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by Steve Vasey
Children & Family Services Manager

How to spot the signs of ‘mate crime’

Do you know someone with autism whose behaviour is changing?  Has their friendship group suddenly expanded?   Has their financial situation altered?

These changes may be very subtle, but if you care for someone on the spectrum – particularly a young adult – you may know, intuitively, that you need to investigate further. Whilst nine times out of ten, change can be a positive experience, these signs may actually indicate that your loved one is being bullied or harassed.

Mate crime is an often unreported crime committed against vulnerable people.  Someone may deliberately befriend a vulnerable person in order to take advantage of them.  The victim is often unaware that they are, in fact, the victim of a crime. They may be happy to have a new friend or friendship group.

Here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • Someone with autism suddenly appears to have a new friend or a much larger friendship group and a more active social life.  These new people seem to have an undue influence. They may be visiting the vulnerable person at home for social gatherings.
  • The person with autism comments that his friends will be disappointed if a certain activity doesn’t take place.  They may express worry that they’ll lose their friends. They may appear uneasy about the friendship.
  • The vulnerable person may be spending his own money to pay for concert tickets for others or taxi fares or rounds of drinks.  They may be buying gifts for other people or giving away precious possessions.

Mate crime is a deliberately abusive act but it can be hard to identify, particularly if the vulnerable person is pleased to be receiving this new attention.

Last year we published a report on mate crime based on 140 responses to an online questionnaire, promoted to the autism community in Merseyside.  We invited people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome – or, if they were unable to communicate, their carers –  to tell us anonymously about their experiences of troubled friendships.

The most vulnerable age group was 16 to 25, the age when socialising and friendships are so important. Eighty per cent of respondents over the age of 16 felt they had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they had thought was a friend.  One hundred per cent of respondents in that age category reported having difficulty distinguishing genuine friends from those who may bully or abuse the friendship in some way.

Parents and young people in that age group told us harrowing stories about theft, manipulation and harassment.  A young man with autism said, “I was frightened to tell anyone.” A mother told of her fear for her autistic daughter whose boyfriend appeared to be trying to steal her benefits.

Vulnerable people need support and guidance to identify the difference between friend and foe. As professionals we need to become more aware of how we talk about friendship. We need to make clear distinctions between the role of friend and support worker, so that vulnerable people learn to understand that difference.  We need to help vulnerable people identify potentially abusive situations.  The best thing we could do is to provide social opportunities so that friendships can develop in supportive environments.

Our report into mate crime merely scratched the surface of this problem. We hope anyone reading it will be galvanised into action against this most cowardly crime.

The full report is available at: www.autismtogether.co.uk/mate-crime-in-merseyside/

Steve Vasey is Children and Family Services Manager at Autism Together