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Sexual Abuse and ASD: What Should Caregivers Know?

An individual with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more likely to be sexually abused than an individual without ASD. Many times, people with an ASD learn about sex from television, the internet or pornographic material rather than from a teacher: doctors believe that this lack of knowledge leaves individuals with an ASD more prone to becoming a victim of sexual abuse. As such, caregivers need to know the signs that indicate sexual abuse; furthermore, information related to the prevention of sexual abuse must also be addressed.

General sexual abuse statistics

Protecting those we care about from becoming victims of violence and sexual abuse is essential; however, for individuals with autism, this protection is even more crucial. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, in general, roughly 1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females are sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.

The vulnerability of individuals with ASD increases due to lack of sex education

Psychologists state that this lack of sex education increases the vulnerability of individuals who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is why people with an ASD are at an increased risk for becoming sexual abuse victims. Psychologists in Canada conducted a study in which they asked 95 individuals with autism and 117 without autism whether they had been coerced into having intercourse, raped or sexually abused in another manner, 74 of the 95 participants with ASD said yes – This is equivalent to 78 percent, which is substantially higher than the number of participants without autism who answered yes, 55 of the 117 – Equivalent to 47 percent. The findings of this study are published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Study provides insight into potential rates attained through a survey approach

Michelle Viecili is a psychologist at York University, she states that the participants in the study cannot be considered representative of the entire ASD population, even so, these results do provide a picture of what the rates may be in the event of a survey approach to this topic. Viecili and her colleagues contend that the increased incidence of sexual abuse in the ASD community is most likely caused by inadequate sex education. Their theory correlates with the fact that the autistic participants in this study were likely to attain their knowledge related to appropriate sexual behaviors and safe sex from the internet, television and pornographic materials; whereas, the individuals in the control group without an ASD were most likely to learn about sex from parents, teachers and their friends.

Possible signs of sexual abuse

There are signs a caregiver can watch for that may suggest an individual is being sexually abused, keeping in mind that every person is unique; therefore, symptoms evident in one individual may not be apparent in another.

Behaviors the American Psychological Association (APA) commonly associates with sexual abuse include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeping difficulties, possibly including more frequent nightmares
  • Withdrawing
  • Angry outbursts
  • Problems sitting and/or walking
  • A tendency to flee/run away
  • Pregnancy
  • Being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (especially when the individual is under the age of 14)
  • An unwillingness to stay with certain people or a particular person
  • Refusing to change clothes for gym class
  • Avoids participating in activities
  • Sexual behaviors, knowledge and/or language deemed inappropriate/unusual for the child’s age
  • Regressive behaviors, such as wetting the bed or sucking his/her thumb

Other signs children with ASD may display

Dr. Meredyth Goldberg Edelson’s article, addresses other signs that children with an ASD may display when they are being sexually abused.

Children with an ASD may display self-injurious, self-stimulatory, stereotypical and/or repetitive behaviors. As the child attempts to make sense of, or cope with sexual abuse, he or she may develop new behaviors or display an escalation in the frequency and intensity of current behaviors.

Whenever a child reports that he or she is being sexually abused, it should be taken seriously.

Reporting abuse

When a caregiver discovers/believes that an individual is being sexually abused, suspicions must be reported. Caregivers who need immediate assistance should dial 911; otherwise, caregivers can call the Childhelp® National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. They can also visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Moreover, many communities have Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) that are designed to coordinate support services for children who are the victims of child abuse (including sexual). A state-by-state list of accredited CACs is available at the National Children’s Alliance website.

Treatment for sexual abuse

While there is not a single treatment method that works for every sexual abuse victim, therapists do have a variety of treatment approaches available. Children are very resilient; therefore, taking advantage of a variety of the effective treatment methods while providing support can assist children as they recover from sexual abuse.

Preventing sexual abuse

Although there is no sure way to protect an individual from becoming a victim of sexual abuse, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network does provide helpful tips caregivers and parents can use to protect children from sexual abuse:

  • Most children are abused by an individual that they know and trust; therefore, avoid solely focusing on stranger danger.
  • Teach children the actual names of his or her private parts.
  • Inform children the difference between okay and not okay physical interaction.
  • Children need to know that they can make decisions related to their bodies; hence, empower children to say no if they do not want to interact with someone physically, such as politely refusing hugs as well as saying no to touching someone else.
  • If possible, teach children how to take care of their own private parts.
  • Children need to be educated about the differences between good and bad secrets. For example, a surprise party is okay because it is a short-lived secret; however, a secret that a child is expected to keep forever is not okay.

In conclusion, Autism Speaks states that sexuality education and knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior is extremely important for individuals with an ASD.

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