Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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[Content Warning: discussion of sexual violence and guidance on working with survivors of sexual violence]

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Multiple studies have found that sexual victimization of people with disabilities is among the highest of any group of people. Often, advocates may have questions about how to work with survivors with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Below are guidelines that can help guide your relationships and interactions with them in order to advocate for them better.

Communicate with intention.

Communication skills can be different for victims with ASD. Establish the person’s preferred communication method. If support professionals are already in place, ask them to interpret if necessary.

It may take a different amount of time for a person with ASD to process information. Language should be concrete and accessible. Examples and instructions that use slang and euphemisms may or may not be understood. People with ASD may have a different understanding of social cues that might otherwise guide the conversation.

Connecting with caregivers and significant others.

Depending on a survivor’s particular needs, they may have caregivers (paid or unpaid) and possibly guardians. Guardians are court-appointed, and the laws governing guardianship will vary from state to state. Regardless, the dialog should be between you and the survivor.

With that in mind, conversation and attention should be directed to the survivor. Don’t ask questions of a caregiver or guardian present when they can be directed to the survivor. Not acknowledging an individual’s personal agency reinforces a lack of control in their life and/or over their bodies. It is important to remember that caregiver abuse is a significant problem in the lives of people with disabilities, so establishing a trusting relationship and building a comfort level directly with the survivor is really important.

Accommodate as appropriate.

For sexual assault survivors without disabilities, the initial meeting with an advocate can feel stressful. For someone with communication and sensory difficulties, that anxiety could be even more. Provide whatever comfort accommodations are needed to support the person, paying particular attention to distractions — whether they are noise, confusion, or the presence of other people. If possible, get a list of sensory concerns ahead of time and avoid them. Welcome the individual to bring comfort items if they choose. Create a space and atmosphere that will feel comfortable and private, allowing the survivor’s response to guide those choices whenever possible.

Create a safety plan with the survivor.

Assist the survivor in creating a safety plan that is direct, accessible, and concrete. Things to include in the safety plan are:

  1. Who to talk to if a person suspects someone wants to hurt or force them to do something.
  2. The name of a trusted person that will check in on a regular basis. If possible, carry self-identifying ID and memorize addresses and important phone numbers of trusted caregivers or carry these items in a wallet, on a cell phone, etc.
  3. Contact information for crisis support or other care provider.
  4. Personal rules about ways of staying safe.