Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the many reports circulating in the news involving the abuse of children and adults. After writing my last blog about the scandal at Miramonte School, The Center for Autism and Related Disorders posted a news article on their Facebook page about Allen, an adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who had been beaten by his caretaker. The only way his parents found out about the abuse was by installing a hidden camera in his room. I am again reminded of the silence that follows such abuse. The silence, however, from those with ASD isn’t from their fear of exposing the abuse, but from their inability to verbally express what is happening to them. How may parents address this issue to ensure that their child is not also being abused?
I recently spoke to Shannon Penrod, the host of an online show about autism called Skills Live to get her thoughts on teaching safety to children, as she herself is the mother of a child who is on the autism spectrum. She told me about a webinar she took that addressed specific strategies for protecting your child from abuse. The most frightening thing she expressed was that there is no way to prevent abuse from happening as they are the most vulnerable of children. The perpetrators of the abuse often specifically target those with ASD as they’re aware that they possess little or no verbal skills to express what is happening. How can a parent protect her child from such physical abuse? Isn’t there a way to communicate what had happened? How does a child inform the parent of abuse, if it has taken place?
The webinar spoke about preparing a child for the worst case scenario, where actual abuse does occur and about some tools to help a child to report abuse to a parent. Those with ASD learn things through repetition until the idea becomes learned. That would be no different in teaching safety. Parents need to practice with the child what they need to say if something inappropriate had happened to them. If the child doesn’t speak, use Picture Exchange Cards (PECS) to help them communicate what happened. A parent needs to teach their children what is OK and not OK, and if the situation occurs, to tell them.
The Autism Speaks website has an informative page dedicated to protecting children from sexual abuse. They provide useful information about how to bring up the subject of sexuality to your child, tips in trying to prevent abuse, and if the worst happens, warning signs to look for in your child, and how to get help.
Language and knowledge protects an individual. If your child possesses the ability to convey thoughts or feelings in words, or with gestures, he or she will be less likely to be taken advantage of. Language is a powerful tool, and don’t hesitate to address the subject with your child. Certain topics may be uncomfortable to speak about with your child, but what would you rather deal with – the awkwardness of discussing with your child strategies to protect them from abuse, or speaking to them afterwards?