Steve Vasey Autism TogetherIn this guest blog, Steve Vasey from Autism Together talks about mate crime, and the signs that families and professionals can look out for if they suspect someone with autism or a learning disability is the victim of it.

'Mate crime' is the term coined to highlight a particularly horrible and insidious form of disability hate crime. It is when vulnerable people, such as those with autism or learning disabilities, are bullied or manipulated by people they consider to be friends. This abuse of friendship can take many forms: it can begin in the playground, with pushing, shoving and low-level bullying. Among adults, it can result in vulnerable people being befriended by abusers and then coerced into giving away money or possessions or to commit crimes. It has even led to death.

We've seen too many examples of mate crime in our region, Merseyside. Our regional research last year found that 80% of respondents – all were people with autism or their families speaking on their behalf – had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they considered a friend. In addition, 71% had been subject to name calling and verbal abuse and 54% of 12-16-year-olds had had money or possessions stolen.

We heard awful stories. A mum told us about her daughter, a 17-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, whose boyfriend only turned up when it was pay day for her Disability Living Allowance. A man told of his autistic brother, whose new group of 'friends' were storing drugs in his flat. An autistic young man desperate for companionship eagerly allowed his mates to spend £500 on his credit card during a night out.  

If our region is a snapshot of what is happening nationally – and recent figures into learning disability and autism hate crime from not-for-profit service provider Dimensions seem to reinforce our findings – then it's clear this is an issue that needs to be tackled.  

The starting point is to recognise mate crime when you see it and the following pointers may well apply:

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 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 their 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. They may suddenly change their will

The person may unexpectedly change their routine, behaviour or appearance. They may have unexplained injuries, look scruffy or dirty or show signs of mental ill health.

It may take delicate negotiation to help a vulnerable person understand that their precious friendships may not be what they seem. They will need support and guidance to help them identify the difference between friend and foe. 

Professionals and carers need to become more aware of how they talk about friendship, making a clear distinction between the roles of friend and support worker. They also need to help vulnerable people identify potentially abusive situations. Ultimately, the best thing they could do would be to provide safe social opportunities so that friendships could develop in supportive environments.

Our message to the people we've met who've experienced mate crime is not to accept it, but to report it as a disability hate crime and emphasise that they will be taken seriously. Even so, it can be daunting reporting an incident. Although more disability hate crimes are being reported than ever before – 2,500 were recorded by police last year – under-reporting is still a major problem. The National Crime Survey estimates that the true figure may be nearer 70,000.  

Options for reporting include telling the police or an adult or children's safeguarding team or visiting the True Vision website (www.report-it.org.uk) and filing the report online. Alternatively, incidents can be reported at third party reporting centres, many of which are based in community buildings such as libraries and carers' centres – local police have lists of these. At Autism Together we've just opened three autism-friendly Hate and Mate Crime reporting centres in Merseyside, where staff are trained to support people through the reporting process. Details for these can be found at www.autismtogether.co.uk/hate-crime-reporting.

There's no easy answer to this issue. My professional take is that we probably focus too much on working out strategies to help and support people academically and with employment skills, which means we're failing to recognise the extent to which they need social and emotional support.  

My response as a human being, when our research tells us that 80% of people with autism are turning down social opportunities for fear of bullying, is that we all need to wake up right now and embrace our moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable in our society. 

About the author

Steve Vasey is head of northwest charity Autism Together's children and family service. Autism Together is part of a national coalition of charities campaigning under the banner I'm with Sam: no more learning disability or autism hate crime. For more information on that campaign, click here