How do I know if I am in an abusive relationship? What is different about family violence in the ASD community?
November is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Canada. COVID-19 has caused a spike in domestic violence and abuse worldwide. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women. It has also affected the autism community in different ways due to loss of supports, suspension of some services and in-person visits, loss of income, additional health issues, and changes to how we live our daily lives. Add to this, frequent changes in protocols and policies as well as lockdown situations, throwing families together for long periods of time without a break.
Let’s talk about domestic violence and abuse, what it is, how to recognize it and where to get help. I will also separately address some specifics for the autism community as there are unique issues around violence and aggression.
What is domestic violence and abuse?
The definition of domestic violence and abuse is any attempt made by one person in an intimate relationship or marriage to dominate and control the other. The only purpose of it is to gain and maintain control over a person. Abusers use tactics such a fear, guilt, shame and intimidation to wear a person down and keep them in their control.
Victims of domestic violence do not bring violence upon themselves, they do not always lack self-confidence, nor are they just as abusive as the abuser.
In relationships where domestic violence exists, violence is not equal – even if the victim fights back or instigates violence in an effort to diffuse a situation. There is always one person who is the primary, constant source of power, control, and abuse in the relationship.
Abusive behavior is a choice. Abuse doesn’t take place because the abuser loses control over their behavior; it is a deliberate choice to gain control. The abuser uses a variety of tactics to manipulate and exert their power by using the following:
dominance – making decisions for you and the family, telling you what to do, and expecting obedience. May treat you like a servant, child or possession.
humiliation – lowering your self-esteem, making you feel defective in some way. If you think you are worthless, you are less likely to leave.
isolation – to increase your dependence on the abuser, you are cut off from the outside world. COVID-19 is exacerbating this. You may be prevented from seeing family, friends or be prevented from going to work or school.
threats – used to keep partners from leaving or scare them into dropping charges. They may threated to hurt or kill you, your children, family members or pets. They say they will commit suicide or report you to child services.
intimidation – tactics include threatening looks or gestures, destroying property, hurting your pets, displaying weapons.
denial and blame – abusers are skilled at making excuses for their behavior. They may say they had a bad childhood, a bad day, or blame you or the children. They minimize their abuse or deny what they’ve done.
Abusers can control their behavior. Abusers:
• pick and choose whom to abuse
• choose carefully when and where to abuse
• are able to stop behavior when it benefits them
• violent abusers direct their blows where they won’t show
What are some statistics and facts about abuse?
Here are some statistics and facts that you may not be aware of about abuse:
• 54% – 60% of victims have university degrees
• In Canada, a woman is killed every 5 days in domestic violence
• 50% of women experience physical or sexual violence by the age of 16
• 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience intimate partner violence (IPV)
• In Wuhan Province, China – 300% increase
• In the UK – 50% increase in help websites, but not phone helplines because it can be difficult to be alone to make a call
• Leaving is dangerous – many victims stay due to barriers
• Victims will make the best choices for them when given choices
• Children who witness family violence are impacted more that if abused themselves
What are some specific things to know about the COVID-19 pandemic and abuse?
• Abusers are using COVID pandemic to increase control.
• The pandemic doesn’t cause violence and abuse, it increases it.
• Victims are unable to connect with services because they are never alone.
• share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten survivors.
• prevent them from seeking appropriate medical attention if they have symptoms.
• withhold necessary items like masks and hand sanitizer.
• feel more justified and escalate their isolation tactics.
What are the different types of abuse?
There are different types of abuse. A person may be experiencing more than one of these:
Physical abuse – can include slapping, punching, kicking, biting, shoving, choking, or using a weapon or object to threaten or injure. It can and sometimes does result in death.
Psychological abuse – can include the withdrawal of affection, keeping track of everything a person does, being harassed by phone calls or visits, being threatened, having prized possessions destroyed, having pets hurt or killed, and enduring the suicide threats of the person who is abusive. This is also emotional abuse.
Neglect – a common form of abuse particularly with young children, elderly people and people who have a disability. It can include long term neglect that may result in physical ailments, as well as sporadic neglect used as punishment e.g. deciding not to help a person to the washroom because they have been difficult.
Verbal abuse – constant criticism, name-calling and put-downs. It includes unjust blaming, false accusations about loyalties or sexual actions. It can include repeated threats of violence against another person, their children, relatives and/or pets.
Sexual abuse – being forced to perform sexual acts or being made to suffer pain or injury during sex. Sexual abuse can also include being infected with HIV, AIDS or with another serious sexually transmitted disease by a person who knows he/she is infected but refuses to tell their partner or to practice safe sex.
Financial abuse – generally applies only to the abuse of adults. It means that even if the family is not poor, the person being abused will have no access to the family’s money, no say over what will be bought and no money for their own use.
Spiritual abuse – the imposition of beliefs on others in order to control them. It is the exercise of power which fails to recognize the fundamental spiritual worth of the person or which damages another person’s sense of self-worth. Spiritual abuse can also include belittling or attacking another’s spiritual beliefs or preventing them from engaging in religious practice.
How does violence, aggression or abuse differ if a person has ASD?
Child or adolescent to parent violence is not something that is widely talked about, but it exists and many families suffer in silence, are isolated, or feel misunderstood if they disclose and ask for help. There has been an extensive UK study done in 2015 on the topic and an informative website created. I have written a series of articles around challenging behavior, anger rumination and crisis experiences to help shed some light on why family violence happens in families with autism and how it differs from the domestic violence information discussed earlier. Comorbidity in ASD, particularly around mental health issues, can increase challenging behavior.
Individuals with ASD are more vulnerable to crisis situations because of:
· restricted, repetitive behaviours and interests (RRBIs)
· impairments in social interaction
· communication difficulties
· intellectual disability
· behavioral conditions (anger rumination)
· mental health conditions (anxiety, OCD, depression)
· lack of environmental accommodations (noisy environment, bright lights, overstimulation)
Support for families with ASD experiencing violence needs to be delivered by professionals with a deep understanding of ASD and how core symptoms such as perseverative thinking can cause anger rumination, for example. Experience in the ares of child to parent violence would also be essential. Please read the 3 linked articles in this section for further information on this subject.
Where can I find help, information and support?
Holes in the Wall (Resources and Information for Child to Parent Violence)
Walking on Eggshells (Child to Parent Violence)
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