Many of us have a set of friends to talk about our problems, create memories and share common interests and hobbies. But this isn’t the case for everyone as some “mates” have a more sinister motive why they would like to become involved in our lives.

Friendships involve a mutual affection for one another where shared interests, hobbies, and clear boundaries are set. These relationships can last for years, decades or even until we die.  From Birthdays to funerals, friends are often by our sides until the end.

But this isn’t the case for everyone. 

The Valuing People Support Team found that only 30% of people with learning disabilities have friends, and even when those with learning challenges have friends, a third have no contract with them, meaning that “four out of five people with learning disabilities are, to all intents and purposes, friendless.” And because of such statistics, those with learning difficulties will become involved in friendships, even if the boundaries are blurred between mate and criminal. When these boundaries become blurred, these “mates” can take advantage of people in small ways but become severe and criminal.

Andy Burns speaking on his Youtube channel IndieAndy about mate crime.

Thirtyone:eight, an independent Christian charity that protects vulnerable people from abuse, refers to mate crime as “the befriending of people, who perpetrators perceive to be vulnerable, for the purposes of taking advantage of, exploiting and/ or abusing them.” This type of disability hate crime is committed in various ways, from financial abuse to criminal exploitation. In an online survey conducted by Autism Together in 2015, they found 80% of respondents who were over 16 with autism felt bullied or taken advantage of by someone they had thought was a friend. In the same report, 100% of those 16-25 had difficulties distinguishing between friends and those that bully or abuse. Despite this type of crime being a form of disability hate crime, it can often be committed privately and is challenging to spot.

Andy Burns, who is autistic and has a YouTube channel called IndieAndy with 15 thousand subscribers, had a “friend” who asked for money but never paid him back.  

“A friend or rather an alleged friend at school asked me for a quid nearly every day. I didn’t think anything of it as I thought it was going towards something cool, but after a while, I started to ask why I hadn’t seen any of these things that were being bought for me. The friend kept promising it was legit, but when I said I couldn’t afford to give money anymore, they got verbally aggressive about this, saying that I had to as we were friends, and that is what friends do. I know now that this is absolutely not the case.”  

Andy Burns talking about how he was a victim of mate crime through financial means.

Ryan Hendry, who has ADHD and is also autistic, wrote for the Demographica Network, an independent news organisation, about his experience of mate crime. Ryan met a friend named “R” at a football forum and would meet this person after football matches. But this friendship soon became financial exploitation where Ryan would constantly buy “R” drinks and their meals. “R” would say to Ryan that they had “forgotten” their wallet, and when Ryan mentioned they hadn’t paid him back, they would get angry with him and say that proper friends didn’t chase their friends for money. When Ryan went to Queen University Belfast and hadn’t seen “R” in a few years, that was when he realised that “R” was not his mate and was exploiting him through financial means.

I actually think my time at Queen’s genuinely saved me from this man ruining my life, because I very quickly met a great group of friends […] and they showed me what real, proper friendship is.”

Ryan Hendry writting on The Demographica Network

Others like Agustina, a graphic designer, and an illustrator from Uruguay, can also be exploited and be affected by mate crime, not just those in the United Kingdom. She has an Instagram page called The Autistic Life, which has 126 thousand followers and has said that her experience of mate crime resulted in her having depression and anxiety.

“My ex-partner used to pressure me into helping him with his creative projects to the point I completely neglected my own. At first, it started with the promise that working for him would help me put myself out there with my art and might inspire others to hire me. That never happened because I was too busy and focused on his projects to worry about anything else. There was so much emotional abuse that I wasn’t able to see until the relationship was over and realised how much time I’d wasted on him.”  

Agustina talking about the emotional abuse she had suffered in her relationship.

There are multiple reasons behind why those who are autistic are most susceptible to being taken advantage of, as explained by Dr Anson Service, a licensed mental health counsellor. Autistic people find it difficult to make friends because they have challenges communicating their feelings and recognising social cues, compared to non-autistic people. Agustina said: “Our unique ways of processing and managing information put us in a more susceptible spot to experience mate crime as it doesn’t come naturally for many of us to think about long-term consequences or the underlying intentions of the other person when approaching us.”

Service has pointed out that autistic people have a difference in the retinoic acid-induced 1 (RAI1) gene, which is why you see autistic people having a “greater trust in people and a diminished understanding of long-term consequences.” And so, when a person asks an autistic person to do them a favour, like buy a drink, an autistic person is more likely to feel a greater feeling of being wanted than a non-autistic person, even if in the long term, these demands become exploitive over time.  

The stories of Andy, Ryan, and Agustina highlight how we must be wary of who comes into our lives and why they have done so.

Charities like Mencap are starting to offer advice on mate crime, including how to report this crime, what to look out for if you think a person is suffering from this crime and a helpline for those who need to talk to someone.

Essex Police issued mate crime warnings in August to raise awareness on the issue.

A spokesman for Essex police said: “If you’re worried that you or a friend are a victim of mate crime, please report it to us.”

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Hamish Hallett is a journalist/broadcaster part of the scribe team at Common Sense. He has a deep interest in current affairs, both domestically and internationally, which you can see through his written work and his podcast called A Spoonful of News. Hamish loves to understand what makes people tick and get to the root of today's issues. Away from the network, Hamish has a profound interest in reading books, keeping active, travailing, meeting new and exciting people and controversially having ham and pineapple on pizza.

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