Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and related developmental and intellectual disabilities are several times more likely to become victims of sexual abuse than others. This is connected to several factors, as identified by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2009:
- Have been trained to follow rules and requirements given by a person of authority
- Have limited access to sexual education programming or individualized sexual education content
- Be unable to communicate verbally (i.e., non-verbal) or have limited communication skills
- Be partially or fully immobile
- Have limited access to or a lack of awareness of resources, services, and supports to
- Be placed in or receive residential care or supported living services
- Have challenges with cognitive skills, fluid reasoning, and critical thinking making them more susceptible to manipulation or persuasion
- Experience feelings of isolation and withdrawal due to their differences
- Be stigmatized by society, thus making them susceptible or more likely to be misled or used by others
Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse
The Department of Justice (n.d.) outlined a list of common behaviors resulting from abuse:
- Increase in nightmares and/or problems with sleep
- Change in routine habits (e.g., eating)
- Anger or sudden mood swings
- Signs of anxiety and/or depression
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- New or increased tendency to run away or self-injure
- Lack of desire to participate in physical activities
- Regressive behaviors
- Reluctance to be alone
- Sexual knowledge, language, or behaviors not exhibited before
- Feelings of guilt
- Negative self-image
In Our Own Words: Why We Want Parents to Talk to us About Sex
How To Prevent Sexual Abuse
Consider the following strategies to help individuals with IDD/ASD avoid sexual abuse:
- Avoid focusing only on teaching “stranger danger.” Many cases of abuse come from people that are known or familiar.
- Teach the difference between “OK” and “NOT OK” touches.
- Teach an individual to say “no” to touch (even non-sexual) either verbally or through other modes of communication (device, sign, etc.).
- Teach individuals to take care of their private parts (i.e., toilet training, skills teaching pertaining to personal hygiene and dress, etc.) to reduce reliance on other adults or children.
- Teach the difference between “good secrets” (e.g., surprise for a friend, confidential
personal information) and “bad secrets” (e.g., secrets that make them uncomfortable, secrets others have noted not to share with others).
- Trust your instincts! If you are in doubt or have questions, make sure you follow up on your instincts and seek help (Autism Speaks, 2018).
What to do if student confides in you or if you have reasonable cause to believe that a student was assaulted?
- Believe the student and confirm that by saying, “I believe you.”
- Tell the student that it is not her or her fault.
- Tell the student that you care about him or her and thank for confiding.
- Speak privately to student and only share information with people who you feel need to be enlisted (e.g., principal, school nurse)
- Report the abuse by contacting the police or child protection agency. You are required by law to report it yourself or make certain it is reported by another person (e.g., by being in the room at the time). You do not need to investigate on your own. All you need is reasonable cause to believe it has occurred.
- If student wishes to report on his or her own, be present there while he/she does it.
HANDS in Autism developed a handout with suggested strategies. Learn more at HANDSinAutism.iupui.edu
- Autism Speaks. (2018). Recognizing and preventing sexual abuse. Available from https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/autism-safety-project
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network Child Sexual Abuse Committee. (2009). Caring for kids: What parents need to know about sexual abuse.
Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Available from https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/
- U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Recognizing sexual abuse. Available from https://www.nsopw.gov/en/education/recognizingsexualabuse
- Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016. Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect. Available from https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/statutes/manda/