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Mate crime: how to spot it, stop it and prevent it

Putting a name to an increasingly common crime against young people with learning disabilities and autism. 
Mate crimes

Putting a name to an increasingly common crime against young people with learning disabilities and autism

Chaz is a young man with Asperger's syndrome who lives in the north west of England with his grandmother. He is so desperate for companionship that he thinks it is okay to hang out with football thugs. He has recently appeared in court charged with fighting and inciting football violence alongside one of his "friends".

What Chaz is experiencing needs a name and needs recognition. Although the law doesn't recognise the term, we call it 'mate crime' as it is distinct from disability 'hate crime'. The term describes situations where vulnerable people, such as those with autism or learning disabilities, are bullied or manipulated by people they consider to be friends. This is exactly what is happening

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Putting a name to an increasingly common crime against young people with learning disabilities and autism

Chaz is a young man with Asperger's syndrome who lives in the north west of England with his grandmother. He is so desperate for companionship that he thinks it is okay to hang out with football thugs. He has recently appeared in court charged with fighting and inciting football violence alongside one of his "friends".

Mate crimes
Mate crimes are becoming increasingly prevalent in vulnerable communities
Picture: Alamy

What Chaz is experiencing needs a name and needs recognition. Although the law doesn't recognise the term, we call it 'mate crime' as it is distinct from disability 'hate crime'. The term describes situations where vulnerable people, such as those with autism or learning disabilities, are bullied or manipulated by people they consider to be friends. This is exactly what is happening to Chaz, who we know as a quiet and polite young man.

Regional project

We have seen too many examples of mate crime in our region, Merseyside. Last year our regional research project found that 80% of respondents – all were people on the autism spectrum or families speaking on their behalf – had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they considered a friend. 

If our region is a snapshot of what is happening nationally – and recent figures into learning disability and autism hate crime from the charity Dimensions (2016) reinforces our findings – it is clear this is an issue that needs to be tackled.

The starting point is to recognise mate crime when you see it with some of the following signs
  • 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 they will lose their friends. They may appear uneasy about the friendship.
  • The vulnerable person may be spending his or her own money to pay for concert tickets for others, or for 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.

There are a variety of ways to tell the authorities about an incident or a pattern of abusive behaviour. Most importantly, use the term 'disability hate crime' when making the report. Reports can be made to the police or to an adult or children's safeguarding team.

Reporting online

The True Vision website allows online reporting. Alternatively, incidents can be reported at third-party reporting centres, many of which are based in community buildings such as libraries and carers' centres.

Autism Together have opened three autism-friendly Hate and Mate Crime centres in Merseyside, where staff are trained to support people through the reporting process. 

Prevention is better than cure. As autism and learning disability professionals I suspect we spend too much time working out strategies to help and support people academically – but that means we're failing to recognise the extent to which they need social and emotional support. 

We need to become more aware of how we talk about friendship, making a very clear distinction between the roles of friend and support worker. We need to help vulnerable people identify potentially abusive situations.

Ultimately, the best thing we can do is provide safe social opportunities so friendships can develop in supportive environments.

Following our intervention, Chaz was appointed a social worker and we hope this will safeguard him. But Chaz is just one young person, in one city in the UK. We implore our autism and learning disability colleagues to join us in tackling mate crime in their own localities.


Resources


About the author

Steve Vasey

Steve Vasey is head of north west charity Autism Together's children and family service.

Autism Together (@autism_together) is part of a national coalition of charities campaigning under the slogan I'm with Sam: no more learning disability or autism hate crime.

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