According to a new study from France, the prevalence of sexual abuse in women on the autism spectrum can be up to three times higher than in women without autism. This is the largest survey specifically examining the vulnerability of autistic women, and the results will improve victim treatment strategies and prevention programs worldwide.
Nine out of 10 autistic women in France report having suffered sexual violence, a new study shows Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience. This is one of the largest studies to date specifically focused on this population. In contrast, previous research has shown that the rate of sexual aggression against non-autistic women is one-third, suggesting that abusers are three times more likely to target autistic women. Findings also showed that most victims had been assaulted multiple times, that it started at a young age, and that they were rarely able to report the abuse or get help. These results will guide better prevention and treatment programs.
“This research project was initiated by the study’s co-authors (Dr. David Gourion, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Séverine Leduc, a neuropsychologist) who observed in their practice that autistic women and non-binary individuals were more likely to be victims of sexual violence than other categories of patients,” said co-first author Dr. Fabienne Cazalis from the Department of Social Sciences at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS-EHESS). “This is important because symptoms of sexual trauma can be overlooked in individuals with autistic traits, resulting in those individuals not receiving the care they need. We hope that this research will help autistic victims of sexual violence gain better understanding and care.”
A vulnerable population
Cazalis and her collaborators used an online questionnaire to collect the experiences of 225 autistic women who volunteered to participate (all ages over 17). This study was initiated and conducted in collaboration with the local autistic community, which was instrumental in recruiting the relatively high number of participants.
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“When Gourion and Leduc started the study, research on this specific topic was still somewhat sparse, but the topic was still very much discussed within the autistic community,” Cazalis explained. “It was indeed advocates from this community who drew our attention to the importance of studying this topic, and when the study began, it was they who raised awareness within the autistic community, leading to large participation in a short period of time . ”
The survey included both an open-ended question and specific questions. Based on this design, there was some variation in reporting, with the open-ended and specific questions identifying abuse in 68.9% and 88.4% of women, respectively. This underscores the importance of survey design to help victims with treatment.
improve prevention and care
Through the questionnaire, the team also found that 75% of the participants had been assaulted multiple times. Two-thirds of victims were first abused when they were 18 years old or younger, and this was correlated with an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Only a third of victims reported the abuse, and 75% of these reports went unfollowed (either to treatment or prosecution).
Because of the young age of most victims at the time of the initial attack, the authors suggest that reconnaissance strategies may not be the most effective means of prevention. Instead, they support large-scale programs to reduce systemic sexual violence and gender inequality, as proposed by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control.
Cazalis acknowledged the risk of selection bias in the study but stressed the strength of the results.
“People who were victims of sexual violence may have been more willing to participate in the study than non-victims, leading to over-representation of victims, but we believe this bias may not be too strong based on our results agree very well with those of previous studies,” said Cazalis.
“We expect physicians and professionals to recognize the importance of investigating potential sexual victimization when working with women and non-binary individuals on the spectrum,” she added. “We also hope that this study will help raise general awareness of sexual violence in order to prevent it where possible.”