The last article assessed the impact of referring to ASD as a learning 'difference' or even a 'personality trait.'  As I said then,  I believe that both terms can potentially cause problems.  That is particularly true in  relation to abuse, making it far too easy for abusers to justify punishments and other mistreatments as the way to 'make the child conform', or simply to pass the resulting distressed behaviors as simply part of the child's autism.

It is a given that the majority of parents do their best to enhance their child's lives, offering unconditional love and support,  a picture mirrored in the world of  ASD.  This article is not about them.  Nor is it about those parents who cope reasonably well in most circumstances, but who, often without even realizing, become stressed or depressed: a downward spiral that can diminish their ability to respond to their child adequately or appropriately,  for that deserves an article of its own.

However it would be naive to ignore the fact that there are (and always have been) a small minority of parents and carers who are abusive.  Some, of course, have been abused themselves or perhaps have psychiatric or other issues of their own, such as a lack of impulse control or those who become aggressive when feeling challenged in some way.  
The latter is often the parent who punishes the child to 'make him' do as he is told or 'conform to the norm': a slippery slope,  for if as often happens, that punishment has little perceived effect, it can gradually intensify until it is far more abusive.  One victim of such abuse was author Caiseal Mor, whose parents, especially his mother, felt that his autistic behaviors were simply a form of extreme non-conformity, which they attempted to 'cure' or at least ' manage',  in a most sadistic manner, which gradually increased in severity. 

Nor can we ignore the fact that a few people are downright evil: like the calculating mother who, while admitting she had abused her son, said she had been careful not to kill him because she didn't want to lose the monthly subsidy she received for him.

However,  regardless of motive and whether the abuser has some deep, dark, complex and confused motive or is simply a sociopath, it is a given that the results can be horrendous and can cause lifelong anguish to the victims many of whom develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It is all too clear that abusers the world over are quite subtle - often grooming the child prior to the abuse - but those who abuse children and adults with ASD have more ammunition than most.  Thus, sadly, some learn to manipulate the child in such a way that it triggers disruptive or even self abusive behaviors (sometimes with devastating results).  Thus one man used his son's trigger word - which was simply 'no' - and then stood back and watched as his son became really self abusive; time and time again.  Then there was the father who knew that his  son disliked a particular scratched tape and yet deliberately played it repeatedly on every car trip; coldly commenting that the child then got extremely upset!

Those particularly unpleasant forms of abuse are often overlooked by outsiders who, not seeing  –  or not recognizing – the cues, see the outcome - whether it be tantrum or self abuse - and think that the behaviors emanate solely from the person with ASD.  

To confuse things further several of the signs of abuse - from withdrawal, changes in behavior, rituals, compulsions, lack of  personal care, bruising,  tiredness, resistance in going to a specific place, sudden emotional changes and/or sudden inappropriate behavior - can mirror behaviors found in people with ASD.  How easy for an abuser to blame it on those learning 'differences' or tell others that such behaviors are only to be expected because they are simply part of the 'autism'.  

So how can you help identify such abuse?  Look closely and you can often spot clear  'giveaways': not from the child but from the adult concerned.  Often such an abuser is intelligent and clearly knows the child well and yet, despite that,  they repeatedly mishandle situations and precipitate incidents of difficult behavior and or self-abuse.  And yes, of course many of us have 'been there/done that' and learnt from our mistakes, but when such things happen frequently or consistently, they are certainly indicative of abuse and need further investigation.
Autism consultant William (Bill) Stillman has found that children with ASD who are sexually abused - especially those who are non verbal - may use difficult or aggressive behavior as an attempt to communicate an appeal for help.   He describes several situations he has been involved in which involve sexual abuse.  Each concerned little girls (all non verbal)  whose behavior had deteriorated alarmingly - so that they had become more agitated and withdrawn, with increased (or renewed) bed-wetting (or even soiling) becoming the norm; some also developing urinary tract infections.

Many professionals would have jumped to the apparently obvious conclusion that such symptoms were merely an 'autistic' phase but fortunately Bill delved further and, whilst never in a position to prove anything, soon found that every incident coincided with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, stepbrother or uncle.

Similarly he relates the story of a very young girl who banged her head over a hundred times a day. Once again he refused to take things at face value and, noting her slightly unkempt clothes, her disheveled hair, he sensed that she was grappling with something more profound.  That led him to suspect she was being abused: something later confirmed by her teachers who reported their suspicions to Child Protection Services.  Indeed once the teaching staff also told the little girl that they understood and wanted to protect her, her head-banging all but vanished. 

As Bill Stillman said,  if the abuse hadn't been identified the child would have ended up being medicated for no reason or perhaps forced to wear a protective helmet.   Easy to see how that journey to the dark side added trauma to her other difficulties: something she might never have recovered from.

No excuses. The motivation behind the abuse is irrelevant.  Such abuses need to be recognized for what they are and the perpetrators stopped.

Author's Bio: 

Stella Waterhouse is a writer and therapist who has worked children and adults with a variety of learning differences since the late 1960’s.

In the mid 1980s Stella worked at a residential home for approximately 40 adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), where she became Deputy Principal.

In the 1990s Stella set out to write a short book on the role of anxiety in autism., which at that time received little attention. Her research led her to investigate the causes of ASD as well as role of sensory disorders - particularly those of an auditory or visual nature.

The original ‘short’ book evolved into a much larger project and has so far spawned two full length books including A Positive Approach to Autism - Jessica Kingsley Publishers, plus a series of short books for parents and teachers all of which are currently available as e-books.

Stella is currently completing her new series The Autism Code. For more information on Stella and her products please visit