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Be Safe: General Prevention Resources


These resources, part of the Be Safe resource collection focused on preventing sexual abuse and assault and supporting individuals who may have experienced sexual abuse or assault, contains general information about how to prevent sexual abuse or assault. Topics include identifying and reporting abuse in children, signs of abuse, risk and protective factors, educating about abuse, why abuse isn't always reported and pathways to victimization.

Identifying and Reporting Abuse in Children

What is Abuse?

Children with disabilities are 2-4 times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted than their peers. The abuser is often times known by the child.

Physical Abuse: Non-accidental injury, including striking, kicking, beating, biting or any action that leads to physical injury

Neglect: Failure to provide for a child’s basic needs such as adequate guardianship, food, clothing, shelter, education, emotional comfort or medical care, whether done intentionally or unintentionally

Sexual Abuse: Unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrator using force, or making threats, or taking advantage of victims

What if You Discover or Suspect Abuse?

  • Remain calm and listen carefully
  • Praise the child for telling about the abuse
  • Keep the conversation calm, relaxed, and casual
  • Avoid pushing for information if the person does not want to talk
  • Avoid asking “leading” questions (e.g., Did Mary hit you? Did your brother hurt you?) – instead, ask “You have a bruise on your face, can you tell me what happened?”
  • Tell him/her that it is not their fault if someone hurt them and they are not in trouble
  • If you suspect abuse, say that you care about his/her safety and want to know what is going on so you can make sure they are safe

Call the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Childline at 1-800-932-0313.

If you need immediate assistance, call 911.

Pathway to Victimization

What is the pathway to victimization?

Individuals with disabilities are 2-4 times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted than their peers – much more likely to be by someone they know, and more likely to be during daytime hours. Abuse in people with autism is usually not recognized, reported, investigated, or prosecuted.

It is extremely important that parents, guardians, and professionals working with people with autism know the potential risk factors:

  • Social Bias– People with autism are often treated as being less valuable than others, and may feel as if they are invisible
  • Opportunity – Abusers may believe that people with autism are easier to trick, bribe, or coerce. Offenders may see people with autism as “ideal” targets because of their difficulty identifying these incidents as inappropriate interactions. Also, people with autism tend to be more isolated in schools and in the community and sometimes require help using the toilet, bathing, and dressing from multiple caregivers, which can increase risk for abuse.
  • Lack of Information– People with autism are often not taught about personal safety and sexual education that could help recognize abusive behaviors. People with autism are frequently trained to be compliant with requests and directives, which can limit ability to say no or stop.
  • Desire to Be Socially Accepted – People with autism often struggle with social challenges and may see the relationship with the perpetrator as an opportunity to have the social relationships he/she desires.
  • Difficulty Telling About the Abuse – People with communication disabilities may have difficulty telling people what happened. When people do tell about abuse, it is often not believed, investigated, or prosecuted because of the individual’s disability.
  • Lack of Awareness– Parents, guardians, educations, and other providers often don’t realize that people with autism are at high risk for abuse and may not recognize signs of abuse. Changes in behavior (which are common after abuse) are often assumed to be related to the disability, rather than a symptom of abuse.

Why is Abuse Not Reported?

Why is Abuse Not Reported?

Fear: Abusers often manipulate or threaten victims that if they tell – victims feel afraid that they did something wrong and will get into trouble.

Guilt: Victim may feel guilty or confused for “letting” the abuse happen – especially if some of what the abuser did feels good.

Manipulation: Abusers can convince people that they share a rare relationship, and that what the abuser does is out of love or because the child is special.

Lack of Awareness: Some people with disabilities, including autism, don’t realize they are being abused.

Protection: Victim may be afraid that the abuser will get into trouble.

Obedience: Victim may be taught to be overly compliant, to follow directions, and to always do what others tell them to do, especially someone with authority.

Indirect disclosures: When victims tell, it may be long after the abuse or may be indirect. Children with autism may attempt to disclose, but may not directly report the abuse to a trusted adult.

Signs of Abuse or Sexual Abuse

Definitions of Abuse

PhysicalNon-accidental injury, including striking, kicking, beating, biting or any action that leads to physical injury

Neglect: Failure to provide for a child’s basic needs such as adequate guardianship, food, clothing, shelter, education, emotional comfort or medical care, whether done intentionally or unintentionally

Sexual: Unwanted sexual activity with perpetrator using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims

Why are people with autism at specific risk for sexual abuse?

  • Social isolation
  • Need help using the toilet, bathing, or dressing
  • Belief that people with autism are easier to trick, bribe, or coerce
  • Often trained to follow directions/comply with authority
  • Lack of sexual education
  • Stereotype that people with autism lack intelligence and are not credible witnesses
  • Changes in behavior following abuse are often assumed to be related to symptoms of autism
  • Expressive communication deficits
  • Trouble identifying their emotions (not able to tell that something is “not right”)

Signs of Abuse or Sexual Abuse

Increased Anger

  • Younger children may have more temper tantrums or cry
  • All ages may show more destructive behaviors such as yelling, hitting or throwing things

More Fears

  • Fear of going to school, going home, being in the dark, riding the bus or certain people or places
  • Stop wanting to be with someone in their life

Increased Risk Taking

  • Individuals may experiment with drugs, alcohol, or sex
  • Individuals may engage in self-abusive behaviors, or these behaviors may increase
  • Some individuals may run away from home

Increase in Sexual Behaviors

  • Individuals may start engaging in sexual acting out behaviors
  • Draw sexual pictures that don’t fit with their developmental age
  • Some individuals may show aggression with others

Physical Signs

  • Injuries that cannot be explained (e.g., broken bones, burns, cuts, bruising, missing teeth)
  • Pain from injuries or abrasions
  • Bleeding in the genital or rectal areas
  • Blood on sheets or underwear
  • Yeast or bladder infections
  • STD’s or pregnancy

Changes in School or Daycare Behavior

  • May be more eager to please
  • Have difficulty concentrating or less cooperative
  • Younger kids may stop playing and exploring
  • Older kids may start skipping school

Changes in Mood

  • More scared, anxious, upset, angry, depressed, aggressive
  • More withdrawn or outgoing
  • More destructive, angry, or easily upset, especially for individuals who do not have expressive language

Changes in Functioning

  • Eat less or more
  • Suddenly lose or gain weight
  • Sleep more, sleep less, have nightmares, trouble going to sleep at night, scared to go to sleep
  • Do now wash hair or body, wear same clothes over and over
  • Refuse to take baths or take too many baths
  • More headaches or stomachaches
  • Suck thumb, wet the bed, act more clingy to parent or caregiver

Changes in Communication

  • Withdraw or communicate less, or communicate more
  • Draw violent art to communicate distress

Risk and Protective Factors for Abuse or Sexual Abuse

What are the risk factors for abuse?

Family-level risk factors

  • Concern about the future when parenting a child with autism
  • Stressful life events: Losing a job, physical illness, marital problems, death in the family
  • Parent’s not taking care of their own physical or mental health needs
  • Lack of support
  • Feeling of loss for not having a “normal” child
  • Poverty and unemployment
  • Unrealistic expectations about child development
  • Frustration and/or inappropriate methods of discipline
  • Parent substance use

Child-level risk factors

  • Feeling isolated and powerless
  • Not able to protect themselves or understand what abuse is
  • Need to rely on caregivers for daily needs, lack of independence and privacy

What are the protective factors against abuse?

  • Families who know how to access various services professionals
  • Strong social support system, safe neighborhood, safe schools
  • Feelings of love, acceptance, and safety from a caring adult
  • Optimism, high self-esteem, creativity, humor, independence
  • Acceptance of peers and positive influences
  • Respectful communication and listening
  • Consistent rules and expectations, safe opportunities to promote independence
  • Ability to cope with stress
  • Knowing about the warning signs of abuse and how to report abuse
  • Talking openly and honestly about personal safety, boundaries, saying no, and healthy and unhealthy touch

Educating About Sexual Abuse and Assault

Importance of Education

It’s important to teach people of all ages about sexual abuse and assault, as knowledge is the best way to prevent sexual assault from occurring. It also teaches individuals what behaviors are okay and not okay – and that they should tell someone they trust if they ever feel uncomfortable.

Sexual assault is higher among people with autism

Approximately 8-10% of people with autism report history of sexual assault. However due to many factors, it’s believed many more individuals with autism experience abuse or assault, but do not report it.

Many providers don’t ask about abuse or assault

They may assume they can tell if a patient has been abused, they don’t know how to ask, or might be nervous to ask. It’s important to become comfortable asking specific questions about abuse and assault, especially if you notice warning signs of abuse or assault.

Create a safe place where people with autism can talk openly about sexual assault

Ways to create a safe place include: encouraging conversations about body safety, creating an environment where there is open communication about sexual health, allowing individuals to ask questions without judgment, and listen and believe individuals when they talk about situations that made them uncomfortable.

Teach individuals with autism how to identify sexual abuse and assault

For people with autism, confusion about what sexual abuse or assault is often keeps the trend continuing. It’s also important to identify trusted adults who they can turn to for help if they ever experience abuse or assault.

Listen and believe someone who says they might have been abused

Allow the individual to share their experience without judging or asking questions. Ask what you can do to help, and let them know they did the right thing by talking about what happened. Finish the conversation by letting them know you will help keep them safe and get them help.

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Other downloads

Name Description Type File
General Prevention Identifying and Reporting Abuse in Children pdf Download file: General Prevention
General Prevention Pathway to Victimization pdf Download file: General Prevention
General Prevention Why is Abuse Not Reported pdf Download file: General Prevention
General Prevention Signs of Abuse or Sexual Abuse pdf Download file: General Prevention
General Prevention Risk and Protective Factors pdf Download file: General Prevention
General Prevention Educating About Sexual Abuse and Assault pdf Download file: General Prevention

This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.