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Moving Forward – How to Help Victims of Sexual Assault with Intellectual Disabilities

Despite under reporting, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have a higher incidence of most types of trauma, including sexual assault. It’s estimated that 83% of females and 32% of males are victims of sexual assault. This population is particularly vulnerable for many reasons including reliance on a myriad of caregivers and that they are often taught to be compliant. Among other things, cognitive disability can also interfere with a person’s ability to predict or understand high-risk and abusive situations.

There have been many reports in recent news stories, but to move forward we must focus on how we can help mental health counselors recognize and assist someone they suspect to be the victim of sexual assault. There are many misconceptions about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, including that they are unable to communicate or understand when they’ve been victimized. This is simply not true; they experience the same responses to trauma including shock, confusion, guilt, and fear.

Recognizing Traumatic Responses

Without training on trauma treatment, mental health counselors can have a difficult time differentiating traumatic responses or symptoms with behavioral issues related to the person’s disability. Trauma responses should never be attributed to a person’s developmental or intellectual disability. Some general symptoms of traumatic response may include:

  • Sleep disturbance or irritability
  • Startle response or hypervigilance
  • Numbing or submissive behavior
  • Emotional constriction or inability to share feelings/emotions
  • Disrupted sense of safety, fear of being alone, or fear of being around others
  • Repetitive play or speech that have trauma themes
  • A change from normal functioning
  • Hesitance to discuss experience or confusion about an experience
  • Fear of not being believed

The most important factor in anyone’s recovery after a traumatic experience is a supportive caregiving system. Support and treatment must be about the survivor’s perception of what happened and focus on increasing their sense of safety and control in their lives. Although it may take longer for a person with developmental challenges to make changes, they can absolutely benefit from trauma-focused therapy and have the ability to stabilize through this treatment.

Upcoming Training:

Joanna Bridger

The Riverside Trauma Center has been working for the past several years with the MA Disabled Persons Protection Commission, the MA Department of Public Health, and Rape Crisis Centers throughout the state to assist in training mental health counselors who work with people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities. We are offering upcoming trainings on the subject in March in Worcester and Taunton. To learn more or register for these trainings please visit our event page.

~Joanna Bridger, LICSW, Clinical Services Director at Riverside Trauma Center

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