All names and some details have been changed to anonymize the story.
I am a woman with developmental disabilities, and when I was 13 years old, I was sexually molested by a teacher.
I want to tell this story not because I think it is unique but because it is so very, very common. It happens all the time. It continues to happen today. Over 1/3 of people who identify as girls or women will be sexually assaulted, molested or raped in their lifetime. When you narrow it down to just girls or women with developmental disabilities, however, the rate jumps to over 90 percent.
I am part of that 90 percent.
And I am lucky.
I am white. I was raised upper-middle-class, in a good, typical suburban home. The physical abuse I endured at the hands of peers never left more than a few bruises, and was categorized as roughhousing, not bullying. The education I got was in-depth, hands-on, and overall excellent. I had a dog, a huge backyard, music lessons, summer camp. Food was abundant, both of my parents were almost always employed full-time, and any money worries were cushioned by wealthy relatives. My parents went to back to school night. They knew my teachers. When I threw up in eighth grade my mother came straight home from work to pick me up from the nurses office.
Oddly enough, though, despite the excellent education that I received, at the time, I didn’t know I had developmental disabilities. My diagnoses came over a fifteen-year period from my late teens to early thirties. At the time, I honestly thought that the reason I had trouble socially was because I was a brat. That the reason I was a picky eater was because l wanted attention. That the reason I had trouble in school was because I didn’t try hard enough or spend enough time studying. All of these things were told to me by the adults and authority figures in my life. All of these things I believed, wholeheartedly, about myself.
Today, I know that my social troubles are autism, my picky eating is severe sensory processing disorder, and my troubles in school were learning disabilities. At the time, however, all people saw was how smart I was, how quick with words, how I devoured tomes like Gone with the Wind and the DSM-IV. They didn’t understand how someone so smart could possibly have learning disabilities, so they didn’t ask, and I didn’t know. Autism was still in its’ ‘Rainman’ phase—the school system told my mother when I was in high school that they wouldn’t test me for Aspergers syndrome as that only occurred in boys.
My abuser had a background in special education. Today he teaches at a college that caters to students with learning disabilities. Even though at the time I carried no label other than generalized anxiety disorder and a 504 plan was a year away, I think that he was smart enough to see beyond the nerdy kid who loved to read, to see that I was a perfect target.
I was smart, too. My love of information and learning in general told me that, even as my grades ranged from A’s in history to F’s in math and languages. My school system was progressive, and so were my parents. I knew what sex was—I had taken the course in fifth grade, been to the museum of science with its weird, accurately-shaped ceramic babies. But health classes focused on safe sex and overt sexual harassment. Rape was something that happened when you got into a car with a stranger. Abuse was when your parents hit you or gave you a bloody lip. Even after I got my period and found it an awful lot more painful than any Judy Bloom book ever said it was, I never questioned the information I was given by teachers and parents.
And this is why I want to tell my story. Because it is only by the grace of a god that I don’t believe in that it didn’t escalate to something worse. Because twenty years later, I’m still dealing with the fallout. Because I know now that it has colored every single interaction I have had with a man since. Because I want to speak for my non-speaking brethren with developmental disabilities who have suffered abuse much, much worse than mine and nobody knew. Because I want to protect those I love from having the same happen.
Because it’s time for people with developmental disabilities to have our MeToo movement, and so I am saying here, I am saying now: #MeToo.
I was 13, and so very, very small.
He was a man in his forties, and to my eyes, absolutely enormous.
I will call him Winter, although at the time I called him, and all adults in school, Mr. Winter. But I do not think that this man deserves the respect of a title now. I do not think that he deserves any respect at all.
I was 13.
Somehow, I ended up on his radar that year. It may have been when I was on the crew for the school play and he helped out there. It may have been because he had my older siblings in his classes and recognized my name. I don’t really know. I do know that I somehow ended up in his group for the Big Class Trip, which meant that for three days, we were in close proximity to each other, 3-4 adults in a group of 20-30 kids, in a big coach bus bound for the ocean.
Like most autistics, my memory is much better than most people’s, but I don’t have the eidetic memory that some of my brethren do. I recall that trip in snatches of crystal-clear memories, backed up by photos taken with my first “real” camera. That was the trip where we visited a cranberry bog. That was the time that I discovered that I got seasick, severely, and despite the fact that the whale watch was wonderful, I saw very few whales, and I have hated boats ever since. That was the trip I became friends with Brooke. That was the trip which, in large part, seemed to consist of our group running around barefoot on beaches. There were some great photographs of kids leaping and sliding down sand dunes in the yearbook.
That was the trip when, late at night on our way home from some amusement or other, I fell asleep on the bus, near the front, where the teachers sat. It was the 90’s and I was usually wearing my siblings hand-me-down baggy jeans and flannel shirts, my bobbed hair messy, tossed by the wind. I was exhausted, and like so many people have before me, I folded my arms underneath my head to form a shield between my face and the window, and snuggled down, closed in on myself, and slept.
“You hit me,” Winter said, as the bus pulled into the parking lot of the camp we were staying at.
“You hit me,” I remember him saying, clearly, looking down at me in the dark. I was sleepy, confused. “You hit me in your sleep. Do you remember?”
“No,” I said, because I didn’t. “I’m sorry?”
I know I apologized, because I am always apologizing. I know that I was exhausted, and like most autistic people, I can easily lose verbal speech when I’m tired and resort to echolalia, or repeating back what people say to me. But I don’t know exactly how many times I said no before I gave in. I don’t know exactly what happened beyond him telling me that I hit him. I do know that I was conditioned from a very early age to agree with other people, especially people in power, and to do what they wanted me to do and say what they wanted me to say. It took me over three decades to learn how to stand my ground and even now, in verbal conversation, I will agree with 90% of people 90% of the time because it is simply easier.
“You hit me,” Winter kept saying.
“I hit you,” I repeated.
He had me tell the story to others around us as we stumbled off the bus and into the cabins. I was on the bottom bunk, against a wall, and Lisa Nguyen, my best friend at the time, was on the top.
Okay. So I hit an adult. It wasn’t the end of the world. He didn’t seem mad at me, and anyway, it must’ve been an accident, right?
It would take a decade before it occurred to me that I could not have physically hit him with the way that I was curled up against the window. It would take two decades before I realized that I don’t hit people out of nowhere, but that my instinctual reaction when someone touches me unexpectedly is to flap against them, to struggle, to resist. Unless I specifically initiate a physical interaction, I prefer to not touch people. I certainly have never done so in my sleep, and I’ve shared beds platonically with numerous friends and relatives over the years who have never complained about me hitting them or bothering them at all. Therefore . . . therefore . . . therefore . . . he touched me. I reacted. Did I really hit him, or did he make this up? Did my body react to defend itself in my sleep, or did I wake up enough to realize what he was doing?
I don’t know. I didn’t know. I will never know. All I know is that something happened that night, something that haunts me to this day.
At the time, I put it out of my mind. The trip ended, school let out for the year, and when September rolled around, I found myself in his English class. I loved English, unless we were reading Shakespeare, and as usual, I was a total teacher’s pet. The basic fact is that adults understood my odd ways much better than teenagers did. I signed up to do crew on the play again, and loved that he often tasked me with special, one-on-one projects. I loved that he asked me to stay after school and help with things. I equally loved the female librarian who taught me how to develop photographs in the small, strange-yet-sweet-smelling darkroom and the Spanish teacher who knew how much I tried even as I continually failed her class.
The Spanish teacher didn’t go on the big class trip to Washington, DC, but through a stroke of what I thought was luck, I ended up in the group with both the beloved librarian and Winter leading it and a few equally nerdy, quiet friends. I was on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in my life, and I loved the freedom that the meds gave me. All of a sudden, I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. I was social. I was brave.
I was innocent. I was naïve. I hadn’t hit my growth spurt and was excited to finally be a zero and shop in the womens section of the stores, not the kids.
I was fourteen.
I had never been on a subway before, suburban child that I was. When we went “into town,” as we called the closest big city, we drove. The Foggy Bottom Metro stop fascinated me—the escalators, the echoing walls. We were on our way back from the zoo, and it was awesome. I was high on sugar and cute animals, and I walked carefully along the yellow lines, thinking that they were there as a sort of guide.
I remember Winter yelling. The lines were actually to warn people away from the edge of the subway platform. He didn’t know how carefully I was walking, how each step I placed with deliberate care. He grabbed me, hauled me away, across the platform. He held on to me as our train pulled up, and kept holding on to me in the subway car.
He had grabbed me by—my ear? Why my ear? Why did he hold on to my small ear with his big hand? Why did he hold on for so long? Was his other hand on my body? Did he not want to leave a bruise? I don’t know. My ear hurt when he finally let go and I slipped into a crowd of my friends, trying to hold back tears. I was humiliated, because I had broken rules, and as any autistic will tell you, rules are meant to be followed. I thought that everyone was staring at me, that everyone had noticed. I didn’t say anything about it; I was too embarrassed.
A few short months later, I entered high school, or more accurately for me, hell. Once in a while I heard rumors—that Winter “liked” certain girls, that he was a bit of a weirdo—but I never thought for a second that they pertained to me. Abuse, in my mind, meant rape, or something that left you bruised or bloody. As I became older and my identities became clearer, I was glad to not be in the 90%. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 25, and, at 27, came out as a lesbian. I loved the queer community and reveled in the safe feelings I had at dances and parties.
Now in my mid-thirties, I don’t work, but I volunteer a lot, fill-in as a babysitter, spend time with my siblings. I am involved in a nearby Unitarian Universalist congregation and have a social life interspersed with many medical appointments for my various conditions, including chronic pain. I live with roommates and survive (because the amount certainly isn’t a living) on SSDI. And I read. A lot. Blogs and books and buzzfeed, newspapers, essays, graphic novels. Just as when I was a kid, I remain a huge reader.
And thus it was that one day in spring I sat down and read a blog by an autistic man, who is also a minister, and who was raped as a child. I read his graphic account, and then I read of the characteristics he had observed in children who were molested, assaulted or raped. I read about how older people would ‘groom’ them, about how they would make a point of spending special time with that child, about how . . . about how they would tell them what had happened, because many times, children do not understand, and so they tell them a story that replaces whatever they thought happened in their head. They tell them a story, and have them repeat it, and then the child believes that the story is true, and whatever they experienced is false.
And all of a sudden I was back on that bus, and my face was smushed against my brother’s old black-green-purple parka, and I heard his voice saying, “You hit me. In your sleep. You hit me.”
It was as if an enormous chasm had opened before me. I saw myself sitting on a piece of wood while he sawed one end to make something for the school play. There were dozens of kids and we all took woodworking and there was a big metal vice, to hold wood in place—many vices—right there, which were designed to hold the wood. Why did he have me sit on it instead? Why did he lift me up? Why did he get so close when correcting my work over my shoulder? Why did . . . why did he have me say, “I hit you?”
I don’t know what happened, I will never know what happened, but I can say with positivity now that something did. He didn’t break any laws, but he saw a kid desperate for attention, desperate for understanding, and he took direct advantage of that. If he did it to a female colleague, it would probably be called serious sexual harassment. But I wasn’t a colleague. I was a kid.
It is too late for prosecution, because what would we prosecute? It would be the distant memories of a developmentally disabled woman versus the life and career of a well-respected man, who has served as a principal and college professor. My therapist, psychiatrist and other doctors have all told me that there is nothing to actually convict him of and that it would be a waste of my time and energy. My aunt, who as a district attorney prosecuted many, much more heinous crimes, has told me about how many years evidence gathering takes, how long trials are, how I would have to face him, again, after all these years. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go through that. I’m writing this essay anonymously because I could not face media scrutiny. I do not have the emotional reserves for my story to be questioned, picked apart, interrogated. All I know for sure is that don’t know what happened in the dark, and I do know it was wrong.
I contacted a few classmates over Facebook. “Yeah,” they agreed with me in private messages. “Yeah, he was a creep . . . Yeah, he said this one thing one time . . . Yeah, there were rumors . . .”
But you can’t build a case on rumors. You can’t find other victims if they don’t want to be found. You can only do what I do: get up each day and go through it. Go to therapy, socialize with safe people, say no when a man wants to shake your hand or hug you, even when that person is your close relative and they are offended by it. It’s taken over three decades but I’ve finally realized that it is my body and only I get to decide who touches me.
If I weren’t autistic, then it is very likely that I would not remember the incidents so clearly. Neuro-typicals lack the crystal-clear abilities that autistics have to time-travel in our minds. But then again, if I weren’t autistic, would I have even been on his radar to begin with? If I had been a cool, confident kid instead of a terrified, tiny one, would he have not seen me as the perfect victim? If my disability had been more severe, would he have gone farther?
As usual, I don’t know. I have only questions, never answers. They swirl and whirl in my mind and come out, sometimes, in the night terrors which leave me screaming and hoarse at two a.m. They settle down, and I can go days, weeks even, without thinking about it at all.
He was in power. I was not. I know so many women with developmental disabilities whose abuser they never know or are able to tell. I know of one young woman whose caregiver found blood in her diaper yet was never able to find out who raped her because she is nonverbal. I know people whose bones were broken, bodies bruised, yet because they lack fluent speech their abusers go free. I can speak. I can tell. I owe it to my siblings with disabilities to do so.
I am developmentally disabled, and I am saying, #MeToo.
The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous.