Helping Autistic Survivors of Sexual Assault | UB today


Many people with autism do not prefer to be called “autistic people,” the construct favored by other groups with medical or socioeconomic conditions. If this simple label is unknown to the general population, imagine the lack of awareness of the needs of autistic and neurodiverse survivors of sexual abuse, including among trauma counselors.

“The tendency to blame oneself may be even more acute than in people without autism,” says Emily Rothman, a professor at the Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences and chair of occupational therapy, whose research has focused on the health equity and marginalized populations. “To say to oneself, there’s something wrong with me, i probably deserved it … wondering if it was really a sexual assault or not—maybe I agreed, maybe I just don’t remember, or maybe the way I’m saying no is wrong. This “self-gaslighting,” Rothman says, increases the isolation felt by survivors.

As for the training offered to counselors to help autistic survivors, “there isn’t any,” says Rothman, who also has appointments at the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine and is a expert in sexual and intimate violence and trauma. .

She is working to address this problem by developing an online module, which will go live early next year on a BU website, with information for university counselors on how to better support survivors. autism from sexual assault. Rothman is designing the module with Gina Scaramella (SSW’95), consultant to business, government and donors on sexual violence programs, and Laura Graham Holmes, assistant professor at Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work . The work is funded by the non-profit Organization for Autism Research.

The percentage of sexual assault survivors who are autistic is uncertain, Rothman says, given that some choose not to disclose it. But the module can and will address other issues that counselors might not be familiar with, starting with an introduction to autism. This introduction will state that it is neither an intellectual disability nor a mental disorder, but a developmental disorder (although it can occur in people with mental health problems).

The team is assisted by an advisory group of six people with autism, including Val Erwin, a doctoral student from Bowling Green State University who is writing her thesis on survivors of sexual assault with disabilities at the university. Erwin counseled survivors of sexual assault while earning her master’s degree and working at a women’s center, and after speaking to survivors, both on her campus and those who had transferred from elsewhere, she says. , she saw a pattern of counselors bypassing the discussion of disabilities.

Erwin says she thinks many counselors “don’t know how to talk about it”, describing their approach as “‘I don’t want to talk about disability because it would re-stigmatize you.'” Whereas, “if the school would have thought, oh, you have a disability and you got that [assault] experience – we’ll help you with both,” which may have saved some survivors from having to drop out of school or be hospitalized for mental health reasons. “There would have been help before some of this stuff got out of hand.”

Certainly, some survivors prefer not to disclose their autism, Rothman says. Thus, the (draft) text of the module suggests how counselors might approach the subject: “Many students who come to see me tell me that they suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism or that they live other differences. If you feel comfortable telling me if any of these apply to you or think it might help our work together, please let me know, even if it’s something something you suspect but don’t have a diagnosis.

A study co-authored by Rothman last year highlights the need for better services. He sampled more than 250,000 students — including about 1,400 with autism — at 78 colleges and universities, and found that sexual assault dropped grades for 36% of non-autistic student survivors and 80% of autistic survivors.

“They don’t know where to turn, how to get help, or how to feel better,” Rothman says. “And all of our systems on college campuses and around the world are set up to help people without autism.” For example, making a counseling appointment can be difficult for people with autism, who may have difficulty with executive functions.

“You have to make an appointment, locate the office, show up at the right time,” she says. “You have to announce yourself… That could be totally overwhelming and enough to make you not want to. So if you don’t have the option for people to zoom in instead of showing up in person, you’re probably going to lose a lot of your autistic audience.

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