By bobb |
Deborah Hunter was forced to leave her family home at 16 years of age due to feeling unsafe. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

By Megan Oliver, with photography by Maren Preuss

Deborah Hunter always knew she was different from those around her — she communicated differently and struggled socially, but didn't know why.

Warning: This story contains references to domestic and family violence, and sexual assault.

"I took it to be some kind of intrinsic naivety. I never seemed to get it right," she said.

"Even when I tried to be a 'good girl' and behave as appropriate or expected, I was forever getting things wrong." 

The emotional and physical abuse started in Deborah's family home, but she didn't realise it was abuse. 

"All I ever learned was that it was my fault. I had some dark fault inside me where I was always getting it wrong," she said.

Deborah was forced to leave her family home at 16 years of age due to feeling unsafe, but a series of relationships that followed solidified for her that abuse was normal. 

"I thought everything was my fault. I had no other information," she said.

"They could tell I was different and I think, unfortunately, being different draws predators."

A woman sits by a window, working on a sudoku puzzle in a notebook.
Deborah Hunter is determined to live on her own for the rest of her life.(ABC News: Maren )

It took Deborah a long time to come to terms with the fact that what she had experienced was abuse. 

"I'm a victim-survivor. It started in my family home, and then I had a series of intimate partners until I was determined to live on my own for the rest of my life." 

'Relief and disbelief' at a diagnosis

Deborah eventually sought out psychological support and was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It wasn't until she was getting support for her past traumas from domestic violence that she found out why she had always felt different. 

"It was after some careful work with a clinical psychologist that she broke it to me gently and said, 'You do realise you're autistic?' I had no idea.

"It's a shame it had to get to that point for me to find out."

A woman looks at her phone while her laptop sits open on the table.
Deborah Hunter catches up with a peer support group via a Zoom call.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Deborah experienced both relief and disbelief at her diagnosis.

"I didn't fit the stereotypes I had in my head," she said.

"But to know that, maybe, it wasn't my fault and that I was just wired differently … it was as though a weight had been lifted."

Deborah wished more people had awareness of the signs of autism in girls and women.

"It was often said that boys have autism much more than girls, but it's now thought that isn't the case," she said. 

"Autistic girls are generally better at conforming socially and blending in. That's how we survive, we copy those around us and mask our traits.

"If I had been diagnosed earlier, I would have known what my intimate partners were doing. That they were exploiting my vulnerability, and I wouldn't have stood for it." 

'It's always helpful to realise you're not on your own'

After her diagnosis, Deborah connected with a support group for autistic women. Many had similar experiences to her own. 

"It's absolutely essential because, in an autism peer group, that's the only place we're safe to be ourselves," she said.

"We can say things as we mean and be understood. We don't have to worry about social cues or people taking us the wrong way.

"It's always helpful to realise you're not on your own." 

A woman sits at her kitchen table, on a Zoom call on her phone.
Deborah Hunter says her peer support group is the only place members are safe to be themselves.  (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Deborah felt free to be herself and started to live life in the way she wanted.

"Autism is not a sad thing. To know who you are is really uplifting.

"And to realise it's never too late? That's absolutely wonderful." 

Autistic women suffer high rates of abuse

Deborah is one of a large number of autistic women who have experienced abuse.

A recent study in France published by the Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience estimated nine-in-10 autistic women have experienced sexual violence, and about 60 per cent have experienced physical violence.

Girls with autism were also more likely to experience violence than their peers. Around one-in-five experienced physical violence, and one-in-five has experienced sexual violence.

The number of non-speaking people with autism who are abused is believed to be even higher, but it is rarely reported. 

An older woman sits on a park bench, smiling. She has short, grey hair and is wearing a blue, patterned dress and dark jacket.
Geraldine Robertson says there are things people can do to help autistic women experiencing domestic violence.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Geraldine Robertson is a autistic woman and an advocate who says the issue is far more serious than many people realise. 

"You don't read body language very well, and you let people who are difficult and cruel get too close, and you end up in strife. And that's where the abuse comes in," she said. 

"Autistic people don't have the social networks other people have, so you don't have a friend saying, 'Come on, you don't have to put up with this', because nobody knows.

"We never want to victim-blame, and it is abusers that seek these women out. But we also need to come up with ways to keep them safe, because the sad reality is this keeps happening." 

Financial dependency leaves autistic women vulnerable

Geraldine said there were things people could do to help autistic women experiencing domestic violence situations. 

"Being able to say to the woman: 'This isn't acceptable. Nobody has to live like this' and being very straightforward, not hinting because we often don't take hints," she said.

"There are supports out there, but many people don't know about them. Autistic people are going to have an even harder time knowing where to go for support, so help them to find what they need."

Autism Tasmania's chief executive, Donna Blanchard, said there were many intersecting factors that made autistic women more vulnerable to abuse and coercive control.

"Autistic people of all ages are more likely to be under-employed. Their financial dependency on a partner leaves them vulnerable," she said. 

"In Australia, a select Senate Committee found autistic people [were] the most disadvantaged in our community.

"Social, community, economic — people are paying the price because services aren't built for them. Women, unfortunately, pay an even higher price." 

Donna said there were several things that could help reduce the number of autistic people in abusive relationships.

"The most important thing is a diagnosis. We need to remove the barriers so people know who they are and how they can best be supported," she said.

"The other part is services just don't understand autism. The health, justice system, child protection system, education and employment. People are only just starting to realise autism needs some different thinking in how support is carried out.

"There are very simple adjustments that can be made to help these people, and the great news is that's now starting to happen."