The best way to deal with child abuse is to prevent it in the first place. No parent wants to see their child become a victim, and when your child has special needs, the stakes can be even higher. Many perpetrators see special-needs children as easy marks, because they may not understand the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and they often have difficulty communicating what has happened to other adults. This is why it is so important for parents to take extra precautions, and to empower their children to understand that they have the right to protect themselves from abuse.
Here are some guidelines parents of special-needs children can use, to protect their children from abuse:
1. Get to know all of the people who work with your child. Visit classrooms, day care centers, or any other place where your child spends time with other adults. Introduce yourself to all of the staff, and make frequent appearances at school or community functions. Abusers are less likely to target children who have close-knit, loving families.
2. Teach your child about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, including hitting, kicking, yelling, and inappropriate sexual touching. If your child is too young to learn about sex, it is still recommended that you teach them about private body parts, and explain when touching is and is not appropriate. There are many books and websites that offer social stories for these types of situations. The Sexuality Resource Center for Parents offers free online resources to help parents educate children with special needs about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Their website is www.srcp.org.
3. Communicate with your child. If your child is nonverbal, or has limited communication skills, use a PECS book, or other method of communication to talk about things that are happening at school Never discount a child’s indication that abuse is going on.
4. Communicate with teachers, staff, and other parents on a regular basis. Often, other parents will notice when something is off, and can help you to piece together what is going on.
5. Teach your child to say “no.” Many therapies for autism and other special needs focus on compliance, and these children can literally start to believe that they do not have the right to say no, especially to a teacher or an authority figure. Allow your child to say “no” at appropriate times at home, and respect it.
6. Never ignore your gut feeling that something is wrong. Parental intuition is powerful, and a parents of special-needs children, we often have a tendency to defer to “experts” regarding what is best for our child. If a particular person or situation sets of an internal alarm, honor your feeling and investigate. It’s better to apologize later for overreacting than to have your child become a victim of abuse.
The world can be a scary place, especially when your child already has significant challenges. Taking these steps can protect our children, and will make them less likely to be victims of abuse.