5466 Teaching Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders about Personal Safety

Saturday, July 9, 2011: 10:45 AM-12:00 PM
Sanibel 123 (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)
Recorded Presentation MP3 Handout

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How do we teach children with ASDs about their personal safety? This presentation is designed for advocates who seek to promote healthy relationships, respectful interpersonal boundaries, and safety awareness. NOVA, a non-profit crime victim service agency, developed a personal safety curriculum for children with ASDs, ages 7 to 12. Using this model prevention program as a guide, participants will be presented with information on addressing the topic and providing insight into ways to successfully transition this information into natural settings. Please note that due to the nature of this topic, the content is intended for an adult audience.                              

Background: Research has shown that people with disabilities will experience some form of sexual assault or abuse during their lifetime (Marge, 2003). According to the Autism Society, there is strong evidence that individuals with disabilities experience crime at rates higher than individuals without disabilities and also experience sexual assault or abuse at higher rates.

Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Because individuals living with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are generally taught compliance from a very young age, have difficulty interpreting social cues, and may also have intellectual disabilities, they can be easy targets for abuse and victimization. Unfortunately, even in the field of child maltreatment, the extent to which children with disabilities are abused has only recently been quantitatively researched. One study indicated that children with disabilities are 3.14 times more likely to be sexually abused than others (Sullivan, 2001). Another study reported that children with developmental disabilities are at twice the risk of sexual abuse compared to children without disabilities (Crosse, Elyse, & Ratnofsky, 1993).

This is not the world we want for our children. “We should sound the alarm bell a little louder for children with developmental disabilities” suggests Virginia Cruz, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Colorado. Children with developmental disabilities need early sexual abuse prevention education delivered in a message they can understand.

Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) heard the “alarm bell”. In 2006, NOVA sought to provide personal safety education to children with ASDs but was unable to find an existing, victim-centered curriculum specialized for children with developmental disabilities, a group often overlooked, and considered by some as unreachable regarding their ability to recognize sexual abuse.

NOVA is a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, non-profit, community-based organization whose mission is to support, counsel, and empower victims of sexual assault and other serious crimes and works to eliminate violence in Bucks County through advocacy, community education, and prevention awareness programs. In these efforts, NOVA strives to develop programs and services that promote respect for the privacy, uniqueness, and dignity of all people and works collaboratively with others in finding solutions to today’s problems.

Empowering individuals with disabilities since 1993, NOVA first received funding from the PEW Charitable Trust to develop safety awareness programs for adults with disabilities who are vulnerable to becoming crime victims. The project was entitled “Personal Empowerment Program”. In subsequent years, NOVA has received funding from other foundations to expand and enhance the program to meet the needs of adults with developmental and physical disabilities, and to develop a program specifically designed for children with ASDs.                                          

Building upon more than a quarter century of experience as prevention practitioners, NOVA developed the “Personal Safety for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” curriculum for ages 7 to 12. Since this practice-informed curriculum’s development in 2007, NOVA has presented 20 10-session programs in 14 elementary schools to students with ASDs in Bucks County, PA[1].

 Conference Proposal: NOVA wants to inspire professionals, individuals on the spectrum, and family members at the 42nd National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorder by sharing our experience, insight, and vision so they can initiate or enhance interactive personal safety programs that successfully promote healthy relationships, respectful interpersonal boundaries, and safety awareness for children with ASDs.

 The content that will be provided:

   1. Identifying the need for personal safety prevention education

      A. Dynamics of child sexual abuse:

  • Power differential
  • Knowledge differential
  • Grooming process
  • Bribery/threats to enforce secrecy
  • Statistics
    • Taught respect for authority
    • Taught not to say no
    • Lack of autonomy due to care giving
      • Not taught boundaries and/or unsure of boundaries due to care giving
    • Lack of sexual education or knowledge

      B. Recognition and response of children with ASDs to sexual abuse or exploitation:

  2. Personal safety curriculum for children with ASDs

      A. Goals and objectives:

  • Respect for one’s body
  • Appropriate boundaries
  • Promotion of healthy behaviors
  • Recognition of sexual abuse or exploitation
  • Victim response to sexual abuse or exploitation
    • Right to non-compliance
    • Ways to seek help

      B. Overview of curriculum lessons:

  • All About Me
  • Just Right Space
  • It’s All My Body
  • OK Touches
  • Not OK Touches
  • Ways To Say No
  • Public and Private Places
  • Telling Someone
  • Talking About Touching
  • Celebration

      C. Examples of learning activities tailored to the variety of individual strengths of children with ASDs:

  • Social stories
  • Social navigation
  • Visual and tactile experiences
  • Interactive games

     D. Engaging support:

  • Families
  • Staff
  • Allied professionals
  • Community

3. “Primary Prevention”  

  • Centers for Disease Control

4. Curriculum implementation

    A. For consideration:

  • Funding
  • Outcome measures
  • Successes
  • Lessons learned
  • Connections to resources for support             

5.   Concluding thoughts 

  •  questions and answers
  •  next steps

Conference presentation learning objectives: 

  • Participants will gain knowledge about the dynamics of child sexual abuse
  • Participants will develop an understanding of the recognition and victim response to sexual abuse or exploitation for children with ASDs
  • Participants will gain knowledge of specific language for the promotion of healthy behaviors
  • Participants will be provided with an overview of NOVA’s “Personal Safety for Children with ASDs” model
  • Participants will review a sample of learning activities, social stories, visual and tactile experiences, and interactive games that reinforce personal safety concepts
  • Participants will learn techniques for practical applications in their communities
  • Participants will learns effective ways to outreach to professionals and ASD families for the promotion of personal safety prevention education
  • Participants will understand the relevance of primary prevention
  • Participants will have knowledge of resources to assist in the prevention of sexual abuse

 How this presentation contributes to the best practice and advances in the field of autism: Undergraduate and graduate schools seldom prepare students for the reality of child physical abuse, child sexual abuse, and personal safety awareness for prevention. When universities and other institutions of higher education fail to teach practical information it means that professionals must learn on the job. Additionally, parents of children with ASDs often have difficulty finding information about ways to appropriately and effectively present personal safety information to their children. This presentation provides professionals, individuals on the spectrum, and family members access to research-based information on successful promotion of personal safety education specifically designed for children with ASDs.

NOVA is empowering children on the autism spectrum in Bucks County, PA. Since the curriculum was piloted, response and requests for programs has been resoundingly positive. In addition to the 20 10-session programs in 14 elementary schools, NOVA has additionally presented accompanying support programs: 22 staff programs and 10 parent programs[2]. The success of these programs has led to additional requests from middle and high schools asking for the same type of interpersonal safety programs for their teen and young adult students with ASDs. 

In 2009 NOVA was awarded the Inglis Foundation Award for outstanding services to people with disabilities in the Philadelphia region. This September (2010), NOVA presented the “Personal Safety for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” curriculum at the National Sexual Assault Conference in Los Angeles, California.

Perhaps Jack Thomas, a 10th grader with Asperger’s Syndrome, said it best in a New York Times article in December, 2004: “We don’t have a disease, so we can’t be ‘cured.’ This is just the way we are.” Hear the bell. Join us in building the world we all want to live in.



[1] As of 12-22-10

[2] As of 12-22-10


Mary Worthington, M.Ed.
Elementary Education Coordinator
Network of Victim Assistance
Mary Worthington, Elementary Education Coordinator for NOVA, a non-profit crime victim service agency, specializes in child abuse prevention. Mary, co-author of NOVA’s “Personal Safety for Children with ASDs” curriculum, teaches prevention education programs, presents at state and national conferences, and has been featured in national newspapers including The New York Times.