Preventing Sexual Abuse

Take a Sexual Health Class Survey

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
    report abuse
  • 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

Additional Resources



When an individual engages in negative behaviors, such as a tantrum or aggression, it is important to focus on the safety of the individual, those around them.

In case of emergency, call 9-1-1!


Indiana’s Adult Abuse Hotline: Report any types of adult (18+ y.o.) abuse (e.g., neglect, battery, or exploitation) who may be incapable due to mental illness or other physical or mental incapacity to Adult Protective Services. State hotline: 1-800-992-6978. For more information or to report online:

Indiana’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: Call 1-800-800-5556 to report child abuse (e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse) and neglect allegations. Help is available 24/7. More Information here:

Suicide hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a counselor at Lifeline crisis center near you. Help is available 24/7. For more information:

The Hotline: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse. Contacts to The Hotline can expect highly-trained, expert advocates to offer free, confidential, and compassionate support, crisis intervention information, education, and referral services in over 200 languages.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from our secure online platform. The volunteer Crisis Counselor will help you move from a hot moment to a cool moment.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service):  Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Help available 24/7. For more information:

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Trans Lifeline’s Hotline: a peer support phone service run by trans people for our trans and questioning peers. We believe that some of the best support that trans people can receive is from trans community members with shared lived experience.

Postpartum Support International: For the 24hr helpline, call 1-800-944-4773, or text 503-894-9453. Options are available in English or Espanol. For more information: For Indiana-specific resources:

Autism Society National Hotline: “The Autism Society’s National Helpline welcomes your phone calls, emails and letters. Please keep in mind that our helpline does not provide direct services/assistance, such as treatment,  legal services, and case management. However, our trained Information & Referral (I&R) Specialists provide many resources to services and supports across the country. To speak to an I&R Specialist directly, call 800-3-AUTISM (800-328-8476).” 

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Hotline Guide: “If you are in crisis and need help immediately, please consult one of the toll-free national hotlines listed below or contact your local police or emergency services. The following free, national hotlines and helplines can assist parents, caregivers, families and youth. They are organized by topic to help you find what you are looking for easily. “

A Guide to Safety from Organization for Autism Research: ” A Guide to Safety is an autism safety resource that covers a range of topics, including:

  • Safety network development
  • Prevention and management of wandering and elopement behaviors
  • Relationship, physical, and sexual safety discussions
  • Strategies to address bullying and online threats
  • Tips on money and workplace safety”

When to Ask for Help?

Individuals with ASD experience many challenges. However, it is important for parents and caregivers to recognize when they need to seek help:

  • Aggression, self-injury or other changes in behavior, like irritability or anxiety, are recurrent, persistent, and have strong negative impact onto those around them
  • Dangerous or unsafe behaviors that are challenging to manage or contain (e.g., elopement and wandering)
  • Threats of suicide
  • Regression in skills

Services, Groups, & Networks

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TIPS: Developing Partnerships with the Disability Community

TIP: Tip Sheet: Engaging People with Disabilities in Evidence-Based Programs


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National and Local Resources



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What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is a form of advocacy in which individuals are empowered and informed to represent themselves in a number of settings.

Self-Advocacy is learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship, and learning about self-determination (

What Do I Need to Remember:

  • Participate actively in the process, whether it is your IEP or transition, school or work or community.
  • Express clearly what your needs are
  • Set goals that you can realistically achieve
  • Find the information you need to make choices
  • Look for options or resources
  • Remember to bring an advocate, friend, or family member to a meeting to help and support you, if you prefer
  • Keep a folder of all communication.
  • Take notes at meetings or during calls

10 Steps to Effective Self-Advocacy:

Teaching Self-Advocacy Skills to Your Child or Student:

Additional Resources

10 Self-Advocacy Tips for Young People with Disabilities (INCLUDEnyc)
Disability Sensitivity Training (DC Office of Disability Rights)
What is Self-Advocacy? (RTC Media)

Early Childhood

On this page, you can explore the following topics (click on the topic of interest):


While ASD can  be detected as early as 18 months or younger, diagnosis is considered very reliable by the age of 2 (Lord et al, 2006). However, many children fail to receive a diagnosis until much later, which may prevent them from getting the help they need right away.

Learn about the “red flags” by CDC.

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What Can Parents Do?

As a parent, you know your child and can spot warning signs of autism early on.

  • Monitor the development of your child. Keep an eye on how your child is developing socially, emotionally, and cognitively. While developmental delays do not equate to autism, they can indicate a risk.
  • If you are concerned, take actions. If you have any concerns or have questions, talk to your doctor right away.
  • Trust your instincts. 

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ASD Screening Poster by HANDS in Autism®

Download a screening poster and a checklist from the HANDS in Autism® Website


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More Resources

Resources for childcare providers

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