Child sexual abuse: autistic children and teenagers
Child sexual abuse is when adults or older children involve children in any type of sexual activity, with or without physical contact.
Most child sexual abuse is carried out by someone children know.
Autistic children and teenagers can be at greater risk of child sexual abuse. This is because:
- they might not recognise dangerous or unsafe situations
- they might not be used to saying ‘no’ when they feel uncomfortable
- someone might think they’re easier to take advantage of
- they sometimes have additional caregivers and can be exposed to more opportunities for abuse.
Autistic children can also be less likely to report other people’s inappropriate sexual behaviour because they:
- might not know what sexual abuse looks like
- have communication difficulties.
All children have the right to grow up safe from abuse. Protecting children from sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help children grow and thrive.
Keeping autistic children and teenagers safe from child sexual abuse
To stay safe from sexual abuse, autistic children need to learn about:
- sexually abusive behaviour
- private body parts and personal boundaries
- private and public behaviour
- private and public places
- unsafe situations
- saying no and other safety strategies.
Talking with children and teenagers about sexual abuse can feel uncomfortable, but it helps to protect them. Our articles on talking with children about child sexual abuse and talking with teenagers about child sexual abuse have tips you can adapt for talking with your autistic child.
Helping autistic children recognise sexually abusive behaviour
You can help your autistic child recognise sexual abuse by creating some rules about what’s not OK for someone to do to your child. Here are some examples:
- It’s not OK for someone to ask you to take off your clothes, unless it’s a doctor and I’ve said it’s OK.
- It’s not OK for someone to look at the parts of your body that underwear normally covers.
- It’s not OK for someone to take photographs of you in underwear, partially dressed or naked. Photographing is looking. The phone or camera might cover a person's eye, but they can still see you.
- It’s not OK for someone to touch you on the parts of your body that underwear normally covers, even if you have clothes on.
- It’s not OK for someone to put something into your mouth other than food, unless I‘ve said it’s OK – for example, at the dentist.
- It’s not OK for someone to put something in your anus or vagina.
- It’s not OK for someone to ask you to put something into your own anus or vagina.
You can also create rules about what’s not OK for people to do around your child. Here are some examples:
- It’s not OK for someone to show you parts of their body that underwear normally covers.
- It’s not OK for someone to ask you to touch parts of their body that underwear normally covers, whether they have clothes on or not.
- It’s not OK for someone to ask you to take photographs of them in underwear, partially dressed or naked.
- It’s not OK for someone to ask you to put something in their anus or vagina.
Private body parts and personal boundaries
You can protect autistic children and teenagers from child sexual abuse by teaching them about the public and private parts of their bodies and personal boundaries. This is a great starting point for helping children learn who can touch them, how and when.
Books can also be a great way to explain this topic to autistic children. You could try these suggestions:
- Let’s talk about body boundaries, consent & respect by Jayneen Sanders and Sarah Jennings
- My underpants rule! by Kate and Rod Power.
Public and private behaviour
When autistic children understand the difference between public and private behaviour, it might make them less vulnerable to people who might abuse them.
You can explain that private behaviours are things that no-one else needs to see you do, like going to the toilet, showering or masturbating.
Visual supports can help your child understand. For example, you could create a visual support that reinforces a rule about pulling down pants only when your child is in the toilet: ‘First close the toilet door, then pull down my pants’. You could then use the visual support to reinforce the rule whenever your child starts to undress on the way to the toilet. If autistic children are undressed in public, this can make them less vulnerable to someone taking the opportunity to touch them inappropriately.
Public and private places
When autistic children and teenagers understand the difference between public and private places, it can help to protect them from sexual abuse.
You can explain that in public places other people can see you. In private places people can’t see you. Then you could use photos of places and label them as:
- public – for example, school, bowling alley, library, kindergarten, shopping centre and so on
- private – for example, toilet, shower, your child’s bedroom, hidden spots behind buildings or trees, ‘out-of-bounds’ areas at school and so on.
The next step is helping your child understand that:
- public places are safer because many people can see them in public places
- private places are not as safe if your child is there with another person and no-one else can see them.
Pictures and social stories can help you explain this.
Autistic children or teenagers might not recognise when a person or situation is unsafe, because they might:
- not notice when a person is saying something friendly but doing something inappropriate
- desperately want someone to be their friend, girlfriend or boyfriend
- not recognise the signs of grooming.
You can help your child understand unsafe situations by:
- helping them recognise physical feelings of discomfort
- making guidelines and rules.
Helping autistic children recognise physical feelings of discomfort
This is about helping your child understand that feeling uncomfortable is their body’s way of trying to protect them from danger. Try this exercise:
- Help your child draw an outline of a person on a piece of paper.
- Help them add feelings to the picture – for example, butterflies/sick feeling in the stomach, heart racing, goosebumps on their skin, and so on.
- Say, ‘If someone asks you to do something, pay attention to your body. If you have one of these feelings, say “No!”’
Making guidelines and rules
Some broad guidelines can help your child recognise unsafe situations. Situations can be unsafe if:
- there’s no-one else there to see when your child needs help. Examples include out-of-bounds areas at school, toilets that aren’t being used by many people, spots not many people visit, like bushland, and so on
- an adult asks your child to go with them to help with things like finding a lost dog or reaching something. Tell your child that adults ask other adults for help, not children.
You can back up these guidelines with some specific rules. For example, your child should always:
- go to public toilets with a person they know, like a friend
- tell you where they’re going to be playing in the park
- say they’ll get you if an adult they don’t know asks them for help with something.
Saying no and other safety strategies
It’s important for autistic children to know that they can say ‘No!’ if they notice an unsafe person, place or situation, or if their body is telling them they’re uncomfortable.
For example, you could teach your child ‘No, Go, Tell’. You could say, ‘If you feel uncomfortable tell the other person “No!” Go away from the person or place as soon as you can. And tell someone you trust, like me or your teacher’. You could use a visual support to help. This could include photos of trusted people.
A daily routine of talking about the day can help autistic children learn to tell you about things. Time prompts like ‘first’ and ‘next’ can help your child practise telling you events in order. You can talk about who was at school, what they did together, and what things felt good. Your child might prefer to draw what happened. If your child is used to telling you about events, they’ll be more able to tell you if something has happened that has worried them.
Everyday sexual safety precautions
Here are some everyday things you can do to keep your autistic child safe from child sexual abuse:
- Take some basic safety precautions. For example, if your child is alone with adults or young people, ensure that they can be seen or interrupted at any time.
- Go with your child to public toilets.
- Trust your instinct if something doesn’t feel right. For example, you can say no if people ask to take your child on outings alone.