Giving a Voice to Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse
May 02, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
In November, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for seven applied autism research studies in 2023. These new grants, totaling $276,212, bring OAR’s total research funding to more than $4.7 million since 2002. This article is the fifth of seven previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.
Child sexual abuse is a persistent and major public health concern that affects more than 100 million children worldwide. It is an even more critical issue for autistic children since research indicates they may be victimized at higher rates than neurotypical children. However, there is sparse empirical research about how to improve the detection and prevention of sexual abuse or about intervention and treatment for autistic individuals abused as children.
Your Story Matters! Giving a Voice to Sexual Abuse Victims with Autism, an OAR-funded, two-year study, proposes to address this gap. Principal investigator Carmit Katz, Ph.D., and her research team will collect testimonies from autistic adult survivors in order to make recommendations for improving the detection, identification, investigation, prevention, and intervention of child sexual abuse for autistic individuals.
The goals of the study are to:
Dr. Katz is a professor of social work at Tel Aviv University and the director of research at the Haruv Institute, a leading organization for research into child abuse and neglect. Dr. Katz is also the founder and director of the International Group of Scholars Protecting Children from Maltreatment during COVID-19 and the head of the Child Welfare and Protection Division for The Israeli government’s Committee for Reform in Child Protective Services.
The study will take place in Tel Aviv, Israel. Dr. Katz will work with an advisory board throughout the study. The board will be made up of representatives from The Israeli Society for Children and Adults with Autism (ALUT) as well as members of a group of autistic adult social activists. Advisory board members will advise Dr. Katz and her research team on how to adapt the data collection methods for autistic participants and conduct considerate and respectful research with the participants and autistic community. The board will also assist with participant recruitment and help to analyze the data to ensure it fully captures autism and its challenges. Finally, the board will provide ethical oversight to make sure that there are appropriate supports for participants.
Dr. Katz plans to recruit 50 autistic adults who are survivors of child sexual abuse to participate in the study via social media, advisory board contacts, and through the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs. Participants can use Hebrew or Arabic to allow survivors from diverse communities to participate.
In order to collect the testimonies, researchers will interview participants individually. The study design includes a rapport-building phase, in which the interviewer will introduce the inquiry and its purpose and make efforts to create a trusting and empowering environment. Once a level of trust is established, the interviewer will ask open-ended questions, such as:
Participants will not be required to answer any questions they do not wish to answer. They are also free to share whatever details they would like to about their experience, including those not covered by the questions. Because discussing child sexual abuse can be upsetting and trigger difficult feelings and thoughts, the research team will provide each participant with information on organizations that support mental health as well as those that specialize in supporting autistic individuals.
By collecting data in a semi-structured format, the research team will be better able to understand individuals’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and experiences and explore personal and sensitive issues empathetically. Interviewers will use customized interview techniques, designed with input from the autistic community and ALUT, including narrative elaboration with visual cues. These techniques will take into consideration the unique needs of autistic people and their heterogeneity as individuals.
The data they will collect includes:
Using inductive qualitative research, the research team will analyze all the narratives shared in
the individual interviews, extracting findings and conclusions. Inductive analysis begins with researchers reading and studying the information obtained in order to identify common themes and how those themes relate to each other. The analysis will provide the researchers with an in-depth understanding of child sexual abuse as experienced by autistic individuals. Using an inductive approach serves the narrative nature of the data collected and honors the experiences and knowledge of the participants.
By bearing witness to autistic survivors of child sexual abuse and illuminating ways to improve prevention, detection, intervention, and treatment, this study will highlight the experiences of autistic people so that they can be heard and supported. Additionally, by working with an advisory board of autistic individuals, it may help autistic individuals feel more included, represented, and understood in the research.
The study’s outcomes will:
Dr. Katz and her team plan to write and disseminate reports to inform policy and practice, publish educational and informative material, and produce a series of articles and videos about their findings.
Ultimately, Dr. Katz aims to narrow the gaps in research, knowledge, policy, and systems related to sexual abuse of autistic children, with the goal of increasing support and services for autistic individuals and service providers.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.