Children with disabilities are over three times more likely than children without them to be victims of sexual abuse. According to Vera.org, “the likelihood is even higher for children with certain types of disabilities, such as intellectual or mental health disabilities.”
These stats are scary and overwhelming. But, in a “prepare, not scare” theory, I decided to find out more information to learn more about this critical topic, in a mom-to-mom style.
I had the honor to review one of the best children’s books, I Am Different, Just Like You, by Rebecca DalMolin. And had the pleasure to interview this impressive woman, mom-to-mom.
After receiving her BA in Elementary Education from the University of Arizona, Rebecca realized the power of literature on young minds. When her daughter was diagnosed with Down syndrome, she decided to take her passion for children's literature and use it to advocate for those who are differently-abled.
The most challenging questions to answer for me as a sexual abuse prevention educator, are those from the parents of kids with special needs.
We know that kids with who are differently-abled are at an extremely elevated risk of sexual abuse.
How should parents handle this topic? Where do they start? Do they do things differently? I needed to know, from the source.
Below is our interview about sexual abuse prevention for kids who are differently-abled and have special needs.
1. How do you tackle this tough topic with your daughter?
For me, I really feel the need to be prepared. I don’t like surprises; I needed a plan. So, I’ve begun gathering lots of information and resources so that I can not only teach her formally but so that I’m also prepared for when certain topics about her body and sexuality come up. And that comes with preparing myself for the fact that I will have to talk to her about this. I can’t just ignore it and hope it doesn’t come up. I’ve got to dig deep, be brave, and do the work to be able to be available for her when she has these types of questions.
2. When did you start teaching body boundaries?
As soon as she could understand the word no - a few months old. As soon as she would hit or grab hair or glasses. I believe that teaching personal boundaries starts with the very basics of general boundaries.
3. What are some extra challenges you have encountered with your daughter?
Some topics have been more difficult to teach. For example, the idea of privacy and modesty. Most children develop a natural tendency towards some degree of modesty. So far, my daughter has not developed in that way. So, I regularly have to remind her to keep herself clothed and try to help her develop a sense of modesty while cultivating a desire for privacy.
Boundaries are another challenging topic. My daughter loves to hug and “give loves”. And although I love this quality about her, it also leads to some issues. Teaching her that she can’t just run up and hug anyone has also been a difficult task.
4. Can You make any recommendations to parents on books you have read that help?
Yes! Absolutely, we have done quite a bit of research and reading. Here are my recommendations:
Teaching Children with Down Syndrome about Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Terri Couwenhoven, M.S.
Spring Fever: Relationships and Sexual Health Curriculum by Rutgers (UK)
I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts private by Zack and Kimberly King
Can I Have a Squish? By Emily Neilson
God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies by Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb
Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen A. Jenson, MA and Gail Poyner, PhD
Good Pictures, Bad Pictures, Jr. by Kristen A. Jenson, MA
5. What are the most important things parents can do to help their child speak up for themselves, say no, and tell?
I think it’s important to teach them to say no in safe settings. Teach their kids to speak up and say, “No!” when someone does something they don’t like. For example, when one of my children tells me that their friend or sibling hit them or took their toy from them, instead of stepping in right away, I have them tell that person, “I didn’t like that, please don’t do it again.” I usually have to help them know what to say, but I don’t want to always be the one to “fix” the problem. I want to teach them how to do that for themselves.
Another way is to role play in safe environments. One thing we do is the “What if?” game. I’ll ask “What if someone does something that makes you feel uncomfortable? What would you do?” and then allow them to act it out and have a “script” ready. This also gives them a safe place to practice saying no and recognizing when they need to say no or seek adult help.
6. For children that are not able to communicate verbally- what do you recommend for those families?
Input, input, input. Many children who are nonverbal can understand way more than we give them credit for. It’s important that even though they may not be able to communicate (give output) that we are still providing them with the information (input). And the more we give it (repetition, review, and reinforcement), the more opportunities we give for them to make the necessary connections.
It’s also important to make sure that we teach them according to their current stage and build upon that without moving forward before they are ready.
I think it’s also important to have a trusted team of advocates that are also aware of the increased risks of assault for people with disabilities and the signs of assault.
If a child is able to communicate through sign language or visual cues, it’s important to give them the tools they need to communicate if they have something happen to them. Even teaching them basic body parts and emotions through colors or picture cards can be helpful for them in expressing their experience.
I would focus on a comprehensive, holistic, inclusive safety plan that would include; doing the research, gathering appropriate resources, providing a lot of input and increasing their advocate team to help.
7. Where can parents go to find out more about you and your book?
You can connect with me at my website