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A Parent’s Guide To Protecting Kids with Intellectual Disabilities from Sexual Abuse

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Depending on the study, it is estimated that from 60 to 90 percent of women with an intellectual disability will be sexually exploited or abused in the course of their lives, in contrast to 25 percent of the typical female population. Boys aren’t exempt. From 16 to 30 percent also will be sexually abused before they turn 18. As hard as it is to understand or admit, there are bad people in the world who see a person with intellectual disabilities as a sitting duck. Abusers tend to be equal opportunity opportunists. They want sex and see people with intellectual disabilities as unlikely to report the abuse, or, even if they do report, unlikely to be believed.

Why Abuse Happens

Sometimes the fault lies at least partly with us. Parents sometimes don’t want to face the fact that their adolescent and adult children are sexual beings. For a long time, there was an idea in the world that people with intellectual disabilities were “eternal children.” The idea has its charm and certainly lets us off the hook from dealing with uncomfortable talks and instructions around sex. But it’s simply not true. People with intellectual disabilities do have sexual feelings. Those drives, coupled with insufficient information, impaired judgment, and lack of impulse control, can lead to inappropriate, even dangerous, encounters. If they don’t know what is normal, our kids can’t protect themselves. If they don’t know how to express their sexuality appropriately, they can get themselves into trouble. They desperately need us to give them the information.

Often parents want to protect their kids from some of the harsh realities of the world. Because parents want to believe that they can shelter and protect their kids, they often don’t tell them about abusive, abnormal, or illegal sexual activity. Unfortunately, unless you are willing to wrap up your kid in a cocoon of parental overprotection, it’s impossible to guarantee that he or she will never have to deal with unwanted and inappropriate advances.

Complicating things further is the sad fact that an abuser often is someone known to the victim. People with intellectual disabilities are abused by relatives; direct care staff; transportation staff; people who seem to want to befriend them; even other people with intellectual disabilities who are a bit more capable. It’s hard to know how to talk about this without making our kids afraid of their own shadows. It’s hard to face it ourselves without starting to look at everyone we meet as a potential abuser. While it is challenging, maintaining and presenting a balanced view is essential for keeping our kids safe.

Sometimes our good training backfires. We teach our kids to trust and comply with medical professionals, other adults, and staff as a way to keep them safe. Paradoxically, they can then be easily manipulated, threatened, and bribed by people who present themselves as having authority.

Then there is the desire of all young people to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Kids with intellectual disabilities see the same TV shows and movies that everyone else sees and listen to the same music. American culture is full of references to romance and sex, particularly among teens and young adults. Having a partner is certification to many that they are okay. The need to be accepted and to be “like everybody else” can be so strong that a young person will accept painful or distasteful sex.

A Parent’s Guide To Protecting Kids with Intellectual Disabilities from Sexual Abuse

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). A Parent’s Guide To Protecting Kids with Intellectual Disabilities from Sexual Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.