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Are people with autism more likely to be abused?

Chantal Sicile-Kira
Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities
Non-verbal children and teens with autism are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse because of their perceived inability to communicate. Predators recognize well the opportunities for abuse: the non-verbal child who needs a one-on-one aide; an adult who requires 24-hour support staff; children and adults who have few communication skills and spend their days in self-contained classrooms; special camps and segregated living and working facilities. Predators know there is very little likelihood of their being caught as these victims either will not be able to communicate or they will not be believed.
William Stillman
Health Education

People with autism are more likely to be abused, manipulated, or taken advantage of, only without proper education and prevention---the same as anyone else. The challenge in protecting children, teens, and adults from abuse is twofold.

Foremost, we may bypass thorough education and preventative measures due to not presuming the intellect of our autistic citizens to understand what we are teaching. It's not what we teach but how we teach it. If we rely exclusively on verbal instruction, processing the information may be very difficult out of context. It is also inadvisable to expect individuals with autism to automatically know the right way to protect themselves, or how to alert help, simply from observing others around them and applying their responses to their own situation (i.e. "Don't you remember what happened to Caitlin? Why didn't you run away like she did!"). Most people with autism will retain information best if it is given (perhaps repetitiously at first) in a visual format: pictures, movies, and words. Basics such as communicating personal information to law enforcement, calling 911, understanding unwelcome touch, and personal safety strategies are essential.

Another potential obstacle in protecting people with autism from being abused is the very nature of being autistic. Many tend to be very literal in their interpretations of what they are being told, or asked; in other words, the person with autism may comply with what someone imposes upon them simply because they said so. Any number of young men on the autism spectrum have confessed to crimes they didn't commit because they were coerced, intimidated, or motivated by the desire to cooperate and please. Compounding these circumstances is that estimates suggest anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of those with classic autism are also mute---making them the "perfect" victims.

People with autism learn best in the moment in the environment. Education about abuse in its many forms is pertinent for all autistic individuals, from those who appear severely affected to those with milder symptoms who are frequently unsupervised in the community. We may not be able to stop abusers from abusing entirely but we can be diligent in our efforts to educate and protect our autistic citizens to minimize tragic circumstances.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.