How to Recognize the Signs of Sexual Abuse Among People With Disabilities

Sexual abuse represents one of the most serious problems in the U.S. It disproportionately affects those of low socio-economic status and those with disabilities, including physical and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The seriousness of sexual abuse among those with disabilities also goes unnoticed, and caregivers or friends may not recognize the signs of sexual abuse. However, understanding more about its prevalence, signs, and effects is the first step in fighting sexual abuse.

Prevalence of sexual abuse

According to the CDC, 25% of women and 4% of men in the U.S. have experienced completed or attempted rape. But, the incidence of sexual abuse includes a definition that goes beyond rape. For example, sexual violence, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual contact or experiences make up several forms of sexual abuse. Other on sexual buase made available by the CDC include:

  • Over 50% of women and approximately 33% of men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives.
  • 11% percent of men report being forced to penetrate another person.
  • Almost 50% all female sexual assault survivors experienced the first incident before age 18.

Among those with learning or physical disabilities, the risk for sexual abuse only increases. In a New Mexico focus group, researchers found the lifetime risk of sexual abuse is 300% greater among those with disabilities than those without disabilities.

The reasons behind this increased risk focus on how a person with disabilities may require the assistance of others or special devices to live. For example, a direct caregiver may be the abuser, or an abuser may isolate a victim. Furthermore, those with disabilities may not be taken seriously when first reporting an incident.

Signs of sexual abuse

Adults and adolescents who have been the victims of sexual abuse may not understand what forms of contact are appropriate or inappropriate. However, certain behaviors and actions can be indicative of sexual abuse.

Among children, the warning signs of sexual abuse include the following:

  • Nightmares or other sleep problems. Those with disabilities may be more prone to sleeping disorders, so careful consideration of typical sleep patterns is critical in reviewing this warning sign.
  • Changes in eating habits or refusing to eat.
  • Changes in mood or personality.
  • New fear of specific places or people.
  • Refusal to discuss events or share secrets with trusted caregivers.
  • Sexual behaviors, knowledge, and/or language deemed inappropriate/unusual for the child’s age
  • Having money or toys without being able to explain where they got them.
  • Regressive behaviors, such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumb.

Warning signs of sexual abuse among teens may include the following:

  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Improper hygiene.
  • Self-injurious behaviors.
  • Expressing suicidal ideations.
  • Changes in eating habits.

Adolescents may also exhibit any of the signs of sexual abuse in children. Yet, all of signs of sexual abuse may appear in adults as well.

Teens, children, and those with disabilities may leave “clues” about the incident. For example, a child or teen may start speaking about sexual acts or “ideas” in what is commonly considered a “safe context.”

The goal of hinting at a sexual act is to judge the reaction of the person being spoken to. If the child or adolescent feels the reaction is extremely negative, he or she may avoid further mention of the topic. As a result, the importance of creating a safe, comfortable environment is critical to helping those with and without disabilities overcome the power of their perpetrators.

In some cases, such as a person who is incapable of voicing what has happened to him or her due to intellectual or developmental disabilities, the clues and hints may be less obvious or inappropriate. For example, someone with disabilities may become fearful of bathing, attempt to repeat the behavior, or display their genitalia to others.

The effects of experiencing abuse

Sexual abuse does not only impact a person’s mental health, it can lead to physical health problems as well. For example, sexual abuse of a woman may result in pregnancy, or a person may get a sexually transmitted infection from the abuser.

In cases where the abused person lives with a disability, the potential effects can be more disastrous. The abuse of drugs or alcohol can interact adversely with medications, and depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make difficulties associated with IDD worse.

What to do when you recognize the signs of sexual abuse

The statistics on sexual abuse are staggering and shocking. However, you can help victims by taking action and following these steps:

  1. Listen and watch for what just does not seem right.
  2. NEVER brush off a disclosure or hint as something that “they just don’t really understand.”
  3. Do not mistake coercion with compassion. Those with disabilities may be coerced by their abusers, and you need recognize when the level of care crosses boundaries.
  4. Sexual orientation is not an excuse for victimization. Sexual orientation varies, and each person has the right to say “no.”
  5. Contact the authorities if you suspect sexual abuse.
  6. Be a voice for those who may not be able to speak or show what happened.

Human contact should be compassionate, loving, and caring, not malicious, cold, or self-serving. You have the power to help those who have been affected by sexual abuse if you know what to look for.


Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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