Be Safe: Prevention Resources for Caregivers
These resources, part of the Be Safe Resource collection, provides general information about how to prevent sexual abuse and assault for caregivers. These resources are specifically designed for caregivers and focus on: talking to children about puberty, sex and sexuality, teaching community safety skills, teaching sexual health and safety, institutional abuse, and grooming.
Talking to Children About Puberty, Sex and Sexuality
How and What to Talk About
Children with autism often don’t get the chance to learn about puberty, sex and sexuality, but these are important topics to help them develop healthy relationships and prevent abuse. Tips to talk about puberty and sexuality include:
It’s never too early or late to begin sex education with kids. The earlier you start talking about these topics, the more comfortable they will be talking about sex, puberty and sexuality. Talk regularly and keep the communication open whenever they have questions.
Think about puberty as another stage in growing up. Children need to understand the physical, social, and emotional changes that occur during puberty.
You are the main educator of sex, sexuality and puberty for your child. It’s important to discuss these topics, even if you’re not comfortable. Be as open and honest as possible while being developmentally appropriate. If you don’t talk to your children about these topics, they’ll learn from wherever they can- other kids, TV, movies or the internet, and may not get accurate and appropriate information.
Make sure that your kids feel comfortable asking you questions. You can use informational books or guides to help facilitate discussions if you’re not sure what to say. Do a quick search on the internet, or head to your local library to find lots of great resources.
Find out what your children already know or believe about sexuality. Correct any myths that your child may believe about puberty or sex.
Answer questions in a simple and direct way, using a positive tone. Don’t be ashamed to answer the “embarrassing” questions. Keep your voice matter-of-fact, calm, and non-judgmental – it keeps the child from feeling guilty or embarrassed.
Use correct terms when talking about body parts or when talking about safe sex. Use images, icons, and pictures to explain and teach concepts as needed.
Discuss what can be done in private (masturbation) and in public when other people are around (hugging).
Parts of the body covered by bathing suits
- Buttocks (behind)
Teaching Sexual Health and Safety
Tips for Teaching Sexuality
Talk about sexuality and make specific rules around sexual health.
Use correct terms when talking about body parts (vagina, penis, etc).
Explain safe sex practices and what happens when safe sex practices are not followed.
Talk about dating, what a healthy relationship looks like, and what are appropriate vs inappropriate behaviors in relationships.
Discuss what can be done in private (masturbation), and public when other people are around (hugging with permission). Knowing these boundaries can keep adults with disabilities from getting into trouble.
Discuss what sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional harassment is, what it may look like, and what to do if it happens.
Some helpful resources to help facilitate these conversations include:
Teaching Community Safety Skills
Situations in Public
To prevent sexual abuse, it’s important to teach community safety skills so individuals are able to recognize what safe and unsafe environments look like.
- What to do if approached by someone they don’t know
- Avoid unsafe places: dark places, places without people around, places without cell phone reception, etc.
- What to do if someone grabs them: scream, hit alarm on cell phone, etc.
- Teach what to do if they get lost: memorize 1-2 important phone numbers, approach someone in a uniform, call 911
- Only walk in known, well-lit locations or carry a flashlight and cell phone
- Always carry ID and/or autism information handout
- Never leave home without a charged cell phone or an index card with phone numbers
- Always let family or friends know where they are and when they’ll return
- Use public bathrooms in a safe way: Alone in a stall
Make Outings a Learning Opportunity
Help them learn to be comfortable traveling in the community and how to seek out information from trusted people (caregivers, people in uniform)
Teach What to do if Uncomfortable
- Make sure they have access to money
- Get to know law enforcement personnel and practice interacting with them
- Help make a safety plan, which includes a trusted person to call if uncomfortable. For information on safety planning, you can use the Family Safety Planning to Prevent Sexual Abuse resource
What is Institutional Abuse?
Institutional abuse is when a child or adult who is under the care of an organization is abused (emotionally, physically, or sexually).
This type of abuse is unique in that it occurs by programs and organizations, or their staff, who have been trusted to care for individuals.
Examples of institutions may include, but are not limited to:
- Medical care facilities
- Foster care homes
- Group homes
- Nursing homes
- Residential treatment facilities
This type of abuse occurs when there is poor or inadequate standards of care, poor practices by staff and inappropriate oversight or management of the services.
Types of Institutional Abuse
Overt Abuse: Any form of abuse by an employee, guardian, or foster parent against a person under the care of that institution or organization. This includes, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
Program Abuse: When an institution or organization operates below acceptable conditions or misuses its power or responsibility in order to change behavior.
System Abuse: When an entire care system is stretched beyond capacity, and causes maltreatment or abuse as a result of inadequate resources.
Warning Signs of Institutional Abuse
- Allegations or complaints of abuse or neglect against the institution or staff
- Individuals are isolated from their family or community
- Individuals show signs of increased stress or trauma
- Individuals are treated in harsh or punitive ways
- Physical signs of neglect or physical abuse
- Individuals are required to follow unreasonably strict or regimented schedules for daily activities
- Staff show a lack of privacy, dignity, choice or respect for individuals
- Lack of respect for cultural, dietary or religious backgrounds
Preventing Institutional Abuse
Do an internet search and add keywords like abuse or neglect. Talk with others whose family members received services through the organization.
Keep in regular contact with the person. While there may be limits to information that can be shared due to confidentiality, you should be able to have contact with them and make sure they feel safe and comfortable.
If the institution cuts off all contact with parents or caregivers, regardless of the reason, this is cause for concern.
Ask to make sure they do thorough background checks on staff, have a child protection policy in place and how they handle abuse allegations.
Know the warning signs of abuse, neglect and institutional abuse.
If you suspect abuse or neglect, be sure to report if to the proper authorities. For more information on reporting abuse, see the Mandated Reporter resource.
What is Grooming?
Grooming is a process used to gain a child’s trust in order to sexually exploit the child. Grooming is often very carefully planned and can take place over weeks, months or even years. The focus of grooming is to get the child to think that sex or sexual contact with the offender is normal, or that they have no choice.
The grooming process can take years to reach the stage of sexual abuse, and may take place across settings such as:
- Via the Internet
- In institutional settings
Stages of Grooming
- Targeting the victim: The offender will look for vulnerable children who may be more socially isolated, have lower self-confidence,or less parent oversight.
- Gaining trust: The offender will watch and gather information about the child, getting to know their needs.
- Filling a need: Once the offender understands the needs, they start to take on a more important role in their life by giving gifts, extra attention or affection.
- Isolating the child: The offender will use the special relationship they’ve developed to get the child alone. They may offer to babysit,tutor, coach or take the child on special trips.
- Sexualizing the relationship: Once the child is comfortable, they slowly start to expose them to sexual acts by talking, showing pictures or creating situations that initiates contact.
- Maintaining control: Once sexual abuse occurs, offenders will use secrecy and blame to maintain the child’s cooperation and silence.
Warning Signs of Grooming
Grooming can be difficult to identify, because it often mimics genuinely positive relationships between an adult and child. Grooming can leave victims unsure of who to trust, even people who seem to be nice and care about them.
The following behaviors may be used during the grooming process:
- Bathing a child
- Walking in on a child changing
- Deliberately walking in on a child toileting
- Asking a child to watch the adult toileting
- Tickling and “accidentally” touching genitalia
- Activities that involve removing clothes (massage, swimming)
- Wrestling in underwear
- Playing games that include touching genitalia (playing doctor)
- Telling a child sexually explicit jokes
- Teasing a child about breast and genital development
- Discussing sexually explicit information under the guise of education
- Showing the child sexually explicit images
- Taking pictures of children in underwear, bathing suits, dance wear, etc.
- Begin talking with your child about sex and anatomy at an early age
- Teach your children about different types of touch and what is “okay” and “not okay”
- Teach your children to recognize grooming behavior
- Let your children know that they can always come to you with concerns
- Get to know your child’s teachers, day care providers, coaches, and any other adults in their lives
- Be aware of what apps your children are using and monitor all of their online activity
- Visit schools and practices unannounced. Ask questions
|Talking to Children About Puberty, Sex and Sexuality
|Importance of talking about puberty, sex and sexuality
|Download file: Talking to Children About Puberty, Sex and Sexuality
|Teaching Sexual Health and Safety
|Importance of teaching sexual health and safety
|Download file: Teaching Sexual Health and Safety
|What is institutional abuse and warning signs
|Download file: Institutional Abuse
|What is grooming and warning signs
|Download file: Grooming
|Teaching Community Safety Skills
|Importance of teaching community safety skills to children
|Download file: Teaching Community Safety Skills
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.