How do I keep a person with ASD safe from abuse or mistreatment?

No parent ever wants to think that their child may be harmed or abused, but it can happen. We can’t always be present, supervising at all times. Children go to school, visit other people’s homes, take the bus, work, and interact with others. People with developmental disabilities are more at risk for abuse than the general population. People on the autism spectrum often have a strong desire to be socially accepted and have difficulty reading emotions and social situations, and therefore may miss important cues that something is not right. When presented with a difficult situation which requires fast thinking, they may not be able to make the right choice quickly. They struggle with generalization so each situation they get into is treated as a unique one. They may have no concept of personal boundaries or other people’s.

Another reason for increased vulnerability is we teach this population to be compliant. This is often a goal in special education – to have a student who does what they are told. If you teach a child to do everything that they are told to do, you also teach them to do everything an abuser tells them to do.

David Hingsburger, Canadian author in the area of sexuality and disability, says we create a ‘Prison of Protection’ around people with developmental disabilities which actually makes them more vulnerable rather than safe. We protect them from relationships, sexual information, decision making, and society. As a person ages and becomes more independent, this Prison of Protection will be harder to maintain. Safety risks exist through independent living, working, socializing, participating in leisure activities, joining clubs or groups, or pursuing higher education. No one is exempt, even if they live at home with their parents or in a supported living environment.

“The first step in being able to protect yourself is understanding that your body belongs to you and you have control over it and what you do with it”, says author Davida Hartman in her new book Sexuality and Relationship Education. Chapter 13 of her book is dedicated to teaching safety skills and it is excellent. She says non-compliance training which is learning how to say ‘no’ helps to reduce vulnerability. When a child says ‘no’ to abuse, they demonstrate that they know the rules of touching and sexual behavior and it also shows to an abuser that they know the rules and are capable of reporting the abuse.

Be careful about teaching stranger danger which is now an outdated concept. Most abuse happens with someone the child knows, not a stranger. Children will need to talk to strangers in restaurants, shops, on public transport and a host of other situations. A police officer is also a stranger but a person who can help.

Davida Hartman recommends teaching the following safety skills:

  1. Assertiveness
  2. Consent
  3. Saying No
  4. No means No
  5. Different types of touch
  6. Non-compliance
  7. Recognizing the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships
  8. Recognizing, dealing with and responding to all types of bullying
  9. learning the differences between surprises, privacy and secrets
  10. Learning ways that people try and control another person
  11. Sexual harassment
  12. Stalking
  13. Sexual abuse
  14. Rape
  15. Abuse within relationships
  16. Dealing with pressure to have sex in a relationship
  17. Personal safety when answering the phone or door.
  18. Safe dating
  19. Internet safety
  20. Prostitution
  21. Child pornography

We also need to teach an awareness of personal safety, how to respond if a situation becomes uncomfortable or dangerous, how and whom to report abuse to, how to ask for help, and develop knowledge and awareness of potential dangers. Teach the role of emergency services: the police, fire department, and emergency medical responders, what each service is about and when to use them.

Zosia Zaks, an adult with Asperger Syndrome, is the author of a book called Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults (2006). Ms. Zaks has a chapter dedicated to safety which is a great resource for adults on the spectrum. She also has some special tips for women who are more vulnerable to sexual violence, harassment, and romantic pressure.

There are a number of great teaching materials for children and adults around safety. Here are some resources that can be used to teach the safety concepts mentioned:






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Teaching personal safety is a life skill every person on the autism spectrum should have. We can’t always be there so it’s important to give our children the tools to reduce vulnerability and empower them to make good decisions that keep them from harm.

 

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