Recognizing and preventing abuse

Individuals with developmental disabilities are vulnerable to abuse compared to their peers. Given how critical it is to keep our loved ones safe, Autism Speaks has gathered information from experts in the field explaining what abuse is, the signs of abuse, what to do if your loved one has been abused and how we can take steps to reduce risk. We have also provided numbers to call for help and guidance, as well as state and national resources.

Frequently asked questions

What do physical abuse and neglect look like?

Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to, shaking, beating, biting, kicking, punching and burning which is not accidental. While corporal punishment, such as spanking, of a child a child is legal in many states, “excessive” corporal punishment, such as that which causes the child pain or leaves a mark on the child, is illegal and reportable in most states. 

Neglect refers to situations in which an individual is not provided with adequate guardianship, food, clothing, shelter, education, or medical care, whether done intentionally or unintentionally.

How often does it occur?

While no one knows for sure, it is estimated that children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be physically or sexually abused as their typically-abled peers. (Petersilia, J., 2001)

What are signs that my loved one might be the victim of abuse?

More apparent signs may include unexplained bruises, pain or weight loss.  Additionally, behavior changes, including avoidance of certain people or places, may indicate victimization.

If my loved one is non-verbal are there certain things I should look for?

Some behavioral changes to keep an eye out for are social withdrawal, avoidance of particular places or people, behavioral outbursts when presented with particular places or people, or developmental regression.

If my loved one is a victim of abuse what should I do?

Contact law enforcement immediately.  It is appropriate to call 911 to report abuse.  If the abuse happens within an agency setting, contact the State regulatory agency which provides oversight to the organization. If your loved one has a Service Coordinator, contact him or her regarding follow up on the report and to ensure that safeguards are immediately put in place.

What are some things that families can do to keep their loved ones safe?

Families can educate themselves on how to identify warning signs and how to report if abuse or neglect is suspected. Families should talk to their loved ones openly and honestly about personal safety, boundaries, saying no, and healthy and unhealthy touch. Families should give their loved ones opportunities to role play potentially dangerous situations and practice how they might respond to these. Teach individuals very concrete and specific skills on HOW and WHO to alert for help and WHAT to do if they suspect they are being abused. 

Ask question of your loved one’s service providers on the policies regarding abuse and neglect. If they don’t have policy or they can’t clearly articulate it to you, you need to be concerned. Find out the agency’s policy around staff training on abuse and neglect. If they don’t have any, you should be concerned.

What can an individual with autism do to keep themselves safe?

Individuals with autism need to be empowered to be leaders and advocate for themselves in a socially appropriate way. 

The more individuals with autism know about abuse and “red flags” the better. 

Individuals should able to identify at least two trusted adults they can report abuse to or go to for help.

These FAQ's prepared by: Bobra Fyne, LMSW - Assistant Coordinator of Sex Education, YAI and Catherine Jones, LCSW, Assistant Coordinator, Crisis Intervention & Sexuality Training Programs, YAI.

To report abuse

Contact your local child protection or law enforcement agency. State laws vary regarding who is a mandated reporter. If you need assistance with reporting or have questions about reporting abuse, contact ChildHelp USA’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-422-4453.