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Sexual Abuse & Exploitation

“Recently a 3 year old child, already diagnosed with high functioning Autism, along with his concerned mother visited us at our centre with the chief complaint of the child crying and screaming at night, the moment his mother left his side or left alone or was with his father. This happened for months and mother observed that it was increasing whenever his father or any male member, was around. The mother also reported that child refused to sleep in between the parents and would cling to the mother if made to do so”.

“Seema, a 7 year old girl diagnosed with high functioning Autism, is another child visiting our clinic for intervention for the past 6 months. Recently for past three weeks the special educator observed that she enters our clinic in a bad mood with lot of temper tantrums with repetitive verbal statement “mein aap ko maar dungi“(I will hit you)”.Seema came with her maid and driver to the centre.”

“Nasir a 15 year old adolescent boy was presented with non verbal severe Autism Spectrum disorder. While coming for his intervention to the clinic, he has been refusing to come along with his helper. This behaviour has been observed for past few months as earlier he was comfortable with his company and travelled everywhere with him”.

Cases like these are not isolated incidences and one need to observe the behaviours closely before coming to any conclusions. In the above cases, all three children had Autism and thus had communication issues. After detailed evaluations and many sessions with the psychologist, it was concluded that all three children were being sexually or physically exploited by someone. Making the diagnosis was not enough as the procedure had to be very objective. Evaluation was an ongoing process for all these children as they were not able to give clear evidences to our proposed tentative diagnosis.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

As per the department of Psychiatry AIIMS, Child Sexual abuse is the involvement of the child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of the society. It also refers to inappropriate sexual contact between a child and someone who has some kind of family or professional authority over them.

Identifying children and adolescents with sexual abuse and exploitation is different from identifying sexual abuse and exploitation in children with Autism as these children have difficulties in understanding social rules, conduct, understanding emotions and are poor in expressive communication. Help can be provided to a neuro- typical child/adolescent once they communicate. Many a time for children with Autism who are non verbal and have self stimulatory behaviours, the abuse might go completely amiss.

One might observe an increase in the intensity and frequency of these behaviours or to the development of new behaviours that were not previously present to cope with the abuse. But the due importance may not be given to this behaviour; therefore, the fact that the child was, or currently is being abused and exploited sexually may be missed.

Many times parents, educators and carers do not feel comfortable talking to their child about sexuality and abuse. Many parents also feel that it is not of priority as it may not be part of their child’s life or feel at lack of strategies on how to connect with their children on this topic. Some also feel that talking about it may increase the child’s interest in the subject and thus creating a new difficulty. But on the contrary, it is of utmost priority and the training should start as early as possible as it may take a long time for the child to understand and implement the strategies.

Some common signs and symptoms of sexual abuse:
  • Regressive behaviours (e.g., return to thumb sucking, reduced eye contact, bed wetting)
  • Reluctance to go off to sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Reluctance to be left alone with a particular person or people.
  • Sexual knowledge, language, and /or behaviours that are inappropriate for their age
  • Recurrent urinary tract infection (UTI) Once a child with Autism has been identified as a victim of sexual abuse and exploitation:
  • Parents need to accept the fact that their child is going through some trauma and they need to help them.
  • Parents need to treat the child with love and affection and not label the child or discriminate.
  • Parents need to deal with their own emotions and feelings in order to help the child by taking professional help if need be. Preventing child abuse in children with Autism:
  • Parents need to keep supervision on their child and also on the people accompanying their ward.
  • Parents need to train themselves in understanding their child’s non verbal communication along with being sensitive to their signs and symptoms.
  • Parents need to take help from professionals dealing with autistic children in case they have slight doubt about their child’s behaviour changing too quickly or unexpectedly.
  • Parents need to train their child in communication skills, social skills and life skills.
  • Teach children accurate names of private body parts.
  • Many times the abuse can happen by someone close to the family thus it is important to listen to what the child communicates and trust him/her.
  • Teach children about body safety and the difference between “okay” and “not okay” touches.
  • Empower them to say “no” when they do not want to be touched, even in non-sexual ways (e.g., politely refusing hugs) and to say “no” to touching others.
  • Bathroom training and independence should start early on so that they don’t have to rely on adults or older children for help.
Child Sexual Abuse can be happening to your child as well so it is essential for you to observe and not over observe the signs and symptoms of abuse and consult the helping professional when need be. It is also essential for parents to Trust their instincts! If they feel uneasy about leaving a child with someone, they shouldn’t do it. ADVOCATE for your child and STAND UP for their rights!

Article authored by Ms.Surabhi Verma and Ms.Sukriti Sachdeva

Surabhi Verma is the founder of Sparshfor Children www.sparshchildren.com, a multidisciplinary organization for differently abled children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


  • Sexuality and Disability June 2013 volume 31 issue 2 pp189 – 200, Sexual Abuse and offending in Autism Spectrum Disorders , Melina Sevlever, Matthew E. Roth, Jennifer M. Gills.
  • Disability Studies Quarterly Volume 30 No 1 (2010), Sexual Abuse of Children with Autism: Factors that increase Risk and Interfere with Recognition of Abuse , Meredyth Goldbery Edelson
  • Philip Whitaker, (2008) Challenging Behaviour and Autism. A guide to preventing and managing challenging behaviour for parents and children.
  • Carson, R.C.,Butcher, J.N .& Mineka ,S .(2000). Abnormal Psychology and modern life. Pearson Education.
  • Briere, J (1992). Child Abuse Trauma: Theory and the treatment of the lasting effects. Sage publication.
  Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD is commonly called Autism Neuro- typical: A term used for people who do not have Autism or ASD  
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