Autism Society records most keynote and concurrent sessions at their annual conferences. You can see and hear those recordings by purchasing full online access, or individual recordings.
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.
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:
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:
B. Overview of curriculum lessons:
C. Examples of learning activities tailored to the variety of individual strengths of children with ASDs:
D. Engaging support:
3. “Primary Prevention”
4. Curriculum implementation
A. For consideration:
5. Concluding thoughts
Conference presentation learning objectives:
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. 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.
 As of 12-22-10
 As of 12-22-10
Content Area: Social Skills
Mary Worthington, M.Ed.
Elementary Education Coordinator
Network of Victim Assistance