Most of the time, parents have to foot the very expensive bills required to help care for and treat their autistic children. All too often though, parents cannot afford, and therefore do not supply the specialized interaction, integration and behavioral therapies required. This puts their autistic children at an even greater risk for child abuse, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers, students and adults in the child’s life, as these people attempt to “make the child conform”, or punish them for not conforming.
Even in ABA programs, the child is taught unquestioning obedience to adults which can increase the risk of abuse. What does reduce the risk of abuse is teaching children to say ‘no’, and expect to be listened to, and know how to get help.
As I mentioned in the previous post, autistic children frequently have problems communicating. This, in turn, makes it difficult at times to identify abuse that is inflicted by teachers, caregivers, other children, relatives, and even at times parents. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania showed that approximately 1 in 5 autistic children were abused from a sample population studied of 156 autistic child.
It is often challenging to prove that an autistic or a special needs child has, in fact, been abused. Without a child to tell the story, there are challenges to proving the facts in cases of this nature. Nonetheless, investigations by an attorney, private investigator, and/or the Department of Children and Families and other agencies can often times yield valuable information and proof to bring a case forward for personal injuries and related damages to the autistic special needs child.
Current estimates suggest that 1:3 girls and 1:10 boys (special needs) will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old (Tang, Freyd, & Wang, 2007). When sexual abuse does occur, the sexual offender is usually someone who is known and trusted by the child (Cavanagh Johnson, 1999). Mansell, Sobsey, and Moskal (1998) note that the rates of sexual abuse for children with developmental disabilities are nearly two times greater than for typical children. Moreover, Mansell et al. suggest that the effects of sexual abuse in developmentally disabled individuals may be exacerbated by social isolation and alienation. Offenders attempt to gain trust from potential victims and often do so by being deceptive. Therefore, they may display deceptive emotions that may not be recognized by some children with autism.
Children with autism may also be at greater risk of being sexually abused than typical children because of the increased contact with opportunistic offenders who are service providers.
Children with autism sometimes display self-stimulatory behaviors, self-injurious behaviors, and stereotypical and repetitive behaviors (APA, 2004; Cunningham & Schreibman, 2008). The child’s attempts to cope with or make sense out of that abuse may lead to an increase in the intensity and frequency of these behaviors or to the development of new behaviors that were not previously present.
Research suggests that children with autism who are nonverbal exhibit more behavioral difficulties than those who have verbal communication abilities (Dominick, Davis, Lanihart, Tager-Flusberg, & Folstein (2007). This may relate to frustration caused by the inability of others to understand what the child is trying to communicate.
Researchers have also found that sexualized behaviors can occur in response to physical abuse, not just sexual abuse (Merrick, Litrownik, Everson, & Cox, 2008). At the same time, the presence of sexualized behaviors does not always necessarily mean that any abuse has occurred (Cavanagh Johnson, 1999).
The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination.
The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect. The list was provided by Child Welfare Information Gateway:
- Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
- Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
- Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
- Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
- Lacks adult supervision
- Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
- Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home (if abuse/neglect at home)
- Shows little concern for the child
- Denies the existence of — or blames the child for — the child’s problems in school or at home
- Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
- Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
- Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
- Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs
The Parent and Child:
- Rarely touch or look at each other
- Consider their relationship entirely negative
- State that they do not like each other
Signs of Physical Abuse
Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:
- Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
- Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
- Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
- Shrinks at the approach of adults
- Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury
- Describes the child as “evil,” or in some other very negative way
- Uses harsh physical discipline with the child
- Has a history of abuse as a child
Signs of Neglect
Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:
- Is frequently absent from school
- Begs or steals food or money
- Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
- Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
- Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
- Abuses alcohol or other drugs
- States that there is no one at home to provide care
Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Appears to be indifferent to the child
- Seems apathetic or depressed
- Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
- Is abusing alcohol or other drugs
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:
- Has difficulty walking or sitting
- Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
- Reports nightmares or bedwetting
- Experiences a sudden change in appetite
- Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
- Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14
- Runs away
- Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
- Is secretive and isolated
- Is jealous or controlling with family members
Signs of Emotional Maltreatment
Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the child:
- Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
- Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
- Is delayed in physical or emotional development
- Has attempted suicide
- Reports a lack of attachment to the parent
Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the parent or other adult caregiver :
- Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child
- Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems
- Overtly rejects the child
As we all know the signs can be different from child to child, but we must never forget that when a child has a sudden change of behavior we must try to identify the reason.