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April 01, 2016

Children with Disabilities and Sexual Abuse: Risk Factors and Best Practice

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Several factors increase the risk of sexual abuse for children with disabilities. Helping child advocates understand these factors, barriers to protecting these children, and prevention strategies was the goal of a webinar presentation on February 11, 2016 by Jennifer Casserly, M.Ed., a childhood education specialist with Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. The webinar was hosted by the Midwest Regional Child Advocacy Center with support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Read on for highlights. 

How is child with disability defined?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines a “child with a disability” as one who has been diagnosed as having an intellectual disability, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbances, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities AND who [because of the condition] needs special education and related resources.

It is clear from the definition that disability is not one-size fits all. There are cognitive, behavioral, and physical aspects that will vary in each child and create different vulnerabilities. 

How is child sexuality defined?

Sexuality starts before we’re born. Some aspects are physical (anatomy and physiology) and some are behavioral (need for love, values and beliefs that inform how we behave, gender roles or expressions, feelings, and behaviors). 

What is known about sexual abuse of children with disabilities?

  • Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse (deaf children experience especially high levels of sexual abuse).

  • Children diagnosed with behavioral disorders are 5.5 times more likely to experience sexual abuse.

  • Girls with language impairments are significantly more likely to experience sexual abuse.

  • Developmental service providers are the largest group that perpetrates sexual offenses against children with disabilities.

How are children with disabilities vulnerable to sexual abuse?

Reporting (or lack of). How a person views the child can greatly impact whether or not they make a report. A child’s behavior changes may be attributed to a child’s disability diagnosis, rather than signs of sexual abuse.

Disclosure. Children with disabilities are less likely to disclose sexual abuse. Their disclosures are also less likely to be taken seriously. The fact that many children with disabilities have communication challenges influences their ability to disclose abuse.

Placement. Children placed in out-of-home placements with many different caregivers coming in and out of the home increases their risk of sexual abuse.

Physical vs. cognitive disability. The unique aspects of a child’s disability can increase their vulnerability to sexual abuse. For example, a child with a physical disability may require a lot of care, increasing the numbers of service providers who have access to them. A child with a cognitive disability may not be aware of what is appropriate or inappropriate sexual behavior by an adult. 

What are some common myths about children with disabilities?

The child’s disability makes the child undesirable to perpetrators. For a small subset of people, sexual offenses are about attraction. However, the majority of sexual offenses have nothing to do with attraction.

Sexual abuse of a child with a disability will not harm that child. Children with disabilities have sexual identities and sexuality and are just as likely to suffer harm as other children.

Giving children with disabilities information about sexuality will promote sexual behaviors. There is no evidence that giving children this information increases their sexual behaviors. The misconception reflects adults’ own fears and desires to protect children.

Children with disabilities don’t need information about their own bodies because they are not sexual beings who will ever have a sexual relationship.  Many children with disabilities grow up and have wonderful, lasting healthy sexual relationships. The misconception leads to denying children information they deserve. 

What are some best practices in child sexual abuse prevention for children with disabilities?

Develop training for child-serving professionals that includes:

  • Rules on maintaining healthy boundaries with children

  • Sexuality education—children with disabilities have as much right to information as their peers

  • Recognizing sexually appropriate and inappropriate expressions and how to redirect or discuss them

  • Recognizing concerning or harmful sexual behaviors

  • What abuse disclosures may sound or look like

  • How to respond if abuse is suspected

  • Sexual grooming signs and how to interrupt them

  • Sexual abuse reporting laws and procedures

Reduce child sexual abuse offending by service providers:

  • Advocate for policies that ensure continuous training of staff who work in agencies serving children with disabilities. One-time trainings are not enough.

  • Ensure safe services for children that are committed to careful recruitment and strong policies around boundary violations.

  • Ensure background screenings of service providers working with children.

  • Ensure service providers design safety in services from the onset, such as requiring two adults per one child to help protect the child and increase adult accountability.

  • Increase awareness of sexual abuse among children with disabilities.

  • Educate others about the extent of sexual abuse for children with disabilities. If more people knew the scope of the problem, they might do more to protect these children.

What are some prevention strategies?

  • Avoid prevention approaches that place the onus on the child to refute a request to do something sexual, walk away from sexual abuse and lures, and report abuse to a trusted adult.

  • Use comprehensive, trauma-informed approaches that place responsibility for the sexual abuse on the adult. 

  • Foster empathetic responses to children and approaches that promote healthy relationships.

  • Reduce risks to children by teaching them healthy sexuality, boundaries, and empathy using developmentally targeted approaches.

  • Start educating children in early childhood so prevention skills do not have to be learned later but rather maintained.

Start conversations early with parents and caregivers on healthy sexual development of their children.


Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, is CLP’s editor. 


The webinar, “Overcoming Barriers to Protecting Children with Disabilities from Child Sexual Abuse,” was held February 11, 2016, 2-3:30 EST. 

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Children with ASD have a unique set of challenges and vulnerabilities. Recognize that sexualized behavior in these children does not mean sexual abuse has occurred. These behaviors can occur for many reasons and have also been found in children with ASD who have been physically abused.

Factors to consider:

  • Social: Children with ASD have a need to be accepted socially, making them more open to forming a social relationship with an offender who poses as a friend.

  • Sexual knowledge: Many children with ASD lack information about sexual education and an understanding of healthy sexuality, making it hard for them to recognize sexual abuse.

  • Communication: Many children with ASD have trouble communicating verbally, which can compromise their sexual knowledge and understanding of healthy sexuality. A study found the more verbal a child was, the more information the family tended to give that child about healthy sexuality and development. Regardless of their ability to communicate, all children deserve to have information for their protection and to reduce the risk of developing sexually harmful behaviors.

  • Disclosure: Children with ASD have a hard time disclosing abuse because of their communication challenges. Current assessments involve long interviews with verbal exchanges that are not sensitive to how children with ASD communicate and interact with others. Best practice requires assessments tailored for ASD children.