Warnings about online harassment
by Mona Pereth
To all autistic people, especially women and LGBTQ+ people, and to all parents of autistic children:
A major, growing, but under-reported problem these days is online bullying / harassment -- often with real-world consequences.
Potential real-world consequences may include, among many other possibilities:
- Much worse-than-normal difficulty finding a job, because prospective employers Google you and find the nasty stuff your harassers have said about you.
- Much worse-than-normal difficulty finding a place to live, because prospective landlords or roommates Google you and find that nasty stuff too.
- Men showing up at your door, expecting your services as an alleged prostitute. (Some folks, alas, like to post fake prostitution ads featuring women they don't like.)
- Cops showing up at your door, hoping to bust you for the afore-mentioned alleged prostitution or for some other alleged crime.
- An entire SWAT team showing up and breaking down your door, due to an alleged crime and/or emergency of whatever kind. (Relatively rare, but there do exist folks who try to make this happen to people they don't like.)
- Assorted creeps following you around, both online and in person.
- Losing your job due to being unable to focus on your work because of all the threats and harassment.
Even if none of these potential real-world consequences actually happen to you, online harassment -- by someone who knows your legal name and knows where you live and work -- can be a traumatic experience in its own right, sometimes even worse than an actual physical sexual assault, because online harassment can happen over a much longer period of time and you never know what the harasser(s) will do next.
We now live in a world where lots of ordinary people have been exposed to all of the hazards, but without any of the perks, of being a movie star.
Here are some articles about online harassment in general, primarily of women (not autistic women in particular):
The Cops Don't Care About Violent Online Threats. What Do We Do Now? by Anna Merlan, Jezebel, 1/29/2015 -- about the lack of follow-up by law enforcement on complaints of about online threats and harassment.
Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet by Amanda Hess, Pacific Standard, Jan 6, 2014, updated Jun 14, 2017
See also the website of the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA).
Men can be harassed online too, although women seem to be targeted more often. For autistic people, regardless of gender, there's the additional danger of being outed as autistic against one's will. Also, autistic people are more likely than other folks to run afoul of the kinds of people who might be inclined to harass them online, for the same reasons that autistic people are more likely to be bullied in general.
Autistic women are in further danger from some autistic men who have been drawn into the misogynistic "Incel" subculture, some of whom feel justified in harassing random women. (See Radical online communities and their toxic allure for autistic men by Brendan Borrell, Spectrum News, 13 May 2020.)
Also autistic LGBTQ+ people have been singled out for some horrific harassment. See, for example, Another bullied to death: Near/Byuu (Trigger Warning) on Wrong Planet.
Online harassment isn't something that happens to everyone in the online autistic community, but it does indeed happen to some of us.
Recently (as of January 2021) I've been made aware of at least five specific women in the NYC-area autistic community who have been subjected to extreme and prolonged online harassment. Most (but not all) of these women are public figures of one kind or another (including an actress, an autistic peer support group leader, and at least one licensed counselor of autistic adults) -- but only very minor public figures, not celebrities who could afford bodyguards. And at least one of the women is not a public figure of any kind.
You need to protect yourself and your loved ones from online harassment.
How to protect yourself
The most important way to protect yourself is by not using your legal name online in any context where it is not absolutely necessary to do so, and by not posting photos of yourself online either, in places where they can be seen by random strangers.
Unfortunately, these days, most people have little or no choice but to post lots of info about themselves, including their legal names and work history, on LinkedIn. That being the case, it is all the more important to keep your legal identity separate from all the parts of your online life where revealing it is not mandatory.
So, even if you are comfortable with the idea of everyone in the entire world (including all potential future employers) being able to find out you're autistic by simply Googling your name, please do not (especially if you are a woman) use your legal name in any online forum or social media group pertaining to autism, unless you happen to have a career that requires you to be a public figure, under your legal name, in the autism community (e.g. you are an autism-focused licensed psychotherapist or social worker recruiting potential clients).
If you are a parent of an autistic child, participating in a parents' forum, please be mindful of the need to protect your child's future privacy as well as your own.
As mentioned earlier, one big problem we have in the autistic community these days is that some heterosexual autistic men are being drawn into the misogynistic "Incel" subculture -- and some (not all) of those men feel justified in harassing autistic women. So, for most autistic women these days, it is essential to conceal one's identity within the online autistic community.
Therefore: Do not join Facebook groups for autistic people, or for parents or partners thereof. Facebook has an official policy of requiring people to use their legal names. Some people do violate this policy and use pseudonyms on Facebook, and some people may get away with this for a while, but Facebook does occasionally (and unpredictably) crack down and require people to prove their identities by uploading a scan of their photo ID. Do not rely on "private/secret" Facebook groups to protect your identity, because you never know when some jerk may decide to dox you.
Some autistic community forums that allow pseudonyms are listed here. For some further advice on protecting your privacy there, see WARNING! Disclosure of personal information on Wrong Planet. (Note: Regarding the advice to "create a user name unique to this forum," I think it's okay to use the same username in multiple autism-related forums, but it's probably best that your username for autism-related forums be different from your username on other forums and social media sites.)
On Meetup.com (e.g. the Autistic in NYC / Queens Meetup group), I strongly recommend that you use either a pseudonym or just your first name and last initial (as is the longstanding custom of "Anonymous" 12-step groups). Note that Meetup does not require users to use their legal names. Meetup doesn't care what name you use, as long as you aren't impersonating someone else. Meetup also does not forbid a user to have multiple accounts, as long as you aren't using your alternate accounts to stalk or harass someone. (Meetup does allow only one account per email address, though, so you'll need multiple email addresses if you have multiple accounts.)
Also on Meetup.com, you may prefer to join only those autism-related groups (such as the Autistic in NYC / Queens Meetup group) that mark themselves as "private." On your Meetup profile page, click "Hide Meetup groups on profile" to prevent stalkers from following you around from one Meetup group to another. You might also want to click "Hide interests on profile" if you don't want people in all your groups (or other people) to know all your listed interests.
A plea to support group leaders
If you are considering starting an online suuport group, please do not put it on Facebook, and please do not put it on any other platform that requires legal names, such as Quora. Use some other platform instead. Please note that even a "secret" Facebook group is not sufficient protection for your members' privacy, because even a "secret" Facebook can't prevent a member from doxxing other members. This doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. So, please be sure to use a platform whose terms of service do not require people to use their legal names.
If you run an in-person support group, please do not announce its meetings (or its meeting topics) solely on Facebook. It's okay to have a Facebook page, but please don't use it as your sole or primary means of communcation with your members.
Please use some other platform, such as Meetup.com, as your main means of announcing meetings. Meetup.com does charge a fee to organizers, but it's worth the protection of your members' privacy. Please make your Meetup group "private," but please also advise your members to use either a pseudonym or just their first name and last initial. Please do not require prospective members to upload a photo in order to join your group.
If you can't afford Meetup fees and you want to start an autistic peer-led group in the NYC area, you may make free use of the Autisitc in NYC / Queens Meetup site (or a forthcoming similar Autistic in NYC Meetup site for another borough, if you request it) IF you also participate regularly in the Autistic Peer Leadership Group.