Learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions

People with learning disabilities may have a reduced ability to understand new or complex information, learn new skills and cope independently. These difficulties can make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

People with autism spectrum conditions experience difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. They may be over or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli. Autism is not a learning disability, although some individuals with autism spectrum conditions may also have learning difficulties.

Learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions affect each individual in a different way, and to different extents.


Vulnerability to exploitation

People with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions are more vulnerable to exploitation for a number of reasons:

  • difficulty understanding social cues and communication, including difficulty recognising when the behaviour of others is concerning or inappropriate
  • being very trusting and have a limited understanding of risk –  people may not understand that those exploiting them may be telling lies or trying to deceive or manipulate them
  • difficulty telling others what is happening to them, especially if they have communication difficulties
  • communication of their distress through behavioural cues which might be assumed to relate to their impairment
  • concern about the consequences of telling someone what is happening, including concern that they will not be listened to or believed
  • being viewed as easy targets – perpetrators assume it will be easy to lure or force them into an exploitative situation and assume that they will be unlikely to tell others what happened
  • being overprotected and disempowered – they may not be used to making decisions or following their instincts and may have been sheltered from the outside world
  • society’s view of people as ‘different’ and unable to live ordinary lives or have relationships – this can leave them unprepared to live independently, manage their finances or enter a romantic relationship
  • feelings of isolation which can make them vulnerable to grooming – this can include using the internet and social media to find friends, putting them at risk of online grooming
  • some people receive care from support workers and family members, often in the home or specialist care settings – exploitation encountered in these settings is often hidden from view and can go unnoticed.

People with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions may become victims of mate crime. Mate crime is a form of hate crime and occurs when someone uses their relationship with an individual to exploit and abuse them. They could be a friend, romantic partner, family member or support worker.

Mate crime can lead to many forms of exploitation including financial exploitation and scams, sexual exploitation and being ‘cuckooed’ (having their property taken over by drug dealers or county lines gangs).