There are many forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and it can be really hard to spot when this is creating a problem in your relationship.
While anyone can be a victim of abuse, research shows that those who are neurodiverse may have a heightened risk of violence, bullying or controlling behaviour. ADHD, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and Tourette’s syndrome are all examples of neurodiversity. It is believed that 15 to 20 percent of people are neurodivergent.
Studies show that autistic people may be up to three times as likely as their neurotypical counterparts to experience bullying, and physical or sexual abuse.
As an ADHD adult, I struggle with impulsivity, inattentiveness and hyperactivity among other traits. My relationships can be impacted by these which can make it difficult for me to form healthy connections with others but not impossible. However, one area that I need to be extra aware of is physical or emotional abuse.
Here are three ways in which physical, emotional or sexual abuse within a relationship may be difficult for neurodiverse people to identify
1 – Dopamine seeking
When it comes to ADHD, we have lower levels of dopamine in our brains than neurotypical people. Dopamine is a hormone that controls many areas including memory and pleasure. When I form a new relationship, I crave the mental stimulation that I get from a new person.
This, in the past, has made it very difficult to walk away from a relationship and risk losing that dopamine supply. It means that my brain can often gloss over the bad stuff to get to the good bits even if there are very few of them.
Red flags at the start of a relationship can reveal a lot about what is to come. If you are getting serious warnings at the beginning then it can be really dangerous if your brain doesn’t allow you to stop, process or leave. Abusers are often clever and can spot this. They may take your lack of acknowledgement as acceptance and may keep pushing the boundaries on what they can get away with.
Dopamine seeking can also mean that we do not recognise red flags in sexual situations either. It can be difficult to recognise dangerous situations, stop or ask yourself if you truly consent. We may also say yes in order to for fear of losing the person we get this stimulation from.
2 – Gaslighting
Gaslighting is when a person tries to get you to question their reality, memory or perceptions. It may be difficult for neurodivergent people to recognise when someone might be trying to change details, memories or events to control them.
The reason for this may be that neurodivergent people can struggle with low self-esteem and be extra vulnerable as a result. We can often hear negative messages about ourselves while growing up which can have a last effect on our confidence levels as an adult.
The immediate start of gaslighting in a relationship may feel more like hyper-acceptance from a partner which can become control over time. I struggle with my memory as a result of my ADHD, thanks to the lower dopamine levels, so it’s easy for me to forget details. Partners could easily use this to change small details without my noticing. The memory issues are mostly harmless, although annoying when I lose my keys, but they can be dangerous if a person is repeatedly changing the narrative in their favour.
As a neurodivergent person, I tend to overshare which can also provide a lot of information for people about me. While most partners take this as a way to get to know me, albeit, in a short space of time, some may store the information for use at another time. This is where the devil can use the details you have told them, and then forgotten you’ve told them, to make gaslighting seem even more real.
3 – intense connections
Abusers can be incredibly manipulative and able to exploit a vulnerability. One of the ways this can manifest is through love bombing.
Love bombing can be excessive attention, admiration, and affection from someone often at the start of a relationship. If we, as neurodivergent people, have lower self-esteem and confidence, this can masquerade as acceptance.
It can be difficult to leave if you believe that this is the only person who accepts you or is affectionate towards you. Often abusers can separate a person from friends or family through gaslighting or other methods so you may feel the connection more intensely because they are the only person you feel understands.
As an ADHD person, I struggle to form boundaries with people where I can recognise where I need to safeguard myself. I have very intense friendships and relationships as a result. The intensity of the connection, lack of boundaries, pleasure and reward-seeking mean it is very difficult to walk away.
When it comes to sexual abuse, we can often mistake intensity for acceptance. Neurodivergent people can be too trusting and struggle to read a situation or social cues. This can place us in difficult situations or around dangerous people with no idea how to get out. To be accepted, we may find ourselves saying yes to things we don’t understand or want to take part in.
How to get help
It can be very helpful to know how your traits, like the ones above, can make it difficult for you to spot the signs of abuse. This means doing a bit of research around neurodiversity or even what to look for when it comes to emotional or physical abuse.
No matter how difficult it might be, recording your experiences can be a big help. Make a note of something that doesn’t sound right to you and add to the list if you need to. If you can see a pattern start to emerge then you can address it. Writing everything down can help things to seem clearer, less overwhelming and help you to feel in control.
Also, if the situation needs to escalate, it can be very helpful to have a clear timeline or a list of things in case you forget.
Open up to someone you trust who is not connected to that person. This could be a friend or it could be a someone at an organisation who has training in this area.
You are not alone and here are some organisations that may be able to help:
National Male Survivor Helpline and Online Support Service.
A dedicated service for anyone who identifies as male affected by sexual violence, and those who support them. You can contact them via Phone: 0808 800 5005 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For women who have experienced domestic violence. Refuge operate a freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline. To use this service please call: 0808 2000 247
The Survivors Trust.
This is a free helpline open 7 days a week for people over the age of 16 who have experienced sexual violence or support someone who has. To contact them call: 0808 801 0818
Anyone over the age of 16 who has experienced sexual violence can contact rape crisis for advice and support by calling 0808 802 9999 or going online via https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-help/