Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Communication and Education are Keys to Protecting Children with Intellectual Disabilities from Sexual Predators

July 2, 2018

Navigating the risks and rewards of physical relationships can be a confusing time for many young people. For young people with developmental disabilities (DD), such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and intellectual disability (ID), the risks are magnified by their vulnerability and can lead to sexual abuse.

NPR reported earlier this year that people with ID and DD are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. It’s a disturbing statistic that calls for increasing protection of children and teens from sexual predators.

I recently talked with Dr. Laura Graham Holmes, a Postdoctoral Fellow at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research, about how parents and caregivers can teach children and teens with ASD how to protect themselves while developing healthy relationships. 

Dr. Laura Graham Holmes

“While children must be protected, as they grow older, teens and young adults want a connection like anyone else their age,” said Dr. Holmes. Yet, as NPR pointed out, people with ID or DD are at a much higher risk of being sexually abused and are more likely than others to be assaulted by someone they know.

Children with DD therefore need to learn basic ways to advocate for themselves. “These are kids that are taught to comply in a lot of ways with adults,” Dr. Holmes said.

Communication is also key. Sexual predators target people with DD because they perceived as more easily manipulated, but also because they will have difficulty testifying later, according to NPR.

Dr. Holmes recommends the following tips to provide advocacy skills to young people with DD:

  • Teach them that it’s OK to say no. For example, a child with autism can learn to turn down a hug that he or she doesn’t want.
  • The child should be taught to ask before touching or hugging someone else.
  • Children with DD can learn to differentiate between appropriate behaviors for those they have close relationships with, including family, friends and teachers, and people they don’t know or don’t know well.
  • Children with ASD can’t always tell parents about an event that happened in adequate detail and may not be able to tell their story in a linear fashion. Parents can work with teachers and speech therapists to teach how to describe an event. They can also help develop this skill by drawing pictures in a story sequence and adding necessary details to help a third person like another parent or sibling understand an event that happened in a story.
  • Parents and caregivers should encourage an open dialogue with children with ASD who communicate using speech. Help the child feel comfortable going to a trusted person and discussing topics such as basic anatomy and appropriate behavior.
  • Help children and adolescents understand what a good relationship is and isn’t.

Identifyfing Sexual Abuse 

Signs of inappropriate contact include unexplained changes in behavior and suddenly acting afraid of, or trying to avoid, a person or place. But there’s no specific way a child with DD will respond to sexual abuse. “I think children who’ve experienced something distressing respond in many different ways,” Dr. Holmes explained. The key is not to automatically attribute changes in behavior (e.g. an increase in disruptive behavior) to the disability if something in the environment may be at fault.

Sexual behavior may or may not be a warning sign. “It’s difficult to draw a clear line for developmentally appropriate sexual behavior for this population, but if a child is demonstrating sexual behavior that does not seem appropriate for their chronological or developmental age, parents should gently redirect the child and ask their physician for advice,” she said.

Unfortunately, the education of children with DD about sex and relationships hasn’t received a lot of attention. It’s unknown how often children with ASD are included in school sex education classes, said Dr. Holmes. “But the more children understand, the less likely they’ll be victims of abuse.”

For more information, Autism Speaks offers tips on how to protect children from sexual abuse and Pathfinders for Autism provides guidance on how to teach young adults about sex and relationships.