disabilities

The Sexual Abuse Epidemic Among People with Intellectual Disabilities

In the era of #MeToo and increasing vigilance against sexual predation, there is burgeoning evidence that a significant cohort of people has been lost in the shadows.

Although the exact extent of the problem is unknown, numerous studies have concluded that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities are at dramatically heightened risk for sexual abuse.

A study of 55,000 children in Nebraska found that those with intellectual disabilities were four times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than neurotypical children. Meaning that estimated one-in-three females overall suffer sexual abuse. That suggests a staggering, and largely undetected, level of abuse perpetrated against autistic and other children with disabilities.

Researchers at Willamette University in Oregon postulated that autistic children may be targeted by sexual offenders because of their vulnerability and their communication challenges. The researchers noted that sexually abused autistic children may react in ways that can be misattributed to their condition. For example, an autistic child acting out without apparent provocation (such as showing resistance to a particular caregiver) might be misunderstood as reacting to an environmental stimulus, rather than to untoward actions against them. Authorities are reluctant to pursue these cases in criminal court because witness testimony is the key to a successful prosecution.

According to US Department of Justice data, individuals with disabilities disproportionately suffer their abuse at the hands of people whom they know and trust compared to other victims of sexual abuse. Children on the spectrum are generally more reliant than neurotypical children are on adults, often requiring assistance with activities of daily living like bathing and dressing well into teenage years and adulthood. Because children are taught to respect and comply with the commands of adults, their vulnerability is accentuated.

Considering the magnified risk that autistic individuals face, more research is needed to identify strategies that can prevent sexual assault.

Many in the autism field recommend initiating a conversation about the issue as early as possible and being as direct as is tenable. They say parents should shape the discussion in the terms most conducive to understanding among family members. The impetus for this is the particularly critical role parents play in educating their autistic children about sex because they are less likely to learn about it from popular culture or peers.

It is all the more imperative that children with intellectual disabilities at higher risk of sexual abuse have the ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior directed towards them. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of educational programs targeting healthy sexuality for these populations of individuals.  

For individuals who are more severely impacted, who require higher levels of support, mere education and empowerment may be implausible or insufficient. For this population, often unable to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate touch, it is imperative that measures be enacted to reduce opportunities for abuse and vigilance remain constant to prevent it.

Relationships are central to life for autistic adults, as they are for everyone else, and for all the same reasons – love, companionship, support, sexual relations, and reproduction. Sexual predation destroys trust and undermines the ability to engage in healthy sexual and intimate relationships.

A two-part National Public Radio investigation found that sex education specially designed for individuals with intellectual disabilities can help them rebuild that trust and navigate the choppy waters of relationships, which are already maddeningly complex in the best of circumstances.

The alternative for individuals on the spectrum who have been abused may be a lifetime of isolation and loneliness. This prospect is as disheartening for these individuals as for anyone else.

All the research and journalistic investigations, such as those noted above, demonstrate that by improving the data describing sexual abuse of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, strengthening their defenses against predation, implementing processes to prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur, and refining efforts to help those abused rebuild their confidence and trust, we can reduce incidents of assault and pave the way for healthier relationship building in this population.

Deeper reading on how we can improve these kinds of unfortunate conditions can be found in my book, Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers, and the Autism Community to Advance Autism Services.

autism

Individuals with Autism Need Love Too

One of the most persistent misconceptions about people with autism spectrum disorder is that they are automatons without emotion. This arises from the fact that autism is at its core a communication disorder. People on the spectrum often struggle to show emotion, which can give the impression that they are uncaring.

Studies have shown that people with autism can have even more capacity for feelings than neurotypical people but lack the ability to express them.

In fact, the desire to connect with others and build satisfying relationships is universal, even for those whose style of communicating is not typical.

For adults on the autism spectrum, dating and romance are fraught with challenges. Dating is a complex, abstract dance whose rules are sometimes irrational and difficult to understand. For people already facing difficulty communicating and reading social cues, it can be maddening.

In addition, some of the subtle social cues – and even some of the more overt – can elude an individual on the autism spectrum. They might not realize that it is inappropriate to pursue a romance with someone already in a relationship, or who has expressed that they are not interested, or who is in a teacher or caregiver role or is under 16. The result can be humiliating and confounding.

Movies, YouTube tutorials, and websites dedicated to dating and romance for people with disabilities like autism spectrum disorder proliferate on the Internet. Among the most searched autism-related questions on the web is about whether people with autism can get married. (Of course they can, and many do.) At UCLA, a program called PEERS teaches social interaction skills to teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Despite this, most autism services are aimed at early intervention. Very little formal treatment addresses the topic of dating and romance for people on the spectrum, even though this is an essential part of a happy life.

Because the young adults targeted by the PEER program think concretely, many of their lessons lay out step-by-step guidance for how to act in various situations, including dating. Covered topics include how to ease into conversation and establish rapport before proffering a date request, and how to smile an appropriately coy smile, rather than a toothy grin when flirting.

Many individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to touching, though this varies widely from person to person. For many neurotypical adults, it would be difficult to date someone unable or uninterested in physical displays of affection.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, let’s not forget that people with disabilities possess the same innate need for love – platonic and romantic – as the rest of us. They may just express it differently.

To read more about the challenges facing the autism services industry plus ways we can advance care and improve outcomes for these individuals, check out my book!