Safety—from being protected from abuse and being a victim of a crime to knowing where to go in an emergency—is important for all people. However, people with autism and other developmental disabilities may have greater difficulties accessing information to protect themselves from abuse or discussing safety issues.

Recognizing and Responding to Abuse

One particular area of concern for people with autism and other developmental disabilities is recognizing and responding to abuse. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups to abuse. The following factors contribute to this:

  • If a person needs assistance, many different people may have access to their homes and bodies.
  • People often don’t learn how to protect themselves.
  • People might rely on others to help out.
  • Many people are not believed when they say that they were abused.


Although more research is needed, studies consistently show people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to experience violence than people without disabilities. In 2009, the Department of Justice released a study finding that people with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to experience violent crime. The report indicated that people with cognitive disabilities actually experience a higher rate than the rates reported for people with all other kinds of disabilities.

Many people with intellectual disabilities, communication difficulties, and behavioral challenges experience higher levels of abuse because they are socially and physically isolated. In the book, Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The End of Silent Acceptance?, author Dick Sobsey indicated that women with developmental disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to experience sexual abuse in their lifetime than women without disabilities. Another factor reported is that survivors of sexual assault who have a developmental disability are more likely to be re-victimization by the same perpetrator.

The VERA Institute of Justice reported that, “97-99% of abusers are known and trusted by the victim/survivor who has an intellectual disability. 32% of those abusers are family and 44% are people who specifically have a relationship with the person because of their disability—they are caregivers, drivers or residential care staff.”

Green Mountain Self-Advocates developed the Peer-to-Peer Guide on Domestic & Sexual Violence to support self-advocates, staff, members, volunteers, and allies to know what domestic and sexual violence is and to know what to say and what to do when they hear about abusive situations.

Planning for and Responding to Emergencies

Emergencies and disasters create stress and challenges for all people; however, these situations may be particularly overwhelming for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other emergencies are not only frightening experiences, they may produce unexpected changes in daily routines. Since most people with autism have a need for order, predictability and control, these changes may cause additional challenges.

As a result of these challenges, it is important that people with autism and their families plan ahead for emergency and disaster situations. Below are four key steps involved in emergency preparedness planning, accompanied by useful tools and resources:

  1. Contact your local emergency management office to gather information to create a plan. Find out the types of disasters that may occur in your area, what community plans are in place in case a disaster occurs, and what types of assistance programs may be available for people with disabilities in emergencies;
  2. Develop your own plan that outlines safe places for household members to meet, escape routes, preventive training, and visual aids for first responders and people with autism so that everyone knows where to go, what to do, and how to interact during emergencies;
  3. Assemble an emergency supplies kit with materials that your family may need in an emergency situation. Medical supplies, medicines, flashlights, blankets, and non-perishable food and distilled water are some important supplies to include in this kit; and
  4. Review the plan periodically with family members so that everyone is familiar with it. Make sure the plan is up to date.

For more information, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a booklet entitled Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other Special Needs.

Additional Resources

Explore the safety section of our website to find news, information, webinars and resources on topics like safety planning, crime issues, wandering, bullying and more.

Date posted: March 29, 2011. Content created by The Autism NOW Center. Last updated: December 20, 2013.

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