“The voice of experience is the most powerful tool for combating discrimination”
Zoe is a young autistic woman from the UK who is a survivor of child sexual exploitation. A talented advocate focusing on the vulnerability of autistic girls and children in relation to sexual exploitation, she is one of the pioneers of the REIGN project. This initiative contends that “the voice of experience is the most powerful tool for combating disability discrimination and abuse”.
“I grew up wishing to meet other people like me, but I had no access to a community that understood the way I was or who did not see me as broken”. With these words, Zoe explains to Autism-Europe her need to become a true advocate and cope with child sexual exploitation, as an autistic person who had experienced it herself: “I was outraged to discover that the vast majority of my female autistic friends had been sexually abused as children, and many have been involved in prostitution in order to survive, because they did not have the employment opportunities or friendship networks to support them”.
Zoe started her work in the autistic community administrating online support groups and facilitating off-line meet-ups, both in women-only and mixed-gendered settings, including hosting autistic pride events in her city. She adds that connecting people together remains one of her favorite things to do within the autistic community. “I had started talking openly about my experiences growing up without the correct support or understanding and the effects that has had on my life opportunities and mental wellbeing. I did not want anyone else to feel isolated or be failed in the same way, so along with facilitating the meet-ups, I started campaigning for autistic rights and acceptance, working alongside other autistic advocates and activists”, she said.
The REIGN project
In 2016, Zoe joined three other young survivors of child sexual exploitation in Manchester (UK) in setting up REIGN. The REIGN project operates under RECLAIM, a charity which aims to identify and support young leaders from working class communities with different projects and programmes since 2007. “We want to be the people we needed when we were younger, then pass the baton on to the next group of strong survivors who wish to continue the work. We also want to improve laws and policies around child protection so that preventing child sexual exploitation becomes a priority across the UK and Europe”, she explains.
REIGN offers training and consultancy to authorities and front-line services such as social workers, the police, schools and fostering agencies on how to identify and prevent child sexual exploitation. “I believe it is of particular importance that agencies hear directly from people with lived experience of these issues to improve their services in ways they would not consider, and to inform them of problems and prospective difficulties they would otherwise be unaware of”, affirms Zoe. They also educate school children and campaign to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation and increase a sense of responsibility in the community.
REIGN targets all children, regardless of gender, background, race, class or disability. They are a diverse collective, all highly aware of the various intersections within child sexual exploitation, and they are determined to fix the flaws in the systems that failed them as children. “For me, the lack of understanding around my neurology played a major role in the abuse I suffered and prevented me from getting the support and protection I needed”, she said.
Awareness and social inclusion to tackle abuse
In the specific case of autistic children, Zoe points out the fact that many symptoms of psychological trauma can be mistaken for traits of autism. “A child may constantly run away from a home where they are being abused, they may be aggressive, have regressive development, or be sexually inappropriate. These are all classical signs of an abused child but can be mistaken as simply relating to the child’s autism and dismissed”.
Adults may assume their child will not be at risk of sexual exploitation because they believe they do not have the independence, competence or desire to engage in a sexual relationship. “This is often very far from the truth but the parents do not have a true insight into an autistic child’s mind. This ignorance causes complacency in the protection of that child. Autistic adults can remember how they processed the world as children and are the best people to inform parents and professionals on the autistic experience”.
An autistic child may also have less of an understanding of what is socially appropriate and lack a sense of danger or personal agency, causing them to not realise what is happening to them is abuse. Thanks to REIGN, they are able to give personally informed strategies for developing that awareness in a child that will help them stay protected. “Many therapies for autism focus on training a child to be compliant to adults’ demands in return for a reward. This is also how perpetrators groom their victims into sexual exploitation. Autistic children who have been through compliance-based behavior therapies are very easy targets because the work is already half done. These therapies often involve touching or restraining the child against their wishes until it becomes normalised. It is of vital importance that all children, but especially autistic children, are taught about body autonomy and the right to say no”.
Zoe also highlights that “there is a general assumption that autistic people lack both sexuality and a desire to be loved or socially included. Children are often pulled into sexually exploitative situations because they want or need the love or acceptance an abuser may be offering. This is easier if the child isn’t receiving that from other places, i.e., through friends at school”.
“Identity-first Autistic” campaign
In 2015, Zoe launched the “Identity-first Autistic” campaign to raise awareness of the way the language used around autism and disability effects social attitudes, calling for the acceptance of identity-first language for autistic people. The campaign allows companies and organisations to pledge to the use of Identity-first language, as the majority of the autistic community in the UK prefers it. “I prefer to be called ‘autistic’, or ‘an autistic person’ and not ‘a person with autism/on the autism spectrum’. We proclaim that ‘autistic’ is not a dirty word. It is integral to our being, and we can be proudly, and perfectly autistic – not a failed version of neurotypical”, she clarifies.