A new population study finds that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are nearly 2.5 times more likely than their non-ASD peers to be reported to the Child Abuse Hotline by the age of 8.
Children with disabilities face greater rates of maltreatment, but little is known about the interaction of ASD children with child protection systems. To investigate this issue, researchers from Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) looked at the entire population (11 counties) of Middle Tennessee residents born in 2008 and compared their records through 2016.
The data was collected through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. In it, 387 children out of the population of 24,306 were identified as having a diagnosis of ASD.
More than 17 percent of the children with ASD had been reported to the Child Abuse Hotline by 2016, compared to 7.4 percent of children without ASD. In addition, ASD girls were six times more likely to have substantiated claims of maltreatment than ASD boys.
The findings are published in the journal Autism.
Children with ASD may be especially vulnerable to maltreatment due to a variety of factors, including challenging behavior and complex cognitive and language impairments, more caregiver stress, lower levels of family social support and higher rates of caregiver isolation and dependence, researchers said.
Children with autism are also more likely to regularly work with a team of providers who may be paying closer attention than they would to children without ASD, though data from this study can’t confirm or deny these hypotheses.
“If roughly one in five children with autism is reported to the Department of Child Services (DCS), we need to make sure there is awareness of how common this is and further educational and service system partnerships to optimize our ability to respond,” said Zachary Warren, Ph.D., executive director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD and a senior investigator for the study.
“This represents a very vulnerable population, and we have a responsibility to work with mandated reporters, service providers, school systems and those who respond to these allegations to make sure they’re equipped with all the tools necessary to meet the complex needs of these children.”
To gain a fuller picture of the issue, more research will be needed to determine what types of abuse are being reported, differences in clinical profiles of children along the autism spectrum, data on the rates of maltreatment of children with other types of disabilities and further evidence of gender disparities.
Though the number of kids with ASD being referred for maltreatment is high, Warren admits the rates found in the study could be conservative, as many cases of maltreatment are likely not reported. Some care providers may also mistakenly attribute signs of maltreatment to the child’s diagnosis or behavioral challenges.