“No one would hurt a child with a disability. The disability protects them.”

“Kids with intellectual disabilities can’t experience trauma because they can’t remember what happened.”

“It’s not appropriate to talk to kids with disabilities about sexuality. They can’t understand and it will just put ideas in their heads.”


There are many misconceptions surrounding children with disabilities and sexual abuse. As a therapist and an educator, I believe it is extremely important to dispel myths, like the ones above, and start openly talking about the prevalence of sexual abuse of children with disabilities and the impact it has on children, families, and society.


The statistics are alarming. Children with a disability are at least three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than their typically developing peers. Vulnerability increases for children with multiple disabilities, including communication disorders. The abuse is also more likely to be chronic and ongoing. When you look at research detailing lifetime rates of sexual crimes against women with developmental disabilities, the numbers are somewhere between 68 and 83 percent. This means that well over half of women with a developmental disability will be survivors of sexual violence during their lifetime. For many of these women, the abuse started in childhood.

The Reasons

There are many reasons why children with disabilities have an increased risk for abuse. These include need for help with personal care (often without being given a right of refusal), a desire to fit in and be liked by others, an inability to report abuse due to communication difficulties, physical limitations that prevent escape, caregiver dependency and trust, lack of education regarding healthy sexuality and sexual abuse, and societal myths that a disability shields them from sexual abuse.


What can we do as parents and caregivers to protect children with disabilities? The following is a general overview, but keep in mind that you know your child, and his or her developmental level and specific needs, best.

understand the signs
Trauma responses and physical and behavioral signs of abuse are the same for children with and without disabilities. For some children with disabilities, changes may be more difficult to associate with abuse.
Teach privacy, boundaries, and safe touch, including consent and how to say no.
Role-play specific situations and work on generalizing it to apply to similar situations.
Teach developmentally appropriate sexual development.
Parents may fear that talking about sex will encourage their children to experiment sexually. However, children with disabilities who have parents that engage in ongoing discussions about healthy sexual development are better prepared to protect themselves from abuse.
Give children a sufficient vocabulary to report abuse.
For those with significant communication needs, this may be through utilizing augmentative and alternative modes of communication.
Don’t assume all behavior is disability-related and dismiss it.
Behavior is a form of communication, and a child’s challenging behaviors may be due to sexual abuse.
If sexual abuse does happen, report it and get help.
Regardless of type or severity of disabilities, children with disabilities do experience trauma and are negatively impacted by sexual abuse. In fact, children with disabilities are less likely to spontaneously recover from traumatic stress than their typically developing peers. Interventions such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, play therapy, and parent/child interactive therapy have been successfully used to help children with a range of disabilities.

Children with disabilities are not “safe” from sexual abuse, they are even more at risk. Using the tips above you can better protect your child. Don’t let the misconceptions stop you from educating yourself or your child.

Dr. Betsy Kanarowski, Ph.D., L.C.S.W. Director of Clinical Services

Betsy Kanarowski

Betsy has over 20 year’s experience as a mental health professional dedicated to serving women, couples, children, and families. She has a PhD in special education from the University of Utah, a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver, and a Bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Wyoming. She is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and completed post-graduate training in sex therapy. She loves the outdoors, travel, reading, and spending time with her family and ridiculously spoiled dog.

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