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STUDY: Adults With Autism At Higher Risk For Sexual Victimization Due To Lack Of Sex Education

autism def

Adults with autism are at an increased risk of sexual victimization, according to a new study by York University scientists. The researchers found that a lack of sex education is driving the risk, and they say that with improved interventions focused on sexual knowledge and skill building, the risk could be reduced.

“Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) gain more of their sexual knowledge from external sources such as the internet and the television whereas social sources would include parents, teachers and peers,” says Professor Jonathan Weiss in the Faculty of Health and the CIHR Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research.

Individuals with ASD and other developmental and intellectual disabilities are considered particularly at risk of sexual victimization for two reasons. First, some people with ASD are targeted for abuse by sexual offenders who may view them as more vulnerable than other potential victims. Second, when individuals with ASD are sexually abused, they may express this in ways that get ignored or misattributed to their disability rather than to possible sexual abuse.

The new investigation, conducted by Dr. Weiss, and clinical developmental psychology PhD candidates Stephanie Brown-Lavoie and Michelle Viecili, found that the lack of sexual knowledge in adults with autism played a role in increasing the risk of sexual victimization — experiences of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, attempted rape or rape.

The study, titled “Sexual Knowledge and Victimization in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” is published in the upcoming (September) print edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

For the new research, the team used an online survey to collect data from 95 adults with ASD, ranging in age from 19 to 43. They also collected data from a comparison groups of more than 100 adults without ASD.

Of the 95 participants with ASD, a staggering 78 percent reported at least one occurrence of sexual victimization compared to 47.4 percent of the 117 adults without ASD who participated in the study.

Brown-Lavoie points out that the study participants were asked about specific situations, not just a general “have you been sexually victimized” question. “Some may not know that the experience they had is actually classified as sexual victimization. But if you give them a specific situation, like someone touching you inappropriately after you said no, they may be more able to identify that it has happened to them.”

The researchers also found that higher levels of sexual knowledge were associated with a lower risk of sexual victimization among the participants with ASD, indicating that the problem likely stems in part from a lack of formal sex education classes. Children and adolescents with ASD often receive little or no instruction in sex education in schools, so many never learn the difference between appropriate versus inappropriate sexual behavior.

While the researchers point out that the results are not necessarily representative of the entire population of adults of ASD, they say the findings are likely indicative of a bigger problem. “I think we have a good picture of what rates could look like” in a larger study, says Viecili.

Prior research indicates that about one in six children with ASD has been the victim of sexual abuse, though less is known about adults with disorder. In fact, the first research on adults with ASD was not published until 2009, when England’s National Health Service (NHS) released the first-ever study of autism in the general adult population. As such, the needs of this population remain misunderstood and largely unmet.

The researchers hope that the study results will lead to more programs aimed at teaching sex education to individuals with disabilities, in hopes of decreasing the risk of victimization. Already the pair has taken their research back to the community, where they held a workshop for 60 clinicians and another one for parents.

 

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