When people talk about autism, they talk about developmental milestones, cognitive- versus non-cognitive impairments, low and high functioning, language and social deficits. Specifically in regards to Asperger’s, the lion’s share tends to be social challenges, executive function, and theory of mind. The impediments we have, the inability to prioritize information or to interpret subtle cues conveyed through eye contact, facial expression, and body language, are nearly always placed in these contexts.
However, the susceptibility to manipulation is rarely mentioned.
Neurotypicals (NTs) start learning how to gauge trustworthiness at a very young age. But we autistics don’t; we can’t. We are unable to see the signs that are so obvious to others. We are gullible, momentary, and reactive. We do not know what to look for, often cannot see it even if we do, and do not know which bits of data that don’t fit are important, because to us, human beings are universally contrary, perpetually maddening complexes of conflicting information. We go one of two ways, depending largely on our most recent experience; we either trust everyone or no-one. If a certain person has taken advantage of us, then the next interaction – with anyone – is approached with suspicion. Most of the time, however, we lack the capacity to decide and are forced to apply the all-or-nothing emotional management we are saddled with to external circumstances as well. In my case, I simply trust everyone.
I did not know I was different until a few years ago, and I am personally uncomfortable with any sort of subterfuge. My inability to apply theory of mind means I cannot imagine how anyone else would be comfortable with it either. Growing up, I would be completely taken aback to discover when someone I thought was a friend was in fact taking advantage of me and disparaging me behind my back. I have always been, and may always be, an easy mark. I wound up in a damaging relationship with a man with sociopathic tendencies for three years because I always believed what he told me. It was only when faced with incontrovertible evidence of his poor behavior in real time that I was able, crushed and humiliated, to leave him.
My sensors, even after all of this time, are blunt and inaccurate. I have learned to swallow my pride and enlist the assistance of a few trusted companions in gauging the verisimilitude of other people with whom I interact, if possible. A lot of times, however, it isn’t possible. I am left to my own spectacularly inadequate devices.
I was recently offered a remote telework position by a scam artist posing as a representative for a real company. In retrospect, I can see the holes in the construct, but at the time no alarm bells rang. It was not until he requested I start using my own money to purchase equipment that I realized I was being taken in and extricated myself, fortunately before any real damage had been done.
In this case, I was lucky in that all of our interactions were conducted over internet messaging. I did not have to worry about my own facial expression and tone of voice, and was able to apply all of my faculties to examination of the information coming in, alignment of it against well-known signals of internet scams, and the making of calculated decisions about its legitimacy. I had already built up some suspicion by the time my own money was being requested, and was thus able to shut it down without endangering my identity or funds.
But it reminded me that when it comes to most interactions, my skill set will always lack a few key tools. While I have learned – the hard way, thanks to the sociopathic former boyfriend – not to trust men in social contexts, my ability to gauge trustworthiness in other situations is handicapped by my inability to detect normal indications of manipulative behavior. A couple of years ago, I stayed at a job with a narcissistic manager because even though his behavior was clearly out of line (among other things, he used to eavesdrop on his employees using the phones’ intercom system and no, I am not making that up), I did not think anything was amiss while I was in the middle of it.
I’m still stunned by bad actors. It’s demoralizing and frightening. While I have put together checklists to try to stay ahead of it, the most important items on the list being consistency and follow-through, I can still be taken in quite easily by a sophisticated manipulator. It’s one of the reasons I never answer my cell phone if it’s a number I don’t recognize. Listening to voice mail allows me time to consider what’s being said and, if necessary, run it by someone else. But in real time, I have to expend all my mental energy on my own half of the conversation; I don’t have any left over for analysis of the other end.
I despair of ever getting any better. This is one situation where my coping mechanisms cannot provide any useful workarounds. I think one of the reasons I’m so terrified of remaining single is that I need an intuitive partner to help keep an eye out for potential dangers. And despite my tacit knowledge of my own limitations, I’m nonetheless overcome with shame and self-loathing when I discover I’ve been taken advantage of. Even though there was no way I could have known it was happening, I always feel I should have been more cautious.
But I don’t want to be. I don’t want to go through life distrustfully, skepticizing every situation, holding everyone at arm’s length. It’s hard enough to do what I already do with regards to managing my own persona so as to appear normal to other people. Where is the mental energy, not to mention wherewithal, to discern their possible motives supposed to come from?
I wish I knew.