Trust on the Spectrum
Autism affects how a person relates to others, which can make trusting hard.
Posted April 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
How do you get a cat to trust a dog? I am currently owned by two dogs and one cat and they co-exist beautifully, but we weren’t sure what was going to happen when we brought a cat into our family. I remember researching for advice on introducing a cat to a home with canines and the instructions seemed to suggest extreme caution. I remember the cat rescue centre thinking it was going to be problematic, and there were many cats in their care that were not suitable for dog households. People told me it wasn’t going to work, but I had faith (and I am stubborn; naysayers motivate me).
I trusted that my dogs would not be cat abusers, I trusted that we would be able to integrate a feline, and I fully believed domestic pet bliss was in the cards. Ever the optimist, always the idealist, and forever the dreamer. Autism is often characterized as living in your own world, and in my world, I envisage things always working out for the best.
And I was right about the pets. The dogs met the cat and the cat terrified them and the hierarchy changed within seconds and the cat took over the house. No struggle, the most peaceful pet coup ever and they have all lived together in harmony since. If only relationships with people were this straightforward.
Many people with autism have difficulty trusting people. I myself have been learning some very powerful and painful life lessons around trust recently and it seems my expectations of people may be too high for most people to meet. My expectations of relationships are honesty, decency, and integrity, but sadly, many people aren’t honest and don’t always do the decent thing or value integrity as an important trait.
I trust my children as they are the most wonderful people I know and they accept me fully. Only a few other people really get to know me on a deeper level, and these are people I trust. I am a very friendly person who speaks openly and freely with those whom I admire and love, but trust is a different ball game. As I am getting older I increasingly appreciate the phrase "Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe." I think I am going to start living by it, as I believe I have been guilty of being too trusting in the past. Trusting other people whilst being on the spectrum can be a difficult task, and I see it as one of the greatest challenges I face when supporting people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Trusting is hard. Knowing who to trust, even harder.”
Maria V. Snyder
Having autism in this world can be a deeply traumatic experience. Bullying, harassment, and abuse are the reality of many autistic people's lives; being different can be dangerous in a world that rewards conformity. The health of people with ASD is generally poorer, the life expectancy is lower, and suicide rates are higher for ASD adults.
Sensory experiences can be crippling, and lack of accommodations and adaptations for work and education can make functioning almost impossible. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health impacts of ASD, and being misunderstood and misrepresented is one of the most alienating and frustrating aspects of the condition, and is an almost constant feature of many of our interactions with other people. Looking at these issues and understanding the condition, it is no wonder that it can take a lot of strength and courage for an autistic person to trust another person, especially romantically and intimately.
If you want an autistic person to trust you, I suggest you tread carefully and think deeply and most importantly, be trustworthy. My work involves helping people to heal from trauma, and this may often occur as a result of breaches of trust and hearts being broken, but my job is often gently encouraging them not to give up on people and relationships.
My counselling supervisor said, “You keep opening your heart even after you have been hurt, but many people close it off and aren’t willing to be vulnerable to the pain.” I understand this and I also understand why people would decide to do this. But I think relationships are one of the most important things in life, and I wish we could trust people as much as I trust my pet. Sadly, we often can't.
But I do know that when we find people who cherish us and treat us well, who make us feel warm, safe, and special, the chances are that trust is in the air. This is how I know that I can trust. It may be a big ask for many, but in my experience it can also be an easy task for a select few.
“Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.”