behavior would affect everyone else around him.

Technology has made stories like this disturbingly common.  A behavior that wasn't even possible when I was growing up is an easy-to-commit felony today.

I'll give you another real example:  A 21-year-old with autism has never had a girlfriend.  He falls in love with a 14-year-old girl, who feels strongly for him, and does not know she should not be in that relationship.  If the two people were 31 and 24, no one would say anything.  But at 21 and 14, he goes to jail.

That's actually a broader societal issue but an autistic person— who may see that younger person as a peer, have never had a prior sexual expereince and who may be driven by greater loneliness—it's a big problem.  It's something we need to address by education before it happens, not by punishment after.

Most people with Asperger’s won’t ever do something like this, but the sad truth is, our blindness to how others feel may mean we have less to inhibit us should an action like this come to mind.  Where emotionally intuitive people can sense what’s right and wrong in the eyes of others we must learn it, and a few of us get into life-altering trouble before that has time to happen.

Again, the answer is early sex and behavior education 

Reason 3: Autistic people can be easy marks for law enforcement 

When people search for things online they often find their way to forums, chat rooms, and other interactive communities.  I often engage people in photography forums, and I’m sure many of you do the same with your own interests.  The same thing happens with porn—people discuss it online.

However, there is a big difference between a photography chat room and a child porn chat room.  Everyone on the photo chat room is interested in taking pictures.  A significant number of the people on child porn sites are actually lawmen, posing as something else.

They are very careful to follow the letter of the law when it comes to entrapment, but the sad truth is, autism can once again set people up in this situation.  An agent may easily lead on an autistic person, and he may be induced to do or view things an ordinary person would turn away from.  His lack of social awareness may let him say things that will lead to further trouble.  People with developmental challenges can be easy marks for law enforcement.  That’s the tragic truth.  It does not excuse their actions, but it does expose their vulnerability, and it reinforces the vital need to teach online and sex behaviors to ALL people from a very early age.

Reason 4: Autism can isolate us, and we may become desperate for human contact. Desperate people do things others would never consider.

The worst way this may manifest itself is in suicide, and suicide attempts.  Loneliness and isolation can kill.  Isolation is often mentioned when teen suicide is reported. 

Isolation and the need to connect can also induce people to turn online.  Thanks to the Internet, many young people form online friendships and relationships of all sorts.  Some even engage in online sex.

What about the people whose disabilities preclude forming those kinds of connections?  They may look online for pornography, and if they venture into the wrong areas of that world, they may find a world of trouble.

Reason 5 : Neurological vulnerability

This last one may surprise some of you, but there’s a basis in science for it 

We know people with autism have greater-than-normal brain plasticity, which makes us more ‘changeable” than ordinary folks.  It can also make us more sensitive to change in response to stimulus.  Whatever you feel about porn, everyone agrees its stimulus can be powerful indeed and for a susceptible mind that can spell trouble—more so that for a neuro-typical person. 

Studies have looked at brain areas that are activated when viewing porn, and compared those findings with responses from people who have actual physical sex. Viewing porn—neurologically speaking—can take the place of sex, even for people in physical relationships.  For an autistic person who cannot form relationships in real life, porn could easily become more compelling than the desire to be with a real-life girlfriend. 

*

None of these points justify viewing forbidden things like child pornography, but they may help understand why certain people may do it, and how and why they get into trouble. I hope it sparks a discussion on what we do about it.

The factors that push a person with autism into the world of online porn are very different from the factors that shape conventional sex offenders.  That means the treatments to help them understand and change their behaviors are different as well.  More importantly, the threat these autistic people pose to the community is markedly less.  Yet our legal system is blind to all that, at least so far.

Every person is unique, but the reasons I cite in this essay are drawn from core traits of autism and so are common to many on the spectrum.  That does not mean many autistic people have a porn problem—they don’t—but it does attempt to explain our community’s vulnerability.

This situation is particularly tragic because technology has made it so easy to commit a sex crime.   A $20 webcam becomes an instrument of a felony, as does the keyboard of an iPad.  It’s a reality many middle-aged parents and teachers overlook because this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible when we ourselves were young.   

In the days of print, child porn was hard to get and everyone knew it was forbidden.  Today, it’s available in seconds to anyone with an Internet connection.  As one reader said, it's very easy for a teen to fall down a very dark rabbit hole by googling the relatively innocent phrase "naked girls"  In seconds the screen will be full of pop-ups, some of which lead to very dark places.  And it's all too easy to look at worse and worse material until that line is crossed.

I also hope this helps people realize both how we may be vulnerable to this risk, and how it can be prevented with early education and training. 

Saying "kids need to know right from wrong" is not enough.  The world is different now.  Autistic people are different.  We deserve constructive solutions, and we need to develop and deploy them.

What are your feelings about this?  Has something like this happened to someone you know?  Might it happen, tomorrow?

 

 

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.   Look for his newest book—Raising Cubby—wherever books are sold.

John Elder Robison is the author of Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger's, and Be Different, Adventures of a free-range Aspergian.

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