The number of people with autism and Asperger's syndrome in Merseyside being subjected to mate crime is 'staggeringly high' according to a report from Wirral Autistic Society - and the most vulnerable age group is 16 to 25.
Mate crime, a form of disability hate crime, is a term used to describe a false relationship, where someone befriends a vulnerable person and then uses that friendship to manipulate or bully. It can take the form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, theft, manipulation or online bullying.
The report is based on a survey undertaken by the Society earlier this year. Online questionnaires were completed by people with autism or Asperger's syndrome or their carers.
The report found that 80% of respondents in Merseyside over the age of 16 felt they had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they had thought was a friend. This figure alarmed the society. It compares to a figure of 49% obtained when the National Autistic Society asked the same question of over 18s in a nationwide survey a year earlier.
Robin Bush, CEO of the society, said, "Mate crime is morally reprehensible and these people are cowards.
"People with autism struggle enough with the complexities of daily life without having to live in fear that people who pretend to be their friends will actually steal from them, assault them or encourage them to commit crimes on their behalf. I hope all stakeholders will look closely at the findings from our survey and work collaboratively to educate and eliminate hate crime from our communities."
The survey also found that:
• Eighty five per cent of over 16s with autism in Merseyside often feel lonely and left out. That compares to 41% of adults with autism surveyed by the National Autistic Society in 2014. Just 11% of the general population report feeling lonely.
• The most vulnerable age group was 16 to 25. 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. Eight out of ten said that fear of bullying had caused them to turn down social opportunities.
• Of the respondents who reported experiencing mate crime, 71% across all age groups had been subject to name calling and verbal abuse. Fifty four per cent of 12-16 year-olds had had money or possessions stolen. In the 25+ age group, 74% reported that they had been manipulated or forced to do the wrong thing.
• Over a third of adults with autism had been subject to bullying or manipulation of a sexual nature - including being coerced into 'sexting'.
• Thirteen per cent of children in the 5-11 age group had experienced online bullying. This jumped to 21% for the 12-16 age group.
Click here to view an infographic breaking down the findings on our Learning Disabilities Pinterest page
The Wirral Autistic Society report concluded that people with autism are often unaware that they are in an abusive relationship. It is the parents and cares who recognise the issue but then struggle to find a way to support the individual. Some parents who responded to the survey reported feeling isolated, distraught and at a loss about who to turn to.
Steve Vasey, head of the society's Rainbow Resource Centre for children and families in Birkenhead, said, "My professional response to this is that we probably focus too much on working out strategies to help and support people academically and with employment skills - it means we're failing to recognise the extent to which they need social and emotional support.
"My response as a human being is that this report proves how utterly horrible we can be. We all need to wake up right now and be more understanding of the vulnerable in our society."
Wirral Autistic Society is asking parents, carers and community members who wish to contribute to the development of an anti-mate crime campaign to contact the Rainbow Resource Centre on: 0151 666 9960 or email matecrime@Wirral.Autistic.org.