People with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to be victims of sexual assault. That's why I needed to teach my 7-year-old son what's inappropriate and how to protect himself. Since I knew the conversation wouldn't be easy to navigate, I turned to experts who offered helpful tips all parents can use.

By Jennifer Jay Palumbo
January 24, 2020
Illustration by Gwenda Kaczor

"OK Michael, sit down. Mommy wants to talk to you." I put on a timer for 10 minutes and stammered searching for the right words to say to my 7-year-old son. I was unsure about how to begin this difficult conversation.

No, it wasn't exactly the "sex talk." It was the "uncomfortable touching" talk. This was especially important—and difficult—because Michael is on the autism spectrum, and people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those without disabilities, according to Justice Department data published by NPR. As any parent would, I want to do all I can to protect my child.

Despite speech delays, Michael is verbal, but having any kind of typical conversation can still be a challenge. (Hence the timer—it helps him stay engaged since he knows there will be a clear stopping point.) And there were very few resources I could find to help me teach my son with special needs that certain body parts are private and how to protect himself. I turned to experts who weighed in on how to navigate this important conversation with my son and how I can protect him.

Explaining Sexual Assault to Your Child With Special Needs

"There is no 'one-size-fits-all' for how to approach this conversation with your children," says Meredyth Goldberg Edelson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. And that's because all children are different.

That's why parents should first assess what their child already knows about the topic. "Show them a picture of body parts to see what they recognize," says Kim Spence, Ph.D., an autism disorders specialist for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.

For nonverbal children (40 percent of kids with autism fall into this category, reports the National Autism Association), Dr. Spence encourages parents to think about how their kid is able to communicate. "You must discern what your child responds best to, whether it's video modeling, picture books, computer, talking, support tools," says Dr. Spence. "Whatever modality they communicate best is how to communicate with them."

How I Navigated the Conversation With My Son

In Michael's case, I considered that he's very visual. Dr. Spence recommended using the book Taking Care of Myself as a starting point since it helps with the instruction of appropriate boundaries, personal safety, where kids are allowed to be naked, issues related to masturbation and safety, and provides guidance to teachers and families about how to use the support for the best outcome for their child.

I began by showing Michael certain people in the book and asked, "Is this a boy or a girl?" In speaking with Dr. Spence, she expressed the importance of teaching children about female and male anatomies. For kids with autism, this is helpful so they can protect themselves and also so they won't touch others inappropriately.

I printed out images of the human body and asked him to point to the penis. "Educate your child with an age-appropriate plan about touching, and using simple, direct language is essential," says Dennis Debbaudt, a former private investigator who, for 25 years, has been training criminal justice professionals, police, and emergency responders on how to recognize and respond to people who have autism. He is also the father of a son with autism. "Keep the childish terms out."

I then showed Michael the symbols for "Stop" and "Don't touch," which Dr. Spence recommended. "If anyone is touching your penis under your clothes or over and you don't want them to, you can say, 'No!' or 'Don't touch!'" I told him. And to make sure it got into his brain, we did a practice test on his leg. I said I was going to touch his leg and he was going to tell me no or not to touch him.

I ended the lesson by encouraging Michael to always tell me or his father if anyone attempted to touch him inappropriately.

How to Protect Your Child With Special Needs

As parents, both experts say we need to think about who may target our child in order to keep them out of potentially abusive situations. That's especially true when our children may not be able to verbalize if someone is making them uncomfortable. (Debbaudt encouraged me to read the free resource "Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis" from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.)

"Don't be afraid to ask people who may be with your child straightforward questions," he adds.

Dr. Spence reinforced this. "Most abusers are typically someone your child knows. That's universally true for both typical and neurotypical children," she says, noting that any program your child attends—camp, school, daycare—you can check with the municipality and ask: "What are the minimum requirements to work here?"

Keep the Conversation Going

After the timer goes off during my lesson with Michael, I'm not sure if any of it got through, but I know for certain that we're going to have to have this talk quite a few times.

Since our children with special needs are so vulnerable and there's no clear indicator of who may be a predator, it's crucial we work to find new ways to have these talks, update the conversation as they mature, and create resources to help them.

Ultimately, there is also something we can always rely on—a parent's intuition. As Dr. Spence says, "When your spider sense tingles, always listen and pursue it."

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