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Preventing Sexual Abuse in children with Autism, ID and other neurodevelopmental conditions

Updated: Jul 30, 2022




This is a difficult topic to talk about, especially in Seychelles where the topic of sexual abuse is quite controversial and a lot of times hidden from the public eye (especially when it happens at home).


It is also difficult for parents to address this issue with their children especially when they are younger. It can be especially difficult for parent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Intellectual Disability and other neurodevelopmental conditions to address this topic in way their child will understand.


But! It is an essential topic to discuss with any child especially children with neurodevelopmental conditions and specific difficulties.


What does the stats say?


According to past studies including a more recent one by Nixon et al., 2017, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Intellectual Disabilities (ID's) are at greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse, victimisation and physical abuse compared to the general population.


Furthermore, based on a study by Mukherjee, Dave, & Chavda (2019) children with autism have been found to be at higher risk of sexual abuse because of their functional impairment in social interaction, social communication, and symbolic imagination.


Based on data revealed by the American National Public Radio (NPR) in 2018 on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault among people with ID's and ASD.


People with ID's and ASD are :

  • Sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities.

  • More likely to be assaulted by someone they know and during daytime hours.

"Children with Autism, ID and other neurodevelopmental disorders are 7x more likely to experience sexual abuse"

Sexual predators target people with intellectual disabilities and neurodevelopmental conditions because they know they are more vulnerable, can sometimes be easily manipulated into "keeping the secret" and can have difficulty testifying in court. As a result, the crimes mostly go unrecognized, unprosecuted and unpunished leaving the abuser free to abuse again.


What about in Seychelles?


There is a challenge to get statistical information in Seychelles especially since many cases of sexual abuse are not reported and documented in the first place, let alone those of children with disabilities or neurodevelopmental conditions. This does not mean it doesn't happen though.

"The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence".

Even if we don't have information on prevalence we still need to talk about prevention and protection of these children as it is important for their quality of life.


What can parents do to prevent it and protect their child?

So what do you do?


Talk and Teach

It may not seem important to teach young adults with a neurodevelopmental condition about sexuality with the assumption that it is unlikely to become a part of their lives. However, this is not the case.


Sexual education from parents is very important for people with neurodevelopmental conditions because they are less likely to learn about it from their peers, movies etc. People with these conditions must know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and to distinguish between the various types of healthy relationships.


You need to definitely make your child understand their safety and their sexuality.


Start as EARLY as possible! and Be DIRECT ! To do this effectively you need to cover these 3 areas:

  • Social competence in situations that may not be safe (or any other situations actually)

  • Individual values they should maintain for themselves

  • Basic facts about sexuality and personal safety

What skills do you need to teach?

  • Understanding personal privacy: Teach your child who can and who cannot help them in the bathroom, toilet, changing rooms, bedrooms and with personal care skills.

  • Closing and locking bathroom, stall doors or even bedroom doors (in extended family households). Teach your child/adolescent how to identify body parts using adult terminology (e.g., penis instead of peepee)

  • Ask them to come to you whenever they feel unsure or frightened by a situation. To do this you need to:

  • Encourage your child/adolescent to talk and confide in you

  • Teach them how to use public toilets independently

  • Teach them to restrict nudity to personal bathrooms or their bedroom

  • Teach them about appropriate personal space for both themselves and personal space of others

  • Teach them how to say "NO" and leave the situation when someone touches them appropriately.

You also need to teach your child skills that will prevent the likelihood of them being targeted by sexual predators. Some of there are:

  • Avoid focusing exclusively on “stranger danger”: Keep in mind that most children are abused by someone they know and trust so teaching the above safety skills need to be emphasised for both outside the home and inside.

  • Teach children about body safety and the difference between “okay” and “not okay” touches or language: Teach your child about acceptable body touches and no no's so they know, either way if its someone they know that the touches or words are no no's.

  • No nudity: Teach your child that it is not considered "normal" to have adults purposefully expose them to nudity (for eg., an adult asking the child to play game that involves nudity).

  • Caring for Private Parts: Teach children to take care of their own private parts (i.e., bathing, wiping after bathroom use) so they don’t have to rely on adults or older children for help.

  • Good and bad secrets: Educate children about the difference between good secrets (for eg., surprise parties: because it is not meant to be kept for too long) and bad secrets (those where children are told they are supposed to keep the secret forever or not tell mummy and daddy. This is not okay!)

  • Who can and cannot touch them: Teach your child to be comfortable and okay to ask the person who in certain cases will need to touch them (change them or in some cases help them bathe) to be a person of the same sex or a preferred adult they feel safe with (yes feel safe, children have instinct too).

Trust your instincts! If you feel uneasy about leaving a child with someone, don’t do it. If you’re concerned about possible sexual abuse, ask questions, contact the authorities and reach out (numbers listed below).


Signs to look out for


Parents, caregivers, families and friends can better protect their children/loved ones by understanding the signs that may indicate abuse. Recognising the signs of abuse (especially early on) can help you to assist the victim of the abuse to get early intervention they need and stopping the abuse as soon as it's discovered.


Remember each person/child is different and can show different signs of abuse in different ways

Behaviours you would commonly see in children who have been abused (as oulined by the APA is) :

  • Increase in nightmares and/or difficulties sleeping at night

  • Angry outbursts that are unprovoked

  • Increased anxiety and worry

  • Increased sadness and depression

  • Difficulty walking or sitting (can be experienced as painful)

  • Seems withdrawn and lack of or reduce range in emotional expression (different from their normal interaction)

  • Constantly running away, trying to or threatening to run away from home

  • Pregnancy (usually over 13 years old) or contraction of an STI or STD (learn about signs of infection of these different diseases online)

  • Refusal to change in front of others (for eg., for gym or to participate in physical activities)

  • Going to school early or staying late at school does not want ot go home

  • Self harms or attempts suicide

  • Develops an eating disorder

  • Frequent somatic complaints (stomach hurts, headaches, sore throat)

  • Feels threatened by physical contact or closeness

  • Seems hyperaware and jittery

  • Goes to school early or stays till late

+ What I have seen in practise:

  • Can experience fits/ seizures or sleep paralysis that accompanies nightmares (that did not present before ruling out epileptic seizures)

  • Can seem to be overly hyperactive or withdrawn and lethargic

  • What seems to be a regression in development or in behaviours (depending on their age). For e.g., return to thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, acting like "a child" in cases where individual is a bit older or in adolescence.

FOR CHILDREN WITH A NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER SUCH AS AUTISM AND ID, THE SIGNS MAY MANIFEST DIFFERENTLY.


Some examples of signs are:

  • More intense and frequent stimming behaviours (more than normal)

  • Self-injurious behaviours

  • Increased repetitive behaviours (ASD)

  • Increased insistence of routines (ASD)

  • Development of new behaviours that were not previously present

  • Insistence of closeness/"affection"/attention with parents or caregivers

  • On the flipside, more withdrawn from closeness/ affection/ attention from parents and caregivers (eg., not wanting to be touched, hugged, bathed or dressed ). The two above are noticeable as a change from normal behaviours.

  • Some children might develop deviant behaviours such as being more rebellious with parents and teachers.

  • Their academic performance might deteriorate and they might "act different" at school.

  • Might become more withdrawn not wanting to interact with other children

  • Might cry often and have more frequent meltdowns (especially for younger children).

Some children with autism and ID might want to talk or disclose facts about their experience of abuse but they might not do this in typical ways. They might show behavioural reactions (like those above) as a result of the experience of abuse.


Sadly, sometimes these behaviours are misinterpreted as a symptom of that persons Autism diagnosis. As a result, the fact that sexual abuse has happened or is happening is sometimes overlooked or missed.


IT IS IMPORTANT TO TAKE IT VERY SERIOUSLY WHEN A CHILD REPORTS SEXUAL ABUSE BY A PARENT OR ANOTHER ADULT CAREGIVER BECAUSE OFTEN ABUSE HAPPENS FROM SOMEONE THE CHILD KNOWS.

Don't ignore the signs. Teach your child the skills they need to protect them from sexual predators and abuse.


Contact a psychologist at our private practise today for your consultation






Important Contact Numbers (in Seychelles) 

Children Helpline:4322626

Ambulance: 151

Police: 4288000 (112)
 
Helpline Family Affairs: 2727388

Hospitals: 4388000/4371222/4232333/4234255

Judiciary: 4224078

Emergency: 999/ Anonymous: 133