Ask Elise: Let’s Talk About Neurodivergence and Abuse

Counseling a young woman.
Photo courtesy of Bigstock/shisuka

Ask Elise is an advice column meant for suggestions regarding LGBTQ+ community member dilemmas of any kind. If I am not qualified to answer your question (regarding issues for transgender individuals, people of color, etcetera), I will ask someone who is qualified and cite them. Your question is equally important and may help another community member. If you have a question, please submit it to [email protected], listing your pronouns and pseudonym if desired. If you need someone to talk to for more urgent or serious matters, please consider using the following hotlines:

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: (888) 843-4564

Trans Lifeline: (877) 565-8860: Trans Lifeline is a trans-led organization that connects trans people to the community, support, and resources they need to survive and thrive.

TRIGGER WARNING: This community member’s question has to do with emotional/physical/sexual abuse and other sensitive topics. Although I interview experts, my response should not take the place of working individually with an expert if you or someone you love is experiencing abuse or mental health issues. Please use one of the below hotlines if you or a loved one is experiencing abuse and needs urgent attention.

RAINN hotline (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) 1-800-656-4673

Local or regional resources are available in most counties.

Here is information about Serenity’s survivor support group:

Our group is for survivors of intimate partner abuse who identify as LGBTQIA+. This group is open to anyone 18+ at any point in their healing journey, and meets weekly on Tuesday nights from 6-7:30p CST via Zoom, and is not limited to WI or MN. Email [email protected] for more information, and to get added to the email list.

Dear Elise,

I saw that you interviewed an intimate partner violence advocacy specialist. My abuser was neurodivergent (non-binary trans femme who uses they/them pronouns) and I believe that aspect of their identity impacted how I was abused. I have questions for your interviewee and would like to volunteer to speak on my experience if desired.


Sarah (she/her)

Dear Sarah,

I would be honored to interview you and answers to your previous questions with more general information about lesbian abuse can be found in issue 753 of Lavender. The following text is excerpted from our interview and will be followed by the expert opinion of Serenity.

Sarah: “Thank you to my support system for getting me to a point where I can be open about my experience. This relationship started when I started college. My ex was a senior. That was not a great power dynamic, especially for a small school. We dated on and off for about two or three years. I broke up with them twice. It was incredibly messy every time so I have not spoken to them in over six years. That relationship was very confusing for me and it took a long time for me to consider what happened to be abusive because some mainstream narratives of abuse are very heteronormative and rely a lot on that presentation of masculinity. A couple of years ago I read Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft, which is a helpful book, but I was feeling pretty frustrated because it was so gendered.”

When I last spoke to them, they were identifying with being diagnosed as autistic. In retrospect, their neurodivergence made a lot of sense for both their behavior as a friend and a partner. I want to be clear that our dynamics were not immune to me struggling with my own trauma, conflict avoidance, and the fact that I was nineteen and starting my very first real relationship. There are of course things I could have done better, but when my therapist and I looked at the overarching power structure of the relationship, it was not in my favor. They were a lot more experienced than me and made the relationship all-encompassing in a way. They exhibited hallmarks of abuse like isolating me from family and friends. We were in an open relationship and they used that to stoke tension between me and my best friend by trying to be with her while telling me that I should not be friends with her anymore. I wasn’t seeing stereotypical presentations of behavior that made me think I was being abused. There was some physical stuff regarding consent to both intimate and sexual touch. They would tickle me and not listen to me asking them to stop. They would obtain consent to initiate sex, but would not listen when I revoked consent or was in pain.

We would have arguments where we would be up very late at night. I got sucked into that dynamic because they are extremely intelligent, super gifted. I just wanted to understand their worldview. They were different from me in many ways (personal interests, BIPOC identity, talents) so I was very interested in getting to know them well. Of course I did not know better at the time so we would have these arguments that were like eight hour all-nighters. But they weren’t screaming at me or calling me names.”

I had the honor to interview Serenity (she/her), the Legal Services Coordinator for a community based intimate partner violence survivors’ services agency. She has been involved in abuse advocacy and prevention work for almost a decade starting as a volunteer as a first-year college student. She has worked with anti-violence advocates at the regional or state level and currently works with the St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team. Serenity eloquently provided me with information and resources while noting that program budgets are getting cut at the federal level. For those doing the work to support and care for others as they heal in various ways, Serenity recommends the book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. Serenity is a survivor herself and leads an international support group for LGBTQIA+ survivors. Information on how to join is in the introduction to the article. For those looking to learn about lesbian abuse, my friend who is a survivor recommends the masterfully written book In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado.

Serenity: “Sarah, I am sorry that you experienced abuse in this way. Thank you for sharing your experience so that others may feel less alone. Yes, someone’s neurodivergence can be important to consider when evaluating a potentially abusive situation. Does the person understand the weight of how their behavior impacts you? Do you understand how their neurodivergence may lead you two to have different perspectives on relational things? Check in with them and then check in with a trusted confidant, preferably a licensed counselor if you have access to one. There are plenty of free support groups like mine out there where people would be happy to help anyone in need.”



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