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Sexual abuse & disability – Act to protect your child!

by Mary Mazzoni on June 14, 2012

Our kids need healthy relationships with peers and adults.

We don’t want to isolate them from the world.

Yet the statistics are terrifying.

The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault reports studies that show 83% of females and 32% of males with developmental disabilities in the U.S. will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime.

We are gripped by a visceral fear when we think of our child being victimized. This fear tempts us to rationalize. To deny. To avoid the very thought of this risk.

But we must learn the steps we can take. And we must act to protect our children.

Here are some empowering resources. 

Step Up

The Vermont Department for Children and Families has published a clear guide for parents to protect children from sexual abuse. “Step Up” is not specifically tailored to the needs of children with disabilities – but it includes information you need to:

  • Educate yourself
  • Plan for safety
  • Talk about it
  • Take action

Download “Step Up” for free here: “Step Up” GuideforParents

Seven Steps

Darkness to Light (D2L) is a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse. Its website offers information and resources for parents including:

Stop it Now

Stop It provides:

Sexuality and Disability Consortium

Prevention research emphasizes the critical importance of ongoing communication with our kids about their bodies, boundaries, sexuality, and relationships. Here are some resources to support your ongoing efforts to communicate with your child about these important topics.

Autism Speaks Safety Project

Children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities are at much higher risk for sexual abuse, and their individual needs must be considered as we teach them about their bodies, healthy boundaries, sexuality, and safety.

Autism Speaks has compiled resources that relate not only to children and adults with autism, but also to our kids with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. You can find these resources here.

Circles (a way to teach relationship boundaries)

The Circles model is a concrete way for kids and adults with intellectual or other developmental disabilities to categorize types of relationships and the physical space and touch related to each relationship type. Circles consists of a set of concentric color-coded circles. Each circle represents a type of relationship, with a particular set of physical boundaries.

The Circles model requires initial explicit instruction and continuous guided practice to categorize people in various environments into their appropriate circle of intimacy. And, of course, sometimes people move from one circle to another in our child’s life over time.

The colors of the circles offer a language for relationship boundaries. We can ask “What color circle is he in for you?”.

You can learn more about the Circles concept by reading this article which provides all the information you’ll need to implement Circles yourself.

However, there is also a Circles Curriculum, that includes video modeling and visuals, that can be obtained through the James Stanfield company here. As you can see, it is expensive, but it is used by schools and advocacy organizations for group sessions. The success of Circles does depend on ongoing practice with family at home and in the community.

The Circles model is very useful as a construct for teaching social boundaries. But it does have an important limitation related to sexual abuse prevention. Research shows that offenders are often people considered members of a victim’s inner circle. Therefore, the original Circles Curriculum was expanded to include a Stop Abuse module.

Personal SPACE

This is an abuse prevention program for women (including teens) with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. It was developed by the Arc of Maryland with federal funding and is designed to be implemented in a group setting. The curriculum can be downloaded for free here: Personal SPACE.

Ongoing research

Here’s a summary of current research into the effectiveness of sexual abuse prevention programs for women and girls with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Research continues to identify the most effective prevention strategies and to integrate them into practical instructional programs.

Taking action

There’s way too much information here to digest in one sitting.

Reserve specific time in your calendar to come back and review these resources.

Then make a plan. What action will you take to protect your child? When will you take these steps?

What support do you need?

Have questions or concerns? Feel free to send me an email (click the white envelope in the sidebar under “Let’s Connect”).

Have you tried any of these resources or do you have others to suggest? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments so we can all benefit.

Let’s move past fear and ACT to protect our children!

If you found this post valuable, please share it. Thanks!

Stay in touch!

Photo credit: Steve A Johnson at Flickr

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Gentry June 17, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thanks for these great resources! Triangle’s IMPACT:Ability program empowers individuals with disabilities and organizations like Boston Public Schools to prevent abuse. I’ve linked our website. You can also hear a story about our program here:


Mary Mazzoni June 22, 2012 at 7:37 am

Jeff, thanks for letting us know about IMPACT:Ability. Does the grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation include a study into the program’s effectiveness? Could you keep us informed about data from such a study? It is so important to understand specifics about effective prevention interventions. Thanks so much for connecting with us and all the best to you and the youth you support!


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