Children with Autism are More Likely to Experience Abuse than Other Children

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Children with Autism are More Likely to Experience Abuse than Other Children

Leili Zarbakhsh, PhD, LEP, LMFT, BCBA-D

Helping children on the autism spectrum is complex and difficult. We work hard to give our children a voice, so they are able to have their needs met and navigate their way to as normal a life as possible.

Sadly, new research recently published by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorder has reminded us how vulnerable these children are to abuse, and how likely they are to experience it. The study tracked more than 24,000 Tennessee children from their births in 2008 through 2016. In that group, 387 were diagnosed with autism, and 17.3 percent of those children were the subject of child abuse hotline calls. The others in that age group accounted for only 7.4 percent of hotline calls, according to a Feb. 25th report published on the Disability Scoop news website.

These numbers show that children with autism are more than twice as likely to be exposed to abuse than children who are not diagnosed with autism. It’s not clear what is driving the disparity in cases of potential abuse, but in his report, researcher Zachary Warren said that behavior issues and other factors associated with autism could make those on the spectrum more vulnerable.

Children who are struggling with cognitive and behavior issues can be especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect, and it is tragic that some might have the additional burden dealing with mistreatment. We need to teach these children how to recognize when they are being mistreated and how to appropriately respond to it, and that includes knowing when and how to speak up and report abuse on their own behalf.

California law defines child abuse as a physical injury that was not accidental; cruelty and unjustifiable punishment; sexual abuse or exploitation; and neglect, from lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care or supervision.

We urge anyone who knows of a child like this who might be an abuse victim to report it. Teachers, social workers, child care providers and health care professionals are required by state law to report their observations and suspicions, but parents, friends, relatives, neighbors, and even store cashiers and bus drivers can step forward to help.

The state’s Child Protective Services division of the California Department of Social Services website says community members have an important role in protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Report possible child abuse or neglect to your local police or sheriff’s department. The state’s Child Protective Services also have 24-hour emergency response phone lines staffed by social workers in every county.

In Los Angeles County, call (800) 540-4000

In Orange County, call (800) 207-4464

In Riverside County, call (800) 442-4918

In San Bernardino County, call (800) 827-8724

In San Diego County, call (800) 344-6000

In San Luis Obispo County, call (800) 834-5437

In Santa Barbara County, call (800) 367-0166

In Ventura County, call (805) 654-3200

A list of the phone numbers in other California counties are at:

For the full Disability Scoop article on the research:

For the complete Vanderbilt Kennedy Center research results:

For the complete study abstract, A Population-Based Examination of Maltreatment Referrals and Substantiation for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with information about how to access the complete study:

About the Author

Dr. Leili Zarbakhsh is the executive director of clinical services at 360 Behavioral Health and is also the founder of California Psychcare. California Psychcare is a part of the 360 Behavioral Health family that utilizes applied behavior analysis (ABA) to provide behavioral health treatment to clients across California.

Dr. Zarbakhsh has worked in the field of psychology for more than 35 years, spending the first third of her career as a school psychologist for Los Angeles Unified School District. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, board-certified behavioral analyst and licensed educational psychologist. Dr. Zarbakhsh received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of Southern California and earned her doctorate from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, where she focused on applied behavioral analysis (ABA).

Dr. Zarbakhsh likes getting people excited about the things she’s excited about. Today, that’s providing lifelong and holistic care to the very special individuals and families we serve. She believes that within every child is unimaginable potential – a potential we can unlock if we listen closely and love unconditionally.

Dr. Leili Zarbakhsh
Dr. Leili Zarbakhsh

Executive Director of Clinical Services
360 Behavioral Health

For more articles, visit our Stay Informed page.

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