A recent news regarding the abuse of a child with autism broke our hearts. As one that provides service for the autistic community, we firmly believe that this practice is absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately, children with disabilities are more likely to be maltreated than their non-disabled peers (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). Due to the additional challenges in processing the environment, children with autism might behave in challenging ways, increasing the susceptibility to abuse by others. Moreover, the deficit in functioning expressive skills (e.g. communication and language) oftentimes hinder the detection of abuse happening to this vulnerable group of children.
To ensure the safety of all our children and prevent children with autism being at the receiving end of this maltreatment, here are some guidelines on safeguarding that parents should always keep in mind.
- Create a culture that values safeguarding
When engaging schools or any child care institutions, safeguarding practices should be the priority. Find out the safeguarding practices of the school/institution, build relationships and engage all stakeholders in the conversation on safeguarding, especially those that are in close contact with the children (teachers, class assistants, nannies etc.). Find out the school/institution’s culture, and make sure that children’s safety is prioritized.
Some checkpoints: (what to check)
A) Safeguarding policies
Before entrusting your children with any organisation or school, ensure that they have safeguarding policies in practise. Safeguarding policies for kids are the statements by the organisation that they would ensure that safety comes first for the children. This also includes that they would report violations and do not tolerate any kind of violation internally.
- Staff selection and training
Find out about the staff recruitment procedure, specifically vetting checks of staff prior to recruitment, as well as the training they receive (e.g. clinical training, first aid and fire training, mandatory safeguarding procedures). Staff should receive regularly updated training, and their performance should be consistently reviewed in order to ensure quality and adherence to the organization’s policies and principles.
The space where children spend their time should be equipped with relevant safety measures that are effective in ensuring their safety. Children are oftentimes physically active, though not all injuries can be prevented, there should be sensible procedures in place in managing such situations, including reporting to relevant stakeholders.
Many aspects should be taken into account in order to abide by the safeguarding policies such as risk management, behaviour management and work culture. The space should be child-friendly with preparation to protect them physically. The people working with the children should share the same values, culture and practices when dealing with the children. There should be clear guidelines on managing behaviours and clear limits on what is intolerable. For example, beating and bruising a child is illegal in the country and this should be mentioned in their policy as well. It would be good if parents can be more informed on the law about child protection in the country and cross check if the organisation is following these laws.
B) Reporting and Accountability System (e.g. CCTV recording)
There should be surveillance systems on premises that handle children for safety purposes. On one hand, this is to provide a reference on accidents and an opportunity to reflect and revise in order to better combat the situation. For example, recording of the incident of kids falling from a slide can help in upscaling the safety aspect of the facilities. On the other hand, having this system also shows reliability and transparency of the service provider, to provide accountability on all incidents that had happened within the premises.
C) Respectful Language
Observe the way the staff interacts with your child and the language they used to communicate with them. Language used with children impacts their growth and development, and can reflect on one’s attitude towards children. Are the words used understandable, do they respect the child’s wish, views, needs and voice? It is recommended to stay respectful when talking to children, and the language used should always be proper and not diminishing.
“Mummy is here, let’s quickly pack our bags.”
“Stop playing. Go home.”
The two instructions above basically convey the same meaning but one is more understandable and respectful.
D) Staff’s behaviour around children
Another key giveaway in making sure a place is safe for your kids is the behaviour of the people working there around children. Do staff encourage choices, or are they more restrictive when approaching an issue with children? When talking to children, do they come down to the child’s level? How do they show care and concern while handling children in distress? Observe whether they open up the opportunity for the children to be free, and offer a safe space to speak up, rather than behaving in a very restrictive, stiff and hostile manner.
Your child’s behaviour around their teachers or nannies can also be a crucial clue. When interacting with staff, is your child comfortable and at peace? If there is a show of distress, it is always a good idea to look further into the issue.
- Monitor your children
Always check your child for signs of abuse. These signs could be physical, emotional and/or behavioural. Below are some common signs of child abuse, adapted from the NSPCC:
- Unexplained bruising, marks and/or injuries
- Unexplained changes in behaviour or personality
- Becoming withdrawn
- Seeming anxious
- Becoming uncharacteristically aggressive
- Knowledge of adult issues inappropriate for their age
- Running away or going missing
- Flinching when approached/touched
As children’s behaviours differ, this list can only serve as a reference. Children with autism may have challenging outbursts of behaviours where they might harm themselves in the process, however, parents should always look out if the marks and wounds are out of context, and to always enquire how they are acquired.
Whenever your child is acting out of the norm, unlike how they were before this without a clear cause, parents ought to be concerned. For children who have no means of communication, it is important to be informed of the source or cause of any unexpected physical injuries (bruises, knocks, cuts, etc.). Be aware of your children’s mood around school’s staff, and be extra vigilant in detecting any unusual behavioural changes.
- Teach communication skills.
Children that lack communication skills are at a more disadvantaged and risky position for abuse. Their deficit in language skills increases the challenge for them to get help, as well as explaining events that had happened to them. Therefore, communication skill is one of the core foundational skills that children should learn as soon as they can.
Click here to access the resource on teaching communication to children with autism! Communication is not limited to speech and can happen through multiple ways. Your child can still communicate through alternatives such as communication apps like Let Me Talk, QuickTalk AAC and many more that you can find online.
Some essential communication skills:
-Saying “no” and “stop”
-Asking for help
-Persist in communication to get help
-Red/Yellow/Green people, actions, and events
If your child is able to communicate verbally, explain to them the terms above and ensure that you communicate your trust to them. Children have trouble opening up if they are constantly being doubted. Children that are able to communicate are less likely to fall victim to abuse as they are able to express, reject and explain themselves.
- Teach safety skills
This may be more relevant for children with more skills, but it is nonetheless important. Other than educating your children on what they can do when they encounter a dangerous situation, it is also equally important to let your child recognize abuse behaviour and to raise it to adults they can trust.
Some safety skills and information to equip your child with:
- Respecting boundaries
They should understand that they are allowed to say no in order to reject, and people should respect that. They should understand that they have a voice and are able to decide for themselves. People that do not respect their voice are violating their boundaries.
- Body boundaries/ “No touch” zones
It is important to be specific with your child when explaining where and how an adult cannot touch them.
- Circle of friends as well as identifying safe adults that can be trusted or seek help from (parents, people in certain uniforms etc.)
- Information that should never be kept as secret from parents
- Parent’s basic contact information
Understanding danger might not come easy for children in general thus, it is our responsibility to show them how to stay safe. We can break down the skills above, identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviours (through videos or stories), model the expected responses and roleplay with them by acting out the situations.
In case of non-verbal children that are still learning about these concepts, it might take more to have them understand staying safe. In these instances, parents can ask for CCTV monitoring every now and then to ensure their child is in safe hands. Parents should also find out more details on the flow of children’s daily routines such as toileting and showering, to ensure that the premise practises gender limitation.
- Setting Up Safe Home
As much as they are to be safe outside, children that live in a safe space would be more likely to learn and understand what being safe means. They would be familiar with what is safe and when to be cautious. For example, learning that the kitchen is not a play space and they should be careful with sharp objects would make them less likely to barge into the pantry or be around their nannies that are preparing food.
Check out our Autism At Home series on how to set up your home for children with autism!
- Believe your child
When your child points out to you about an unexpected or suspicious event, make sure to be extra vigilant about it. Clarify with the relevant parties, get as much information and be as clear as possible with what has happened. This is not from a perspective to assign blame, but just not to dismiss your child when they raise a potentially concerning issue, or when your child is trying to express how a certain person or event made them feel.
All in all, creating a safe space for the kids means that they are always treated with respect and dignity. It is important that they are safe as they continue to develop and grow. Safeguarding children is the responsibility of all that are involved in their lives. It’s extremely important to be proactive in preventing abuse from happening. Take precaution and investigate more if there are any suspicions or concerns. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Sullivan, P. M., & Knutson, J. F. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child abuse & neglect, 24(10), 1257-1273.