In this article, Kiranpreet Rehal, Department for Education (DfE) safeguarding project manager at the NAS, writes about the importance of safeguarding children with autism and details the resources that are being produced through the DfE safeguarding project.
Safeguarding children with autism
The safeguarding of children with autism is an important but often challenging task. The biggest challenge is recognising when abuse may be occurring in the child’s life. With autism being a spectrum condition, and the differing communicational and sensory needs that some children have, often signs of abuse can be missed or even attributed to behaviours associated with autism.
Research has found that children with disabilities are at higher risk of experiencing abuse and neglect than non-disabled children, but they are less likely to be subject to child protection plans.1 Research from the US has also indicated that there higher prevalent rates amongst children with autism than those without disabilities.2
Children with disabilities are more vulnerable to experiencing abuse and neglect for many reasons including:
• Being more dependent on others to meet personal and intimate care needs.
• Not being aware that what is happening to them is even wrong.
• Communication difficulties that prevent the child from expressing concerns about what is happening to them.
On the National Autistic Society (NAS) Autism Helpline, there have been calls from parents who are having to undergo child protection procedures because services have felt that the child is suffering from abuse and neglect, when instead it is a matter of the professional not recognising the traits of autism. Signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect, such as being withdrawn, self-harming and avoiding eye contact, can easily be confused with characteristics of autism, and vice versa. Leading to difficulty for some professionals to identify when abuse is or isn’t occurring.
Children with autism can also abuse other children. This can be through learned behaviour they see at school or on the television, or even because they themselves are a victim of mate crime (befriended by others who behind the pretence of friendship, actually take advantage of them).
Whenever a child is involved in harming another child, the life of the child who has abused should also be carefully assessed. It could also be that the child themselves is also a victim of abuse.
Even if there are serious concerns, the child protection process should be carried out in a child centred way, where the needs of the child with autism are met throughout. Occasionally the child’s autism is not fully considered, leading to an already difficult process becoming more stressful and resulting in the child portraying behaviour that appears challenging. This can commonly result when carers are suddenly stopped from having access, there are changes in routines and with the involvement of new people.
Understanding and identifying safeguarding concerns is a very sensitive process and it is important for professionals to fully understand the child’s life by learning as much as they can about them through the family, schools and services that know them best. It is better when decisions and discussions are had with all those who know the child and the child’s views have also been sought through those that can communicate effectively with the child.
The Safeguarding Project
The Department for Education has funded this unique project about improving safeguarding standards for children with autism by developing cost efficient resources that professionals can access and increase their understanding and awareness of safeguarding children with autism. The NAS led on this project, in partnership with the Autism Education Trust and Ambitious about Autism.
A Safeguarding Children with Autism booklet has recently been published. Written for professionals with limited experience either of child protection, or working with children with autism, this essential guide identifies the key principles of safeguarding and clearly outlines the steps that need to be taken when there are concerns. For a limited time only, this booklet is free to order.
An online Safeguarding Children with Autism training module will also be developed for frontline health, social care and education practitioners who work with and support with children and young people with autism. This module is in its early stages of development and will be available in 2015.
If you are interested in knowing more about safeguarding children with autism, or would like to keep updated with developments of this project, please join the Safeguarding Children with Autism group
It is important to remember that frontline practitioners who have safeguarding concerns about a child should do the following:
• Recognise behaviour that may indicate abuse or other types of harm.
• Respond and listen to ascertain the situation. It is important to ask open questions only and not to use leading or probing questions. It is also important not to make any promises about what will happen next.
• Reassure the child that they have done the right thing by communicating and emphasise that help is on its way.
• Record precisely what has been alleged and/or what has been observed, using key phrases and words the child has used.
• Report concerns to the known designated person or their deputy.
• Where indicated, the designated person should refer to the local authority to be consistent with local safeguarding protocols.
All professionals who work with children and young people must make sure that safeguarding remains on the agenda at all times.3
1 Ofsted (2012), Protecting disabled children: thematic inspection.
2 Mandell, D.S. et al (2005), ‘The prevalence and correlates of abuse among children with autism served in comprehensive community-based mental health setting’, Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol 29, pp. 1359–1372
3 Safeguarding Children with Autism, Wade Tidbury, The National Autistic Society 2014
Author: Kiranpreet Rehal
Date added: 22 October 2014