Shining a Spotlight on the Dark Side of Communication Disorders

I attended a live webinar in May that haunts me to this day.  Professor Harold A. Johnson of Michigan State University presented to our SLP staff on “Child Abuse:  Beyond Mandated Reporting — Utilizing Language Skills to Help Protect Children.”  The information he presented was shocking and made me see our role as SLPs in a very different light.  According to his research:

  • “1 in 4 students with disabilities will experience neglect and/or abuse before they complete high school,
  • 1 in 2 students with disabilities will experience bullying during their K-12 education.”

The impact includes poor health, truancy, drug abuse, pregnancy, running away from home, suicide attempts, and death.  And we have all witnessed horrible acts of violence for which the perpetrator claimed bullying or abuse as his rationale.

Among the risk factors for maltreatment of students with disabilities, according to Professor Johnson:

  • The student may not understand what constitutes maltreatment;  ie, they don’t understand that what they are experiencing isn’t normal or socially acceptable;
  • The student may be socially isolated and not have, or know to seek, a trusted person who can help.
  • The student may not realize that he or she has the power to say “no!”  Or the student may lack the verbal, cognitive, emotional, and/or physical ability to refuse and reject mistreatment from others.
  • The student may lack the language skills to report the neglect or abuse.
  • The student may not understand his/her own sexuality and related treatment of others (bear in mind that sexual abuse can begin in infancy;  sex education isn’t typically taught in schools until about 5th grade;  and students with significant disabilities are likely to receive much less sex education than their typical peers).
  • The student may not understand what constitutes risky behavior, and may not have the coping skills to avoid or get out of potentially harmful situations.

As an SLP in an elementary school, I have worked with students in Hearing Support, Autistic Support, Learning Support, Life Skills, and Multiple Disabilities programs, many of whom come from one-parent households and families that are stressed by socioeconomic factors such as unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, criminal records, and simply (although this may be huge) the stress of having a child or children who have special needs. I confess there have been times when I have said a silent prayer for some of these kiddos as they moved up to middle school that they would be protected from harm.  But it wasn’t until I heard Professor Johnson’s presentation that I realized just how uniquely positioned SLPs are to counteract these risk factors and to empower students to protect and defend themselves.  Whether in classroom-based or pull-out therapy sessions, we can design lessons, provide tools for, and open discussion of difficult topics.  We can teach the concepts of safe/unsafe, normal/abnormal, healthy/unhealthy as they relate to abuse and neglect.  We can practice recognizing situations and behaviors that should be avoided, refused, and/or reported.  We can rehearse ways to express concerns to a trusted adult, and we can BE that trusted adult.

This isn’t easy, and it doesn’t have to be done alone.  Ideally, the entire IEP team, including the principal, guidance counselor, and/or special education supervisor, will be involved in creating, or at least supporting, a proactive approach to protecting our students with disabilities through instruction and a supportive environment that begins in kindergarten.  This may involve connecting families (including siblings) with social services and/or providing a series of presentations on parenting and risk factors through the PTO that perhaps would involve the school nurse, local police, and other supports from the community.  But at the basic, but very critical level, it just might be you, the SLP, raising awareness, looking for signs of difficulty, providing therapy geared toward this otherwise neglected area of receptive and expressive communication, and being the open, accepting, and supportive adult in that student’s life.

As I said, these topics aren’t easy, but there are resources to help you.  Here are just a few:

  • National Child’s Advocacy Center hosts the Child Abuse Library Online.
  • YouTube is a great source of kid-appropriate videos on all kinds of topics, including friendship.  Having a true friend is a powerful defense against maltreatment.
  • Michigan State University has a good resource on the difference between “secrets and surprises,” ploys often used by older children and adults to manipulate those who are younger or weaker.
  • You can call the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4 A CHILD) to talk with a crisis counselor about a situation that is of concern and to seek guidance and resources to protect children.
  • Your school or public librarian, local mental health agency, and police department may also be good resources for books and materials.
  • Social Stories and videos on these difficult topics developed for children with autism can be very appropriate for ALL students.  A search on Google, YouTube, TeacherTube, and Pinterest will yield a treasure trove of resources that you can use and adapt for your students.
  • A webinar, book, and other resources by J. Scott Yaruss. Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh, about how to empower children who stutter against bullying also made a great impression on me.  I highly recommend all.

Of course, we are all trained in our legal obligation to report neglect and abuse that we see or suspect right now. But what about protecting children from future harm?   After viewing Professor Johnson’s webinar, I realized that threats to our students are more subtle and widespread than I ever imagined.  I also learned that I have the responsibility and power to do more than say a silent prayer over the students I thought might someday be at risk.


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