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Helping a Child With a Disability Who Has Been Sexually Abused

Updated: Jun 9

By Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, EdD

Children and youth with disabilities, many of whom cannot interpret or articulate their abusive experiences, are at significantly higher risk of sexual abuse than their peers without disabilities (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). If your child with a disability such as autism or intellectual disability can vocalize their sexual abuse, it will be important for you to stay calm and listen carefully to what they are telling you.


Listen to the child

Disclosing sexual abuse to a parent can be traumatizing for a child with a disability. It can also be equally traumatizing for the parent. Remember to allow your child to communicate freely, whether verbally or through other means such as augmentative and alternative communication (ACC) if there are speech delay issues. Some children with disabilities will want to share the information with you by expressing themselves vocally. Others may want to write a letter or even draw a picture. Allow them to make this choice. You may even find it helpful to keep notes of the conversation to use later. The fact that they have decided to disclose to you indicates how much they value and trust you. As shocking as the information is that you are hearing, try not to “push” your child into telling you more.


Observe and record behavioral changes

Parents of children with disabilities are often experts in observing their behavioral changes. Not all children will self-disclose their sexual abuse due to shame or fear. Some children do not possess vocal speech skills to allow them to disclose freely, while others may not have the intellectual capability to understand what is happening to them fully. Parents may notice behavioral changes that concern them. Your child may begin to show a lack of appetite, excessive new stimming, withdrawn behaviors or reactions, sexual acting out with toys, changes in their sleeping routines, bedwetting that suddenly begins to occur, triggered behavior in places that never seemed to bother them in the past such as specific location or with a specific individual. Noticing such behaviors may cause you to begin the conversation about inappropriate touching and checking with your own child with a disability as to events that may have occurred.


How do you know what to say?

Whether your child self-discloses or you discover the abuse yourself, most parents are in a state of panic when this occurs. It is important that you do a few things immediately upon the discovery of sexual abuse. It is critical that you let your child know that you believe them. Then, you need to let them know this is not their fault. In addition, you need to tell them they did the right thing by disclosing to you and thank them for trusting you.


Identify the abuser

Aside from the shock of hearing about your child’s sexual abuse, most parents are equally shocked to discover who the alleged abuser is. Years ago, as parents, we spent most of our time and energy on sexual abuse prevention programs surrounding “Stranger Danger.” Nowadays, we have learned that most children with disabilities are sexually abused by someone they know and can identify with. Most parents are immediately shocked by the identity of the abuser, especially if it happens to be a family member. While dealing with all your own feelings as a parent, it is important that you do not immediately go out and confront the alleged abuser.


Involve the police

All sexual abuse needs to be reported immediately to the police. It’s their job responsibility to confront the alleged abuser and investigate. If you happen to keep notes of what your child has disclosed to you, these may be notes that will become important for you to share with the proper authorities.


A doctor’s examination is imperative

Take your child to see their pediatrician immediately. If you call your pediatrician’s office and they decide to schedule an appointment in several weeks, you may need to disclose to the pediatrician why it is critical to be seen immediately. If you can’t obtain an appointment right away, take your child to the nearest emergency room at a local hospital for a thorough examination. It is equally important that you share with your child with a disability that they will be visiting a doctor for an exam. Your child may be confused as to why a doctor can touch them in their private areas, and others are not. Many children refuse to allow doctors to touch their private areas after being sexually abused or become aggressive in their behaviors toward the doctor. If allowed, sometimes your presence with your child with a disability during a medical examination may reduce some of their anxiety.


Prepare for an investigation

Many children with disabilities will shut down during an investigation by a police officer or social worker whom they do not know. It is important that you let your child know that someone will be visiting with them to ask them questions. Inform your child that they aren’t in any trouble. If communication is possible, they just need to answer the questions.


Ensure the safety of siblings

When helping a child who has a disability in your home who has been sexually abused, many parents become hyper-fixated on the situation with only the child with the disability. If your child has siblings, you must also check with those siblings to ensure their safety. The abuser may have also approached your other children. Even if you discover that your other children have not been victims of sexual abuse, it’s vital for you to disclose the situation surrounding their sibling to them (if age-appropriate). Sexual abuse of any family member should not be a secret or a non-discussion item in the home. Often, siblings can assist their brother or sister with support, guidance, and comfort in ways that other people cannot.


Request help from school counselors and teachers

It may become necessary to seek additional assistance from your child’s school counselor or special education teacher. Letting them know what happened will allow them to be able to observe your child for any signs of anxiety, frustration, or depression during their school day. The sexual abuse of your child with a disability may also cause new triggers with behavioral concerns that occur at school. If your child must miss school days for doctor’s visits, outside therapy, or court hearings, the school will be more aware of what is happening with your child. They can assist with keeping them current on their missed school assignments and offer them additional support once returning to school. Some schools will even offer to develop a “safety plan” for your child who has been traumatized by childhood sexual abuse.


Seek therapy

You and your child may require therapy to deal effectively with their sexual abuse. While there is no one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach for sexual abuse, there are different types of therapy to consider. Therapy may consist of your child receiving individual therapy to discuss their feelings in private and to learn preventative coping skills to assist with reducing the possibility of not being victimized again in the future. Group counseling could provide your child with a group of peers, both non-disabled and disabled, who have been traumatized by sexual abuse. The siblings of the child who has been sexually abused could also benefit from being involved with group therapy with other siblings who have struggled to assist their siblings with disabilities with issues surrounding sexual abuse. Family therapy is also valuable. The entire family may require additional support for issues surrounding sexual abuse, especially if the alleged abuser was a family member, neighbor, or trusted friend.


Finally, many parents neglect their own needs during this process. They are so busy assisting their child with a disability, making police reports, going to court sessions, taking their child to therapy sessions, or dealing with the siblings that they neglect their own mental health needs. Many parents find comfort and guidance by either entering therapy for individual sessions for themselves or finding a local parent support group that deals with the situations and trauma surrounding childhood sexual abuse.


Resource Information Gateway. (2018). Parenting a Child or Youth Who Has Been Sexually Abused. Department of Health & Human Services, Children’s Bureau, Washington D.C.

Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, EdD, works with students with disabilities in the Northwest Arctic. He recently retired as an Assistant Director of Special Education for a public school district. Dr. Malcolm is also an Associate Faculty Member with the University of Phoenix and a Special Graduate Faculty member at the University of Kansas. He has a bachelor's degree in English and Special Education. He holds master's degrees in Counseling, Special Education, and School Administration. His doctorate degree is from Northern Arizona University in Educational Leadership. His postgraduate degrees are in Positive Behavior Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders. He has worked for the past 38 years with students between the ages of three and 21 with disabilities and various medical needs in both school and community-based settings.


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