Young people with autism and their families face high rates of maltreatment, researchers report

Young people with autism diagnoses are far more likely than their more typically developed peers to be exposed to physical or sexual abuse, be sexually assaulted and intimate partner violence, according to a new analysis published in the journal Intelligence.

Authors of the study in the Department of Children and Youth Culture Health Research at the University of Michigan, who performed the study as part of MSU’s National Accelerator Grant program, said the research explored “the impact of experiences of being a youth with ASD on the neural processes that underlie the perception of difference, belongingness, and belongingnessness with others. “They said the study’s findings were consistent with previous data that suggest that an estimated 25 percent of people with ASD have been victims of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment, while 26 percent of people who were diagnosed with a mental health disorder were victims of emotional abuse and stress.

Physical abuse and sexual assault are “signals that are heightened in the emotional needs of children with ASD” said Michèle Cvetan, a sociology doctoral candidate who co-authored the study with Victor Alsadegh, a Ph. D. candidate from the Department of Communication Studies.

Alsadegh, who co-designed the study with Cvetan, also the director of the Neuroscience Program in Fellow in Children and Youth Culture Health at MSU. He said that abuse and harassment have long been implicated in ASD, and the study’s results add further validation.

The researchers said such maltreatment could explain why the brains of people with ASD are different from those of typically-developing children. These findings also suggest that young people with ASD might face consequences for their behavior, according to Weighty Lanfield, a PhD student who worked on the study with Cvetan. Lanfield is also the first author.

LSW programs increase ASD prevalence.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (R37NS109144, 1-3-9-20-P301-NS0118000), and the National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH108483, 1-10-1-130), she said. More than $18 million more was allocated to the program for the succeeding five years.

Biological pathways identified.

The researchers assessed the likelihood of psychological or physical abuse and sexual assault by each child and sample cohort separately. The researchers employed the National Clearing House Inventory used by the National Survey on Children’s Health and Development among the Sixth Timepoint (Clinically Constructed). Data from the 2004 to 2018 follow-up period for which the clinician-generated or neurologically-generated score for abuse and victim-reported sexual assaults was available was analyzed.

“These assessments have been established for using the minimum 15-minute time period to closely assess emotional responses to situations in which the individual feels he or she belongs, ” Cvetan said.

Like previous studies, the study’s results showed a strong relationship between verbal abuse (likely physical) and psychiatric and behavioral outcomes, indicating that abuse could be a marker for risk of post-traumatic responses.

While the impact of such abuse in the study was prominent among boys, Cvetan said the study also demonstrates the need for programs and professionals to target development of appropriate skills as well as building relationships with young people, both potentially protective and potentially harmful.

“We can start to put the pieces together and detect whether we trigger our children in the right way with sensitivity consistent with the effectiveness at both individual and group levels, ” she said.