FAQs on Prevention for Children with Disabilities

These FAQ were compiled in partnership with the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center and with the expert review of Dr. Scott Modell, Deputy Commissioner Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

  1. What is the risk of child sexual abuse for a child with disabilities?
  2. Does a child who has a disability need to be taught about sex?
  3. What is the best way to communicate information about sexuality to a child who has limited expressive communication?

1. What is the risk of child sexual abuse for a child with disabilities?

Children with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be sexually abused than non-disabled children, according to a review commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability.

One of the biggest factors contributing to this increased risk is the reluctance of adults to provide sexuality education to children with disabilities. Additional factors placing children at higher risk for sexual abuse include the need for assistance with daily living activities such as hygiene help, lack of social supports for themselves and their caregivers, misunderstanding about children’s sexual behaviors, and overall stigma and discrimination.

In specific, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities can also be more vulnerable as social skills, decision making skills and overall judgment may be impacted by the disability. Children with disabilities who reside in institutions are also at an increased risk for abuse for reasons that include 1:1 personal care situations, communication barriers and lack of information about normal sex development situations. In all settings, communication impairments directly impact the ability of a child to disclose and/or ask for help.

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2. Does a child who has a disability need to be taught about sex?

Regardless of developmental level, education regarding the development of healthy relationships is encouraged, which includes “sexuality education” rather than “sex education.” There are many aspects to sexuality education that are broader than education about “sex.”

Children with developmental disabilities may have trouble with social rules and norms, such as distinguishing between appropriate private vs. public behaviors. This can increase their risk of sexual abuse. Teaching these concepts in a developmentally appropriate manner will help your child to develop the skills necessary for self-protection and safety, and to reduce the likelihood of engaging in behaviors, including those of a sexual nature, that are potentially harmful or offensive to others.

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3. What is the best way to communicate information about sexuality to a child who has limited expressive communication?

Children may have different levels of understanding messages or receptive language that may not match their expressive language, including speech, sign and alternative or augmentative forms (voiced devices, typing, gesture, pictures, etc.). A combination of communication methods such as the use of body part words and some gesture to show different body parts and strategies for hygiene with children who have limited expressive communication may be most useful.

Parents and the child’s teacher/team member should review for themselves, and with the child, basic safety rules about the appropriate level of help needed in toileting and other activities of daily living with each other and the child. If words and gestures for body parts are reviewed, as well as what level of hands-on help is needed, it is possible that a child who has limited expressive communication, with cognitive disabilities, can indicate or “tell” when an inappropriate touch has occurred.

Support teams should review available health and safety materials and these should be available to the child in whatever communication format he or she uses. At least one safety goal should be on the child’s Individual Education Plan.

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