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"The results of our survey into 'mate crime' left me stunned. More than ever, it’s made me realise how important it is for society to wake up and be more understanding of the vulnerable in our society; to give social and emotional support along with practical assistance.

Mate crime, a form of disability hate crime, is a term used to describe a false relationship, where someone befriends a vulnerable person and uses that friendship to manipulate or bully.  It can take the form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, theft, manipulation or online bullying. People with autism or learning disabilities can be particularly vulnerable because they are particularly eager to make new friends. 

Our report was based on 140 responses to an online questionnaire, promoted to the autism community in Merseyside.  We invited people with autism or Asperger's syndrome - or, if they were unable to communicate, their carers – to tell us anonymously about their experiences of troubled friendships.

Shockingly, 80% of respondents over the age of 16 felt they had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they had thought was a friend.  The survey also found that:

  • 85% of over 16s with autism often feel lonely and left out. Just 11% of the general population report feeling lonely. 
  • The most vulnerable age group was 16 to 25. 100% 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. 54% 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'. 

Parents and people with autism told us unsettling stories of bullying and manipulation.  A young man with autism said, "I was frightened to tell anyone." A mother told of her fear for her autistic daughter whose boyfriend appeared to be trying to steal her benefits.  Another mother told us, "My son cannot distinguish banter from bullying. He's absolutely harmless and extremely vulnerable. It breaks my heart as a parent."

Identifying mate crime can be very difficult as the abuse is often hidden. However, social care professionals can help by knowing what to look out for.

  • Has their friendship group suddenly expanded?  Have new people come into their life unexpectedly who seem to be wielding a lot of influence? 
  • Is someone's financial situation changing?  Are they being asked to subsidise activities, perhaps to buy concert tickets or gifts for people? 
  • Is their behaviour changing?  They may comment that someone will be disappointed or not be their friend if a particular activity doesn't take place. 

Vulnerable people need support and guidance to identify the difference between friend and foe. As professionals, we need to become more aware of how we talk about genuine friendships, so that vulnerable people are better equipped to identify potentially abusive situations. The best thing we could do is to provide social opportunities so that true friendships can develop in supportive environments."

The full report is available at:

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