Personal Perspective

The Time I Almost Joined a Cult

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Hello folks! Today’s post is a nice mix of amusing stories and important safety concerns. The theme is how communication impairments and perhaps a general lack of ‘theory of mind’ skill can provide interesting scenarios, as well as actual danger. To start, I want to tell you a story:

Allow me to set the scene: I was on my university campus late on evening to do some laundry and whilst I waited I decided to go to the main building. I sat down, got a snack and started listening to a podcast episode (‘Like Minded Friends’ – highly recommend!). As I sat there I saw 3 people wearing matching t shirts standing nearby, evidently discussing something and glancing in my direction. At first I assumed they were wearing matching t shirts to show that they were best buddies, or possibly because they felt the light blue would bring out the colour of their eyes. Both of these assumptions were, however, wrong. One of the women walked over towards me and asked me a question. I didn’t hear it because I was wearing headphones and listening to an amusing section about Tom and Suzi trying to work out if their phones were listening to their conversations by discussing a particular topic and seeing if the relevant ads would appear. At this moment however, I paused the episode, removed my headphones and politely inquired as to what the lady had just said.

It turns out, she had asked me whether or not I believed in God. At the time, I was struggling somewhat with my faith. Being raised Catholic and then reaching an age where I started to think for myself left me in quite a quandary, which due to recent events had resurfaced. I therefore entered an extremely long conversation with this person about religion and faith. At the time, I was curious as to the social side of church and how people had found community within their faith. I was intrigued by how sure this person was about what they believed in and so wanted to know how they reached such certainty. In hindsight, some very odd things were said that should have been metaphorical red flags. When she said that “if [I asked] God for a pair of jeans, a pair would appear on my bed the next morning,” I really should have taken that as my cue to leave. In comparison to the other nonsense sprouted by some religious people though, I decided it was quite mild and so elected to ignore this and carry on. They told me all about their meetings and the different social activities they do. They asked if I would want to come along and so I said “sure!” I ended up giving them my mobile number so they could tell me where the meeting was and went merrily on my way to collect my now finished laundry.

When I got home and told my best friend what had happened, their expression could have been described as ‘flabbergasted’. I filled them in on the encounter and they very patiently waited for me to finish before saying something along the lines of “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU SILLY PERSON!” They pointed out to me that most respectable faith groups do not go out ‘recruiting’, nor do they promise magically appearing clothing, nor do they corner a woman sitting on a bench at night, laughing to something they can’t see or hear, eating a plain tortilla wrap straight out of the packet. We then looked the group up and they are, in essence, a cult.

The next day I received a call from the lady, to whom I expressed my reservations about attending the meeting that evening. I promptly blocked the number so they couldn’t contact me and had a very stern talking to by Sof about why I need to be careful about strangers. The ride in the lift a few weeks later with only me and the cult lady was quite awkward, as we both clearly recognised each other, however, I just looked at my shoes and tried to avoid her glares.

As silly as this story may seem, it is not the first time I have unwittingly been misled by someone with ulterior motives. I once spent a few minutes trying desperately to find the room Z17 on my school map after an older student asked me to help. I didn’t realise that the whole time they were making fun of the young, gullible year 7 and that the whole group was laughing behind me as I was muttering “I don’t know where it is,” to myself over and over again. Needless to say, I never found the room as it does not exist. I also once approached a man in a white van asking for directions because I knew where he needed to go. Luckily, he was genuinely lost so I was okay, but a lot of stories do not end in the same way. I even found myself in a more intimate situation where I was actually quite scared and unsure how to say “no.” The person was not very nice to me and also said things which made me deeply uncomfortable. The issue was, I was / am too gullible to properly understand that in that situation, I was being used, so I allowed the situation to progress.

From other stories that I have heard and read about, this lack of understanding of other people’s true intentions is common in autistic people. It isn’t that I and others are stupid, it is more that I am too trusting of what people say to me and so am easily manipulated. It is more difficult to read body language, facial expressions and tone of voice when you are on the spectrum, so I don’t get the gut feeling of danger that lots of other people do. I once walked into a forest at night because according to the map, it was the most direct way to my destination.

This susceptibility to deception means that autistic people are easy prey targets and are more likely to end up in dangerous situations than their neurotypical counterparts. Those with additional intellectual disabilities often also find themselves victims of neglect or even cruelty at the hands of those entrusted to care for them. The problem with having a different way of perceiving the world is that not everyone thinks in the same way. If a person is unable to tell when someone is being honest about their intentions, it leaves them open to being taken advantage of. In addition to this, if a person is behaving in a way that does not come naturally and is instead learnt, they may not have the skills to properly communicate any doubt or confusion. If you are learning a language, you may have practised being able to order food at a restaurant, but if you are unexpectedly asked about your wine preferences, you may suddenly realise you do not know how to express your opinion. For me and many other autistic people, learning how to act around people is similar to learning a language. I never practised what I could or would do in those situations, so when I found myself in them, I didn’t know what to do. The only option that I saw was to go along with what was happening. I couldn’t recognise I was being taken advantage of, and even if I did, I didn’t have the ability to work out how to get out of the situation.

Being prone to manipulation is something that is both common to those with ASD, yet often unknown to those without. It can lead to very dangerous situations and the outcome is too often tragic. An article detailing one such story, as well as providing some figures to back up what I have said in this post can be found linked at the end. I have spoken to various autistic people and their friends about this subject and this is a common experience. Whilst some are better at knowing than others, almost everyone has a story where this has happened to some degree. Unfortunately, I don’t have much advice about this and how to keep safe. The best I can offer is to talk to the people you trust the most about things that are happening. I say this with some hesitancy though as it is often the case that it is the very people who you trust the most that take advantage, but I would still urge you to have a conversation with someone who is not immediately involved in the situation to get an outsider’s perspective. Please try to stay safe and please try to keep other potentially vulnerable people safe.

Sarah

Below is the article mentioned in the post:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/14/autistic-adults-abused-by-friends-survey

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