Building Body Boundaries

Tackling the realities of personal safety is a positive step on the road towards self-advocacy for your child…

With all the responsibilities you have as the parent of a child on the spectrum, the possibility of a predator attempting to talk, trick, or force your child into touching or other unwanted sexual behaviors can be worrying.

Many people aren’t aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse, and most people avoid confronting the reality of it and/or talking about it. However, avoiding or postponing the discussion doesn’t protect children, and while some adults may approach this topic with trepidation, it actually represents an opportunity for you to take a positive step towards your child’s self-advocacy.

Sexual Abuse: Confronting the Reality

Sexual abuse happens in our communities every day. In a recent comprehensive national survey of children’s exposure to violence, 6.1 percent of all children surveyed had been sexually victimized in the past year, and nearly one in ten had been victimized at some point during their lifetimes. Children, and in some situations their parents and caregivers, are trusting, and do not understand the dangers that children may face, even in familiar settings with people they know.

Children with ASD are vulnerable to abuse because of the difficulties many individuals with autism have in areas of communication and social understanding. According to the Autism Society, there is strong evidence that children with disabilities are at higher risk of experiencing abuse and neglect than children without disabilities. A 2006 survey of over 1,500 individuals with autism and their caregivers found that of the 35 percent who responded, they or a loved one with autism had been the victim of a crime; of those reporting a victimization, 38 percent reported experiencing physical abuse or assault, 32 percent reported emotional abuse, and 13 percent reported sexual abuse.

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 Dr. Virginia Cruz, Chair and Associate Professor of Social Work, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Colorado. The Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) heard that alarm bell in 2006 (see bottom of article).

Establishing “Body Ownership”

Regardless of their functioning level, your child needs to be aware of his or her personal safety in a way he or she can understand. If you haven’t communicated the personal safety message to your child, or it is on your “to do” list, now is the time to begin.

Research suggests most children rely on their parents for important information. Establish an atmosphere that reflects the fact that you are comfortable talking about sensitive matters, and that your child can talk to you without fear. Your knowledge and comfort with personal safety issues will convey the personal safety message in a way that is supportive and non-threatening, and will additionally provide a strong basis to support your son or daughter as he or she grows into adolescence.

In order to build awareness and nurture your child’s well-being, keep concepts simple and contained within short, repeated messages that reinforce the notion “my body belongs to me.” This concept promotes body ownership, self-esteem, and confidence, so practice this with your child. It is a core principal for building mutual respect, responsibility, and independence. Adapt the information provided below (“6 Ways to Build Body Boundaries”) to your child’s developmental level, mode of communication, learning style, and interfering behaviors.

Keep in mind that this is an opportunity to support your child’s decision making and promote a response to communicate “no” to touching that he or she does not like. Sometimes children don’t reveal abuse because there may be communication issues, the child may not recognize it is abuse, or the child may fear not being believed. Convey the message that your son or daughter can always tell you about any uncomfortable touch. This is an opportunity to also talk about other caring and trusted individuals who would offer support, if needed. Together, make a list of all the trusted adults in your child’s life. Reinforce to your child that if someone touches a child inappropriately, it is never the child’s fault.

Stranger Danger?

Despite the stereotypes of a stranger hanging around a playground, child abuse offenders are typically someone the child knows and trusts. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 93 percent of the time, the child knows his or her abuser. Actively participating in your child’s relationships provides the opportunity for you to know every person who is spending time with your child.

If an adult encourages hugging or other physical contact with your child when your child demonstrates discomfort, talk to the person in a non-accusatory way and explain that the behavior makes your child uncomfortable. Ask the person to stop the behavior. Advocating for your child and modeling assertive behavior empowers and helps him or her learn about safe and appropriate touch.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Local community agencies, such as a local sexual violence agency can help. Childhelp USA’s National Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453) is staffed by professional counselors who are available 24-7 every day of the year. It has a database of 55,000 emergency, social, and support services.

If you, as a parent, are faced with a situation where you have reason to suspect child sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior, trust your instincts, and report it. Some states designate Child Protective Services as the agency that accepts reports of suspected child abuse; others designate law enforcement. Many states have toll-free lines that accept reports of abuse for the entire state. The Child Welfare Information Gateway has information on where to make a report in your state (www.childwelfare.gov).

6 Ways to Build Body Boundaries

  • Recognize Safe Touches Safe touches are “OK” touches that make a person feel happy, respected, and comfortable and are part of healthy relationships. Model or use examples of safe touches (for example, a hug or a high-five) using pictures and words to associate how that touch should feel—an important step for your child to recognize his or her emotions. There may be some safe touches your child may want and some touches your child may not want—even with safe touches, every person has a choice.
  • Identify Uncomfortable Touches These are touches you don’t want. As your child develops, help him or her understand there are some people who may try to give an uncomfortable touch: a hug that’s too tight, bothersome tickling, or any unwanted touch.
  • Red-flag Inappropriate Touches Help your child identify the parts of the body that are not to be touched unless your child needs help staying clean or healthy. Some touches can be confusing, so keep concepts very simple—for example, “No person can touch your private parts,” and, “No person should be asking you to touch a private part of someone else’s body.”
  • Observe Online Safety Many children and teens with autism are adept at finding information online, but they still need adult guidance about predators, inappropriate sites, and photos. Talk with your child about online safety, and monitor your child’s internet use.
  • Just Say No Make sure your child knows that he or she has the right to communicate “no.” Promoting the right to non-compliance is important. Your child needs to be aware that he or she can say “no” to any person who makes him or her feel confused, uncomfortable, or hurt. This is a positive step towards self-advocacy, so use role-play to demonstrate how your child might respond to unsafe touching or requests.
  • Tell Someone About “Not OK” Behavior Explain that it isn’t safe to keep secrets about an inappropriate touch or request. Emphasize your commitment to your child’s safety, and remind your child that he or she can always talk to you about any inappropriate touch or request.

A Personal Safety Curriculum

NOVA is a non-profit, community-based crime victims’ services agency in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It supports, counsels, and empowers victims of sexual assault and other serious crimes, and it works to eliminate violence in Bucks County through advocacy, community education, and prevention awareness programs. NOVA helps adults via proactive personal safety information, and strategies for everyday living that can be utilized by parents, teachers, and other community members.

To support its mission to develop programs and services which promote respect for the privacy, uniqueness, and dignity of all individuals, the organization also wanted to offer personal safety education to children on the autism spectrum. As a prevention educator for NOVA, one of my roles is to help children recognize personal safety issues, make good decisions, and encourage communication with adults.

Building upon more than a quarter century of experience as prevention education practitioners, NOVA developed a practice-informed personal safety curriculum for children with ASD (ages seven through 12). This multi-lesson program focuses on social skills, personal boundaries, safe and unsafe touches, appropriate non-compliance, public and private places, and how to seek help when needed.

How NOVA’s Prevention Program Works

Collaboration with participating schools and parents is essential to NOVA’s program. We want to build relationships, increase knowledge, and promote active involvement with adults who may have the opportunity to intervene or prevent the abuse from occurring.

Before beginning a student program, two separate informational meetings are held. First, NOVA educators meet with teachers and paraprofessionals to exchange information and learn about each student’s developmental and cognitive strengths and challenges. Then, parents are invited to attend a program to meet the prevention educators, learn about the student program, and address questions or concerns. The following week, the multi-lesson student program begins. The lessons are presented during the social skills class time and utilize visuals, role modeling, social stories, interactive activities, non-competitive games, and take home activities to provide optimal outcomes for each student.

Providing personal safety education for children with ASD promotes a network of support by enabling students to achieve an increased level of understanding about their safety, while reinforcing existing positive, trusted relationships and creating new resources for support. An autism support teacher, whose students with ASD have participated in NOVA, recently commented, “This program just keeps getting better and better. This is my third year and I hope to continue for many more. Thank you.”

Educating adults, teachers, caregivers, and other community members about the steps we can all take to support our children and prevent child sexual abuse increases everyone’s safety. Hear the bell, start the conversation, and join us in building the world in which we all want to live. You can find out more about NOVA at www.novabucks.org.

Filed in: Education, Featured, Living with Autism

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© 2012 Autism File is a lifestyle guide to achieving better health. It is written with your needs in mind but is not a substitute for consulting with your physician or other health care providers. The publisher and authors are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of the suggestions, products or procedures that appear in this website. All matters regarding your health should be supervised by a licensed health care physician. Copyright 2011 Autism Publishing Group, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.