• Sexual Assault and Misconduct
  • Insights
  • Higher Ed

Free Higher Ed Training Tool: Providing Sexual Assault Services to Autistic Students

March 2024
person on computer taking notes
Train sexual assault counselors to better serve autistic students.

Federal (and often, state) law requires colleges and universities to work to prevent sexual assault and harassment on campus and to respond appropriately and effectively when it occurs. This obligation extends to every student, including students with disabilities.

United Educators (UE) members should explore opportunities to bolster resources for these students, who may fall between the cracks of traditional campus sexual assault services. It’s critical to provide appropriate training for campus personnel working with sexual assault survivors.

Disabilities Increase Student Vulnerability to Sexual Assault

In general, college students with disabilities are likelier than those without disabilities to experience sexual assault. The Association of American Universities’ (AAU’s) campus climate survey estimated that 9.4% of students who reported no disabilities experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent,” but the rate increased for students who reported one disability and rose to 25% for students who reported two or more disabilities. Surveyed students could identify as having various disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

ASD is a developmental difference. (Many autistic people don’t view autism as a “disorder” or “disability” and instead describe it as a difference.) Autistic characteristics typically appear in early childhood, though it may not be diagnosed immediately. Symptoms vary significantly; while ASD is generally associated with differences in communication, interaction, and learning, some but not all people experience:

  • Preference for less or no eye contact
  • Differences in speech
  • A preference for routine
  • Strong sensitivity to stimuli

As a result, autistic people may require different kinds of support appropriate to their needs; this includes autistic college students who survive sexual assault.

UE Member Shares New Training Tool

UE member Boston University (BU) collaborated with Grand River Solutions (GRS), which offers K-12 schools, colleges, and universities services related to Title IX and equity, on a new training tool to help higher education sexual assault counselors working with survivors better understand and meet autistic students’ distinct needs. This free online course, Providing Sexual Assault Services to Autistic Students, is available on the BU website.

To create the course, principal researchers Dr. Emily Rothman, Gina Scaramella (an expert and consultant on sexual assault prevention), and Dr. Laura Graham Holmes (a specialist in autism research) worked closely with Joe Storch, GRS’ Senior Director of Compliance and Innovation Solutions, who has deep expertise in Title IX, campus violence, and student affairs. The team also included six autistic people with experience in sexual harassment or assault on college campuses.

UE reviewed the course, which was funded by the Organization for Autism Research. We strongly recommend it to colleges and universities interested in improving their response to autistic students who experience campus sexual assault.

The self-paced training consists of 27 short lessons divided among three modules:

  1. Understanding Autism, which provides critical foundational knowledge (such as distinguishing autism from an intellectual disability, identifying behaviors that appear in some – not all –autistic people, and following client preferences regarding terminology)
  2. Links Between Sexual Violence Victimization, Disability, and Autism on College Campuses, which addresses key risk factors (including disability) for campus sexual victimization and explains common prevention and response barriers
  3. Providing High-Quality Counseling Services for Autistic Survivors of Sexual Assault, developed with input from a student advisory board; the module suggests approaches and tools for providing inclusive, responsive, and accessible counseling services to autistic survivors of campus sexual assault (including appropriate information, resources, and training)

Quizzes throughout the course ensure learners understand key concepts before proceeding. The training links to external resources intended to help colleges and universities increase the accessibility and effectiveness of their services for autistic survivors of campus sexual assault. It also provides resources to download (including terms autistic people commonly ue, suggestions for clarifying the counselor’s role, and a top-10 tip sheet).

The course offers practice tips throughout, such as suggesting sexual assault counselors:

  • Work with campus disability services to familiarize autistic (and other neurodivergent) students with counseling services early in the college experience in case they’re needed later.
  • Communicate with autistic survivors by email before the first appointment, covering information such as whether the survivor can bring a support person and what to expect (including a list of common questions they may be asked).
  • Consider ways to reduce external stimuli (such as noises, scents, or bright lights) in their office before an appointment.
  • Be flexible and give autistic survivors options about the format of counseling sessions (such as virtual vs. in-person appointments) and what they want to discuss.
  • Offer practical support, such as help requesting accommodations from professors or with executive function challenges (like completing homework or preparing for an exam) that require planning and organization.
Additional Resources

American Psychiatric Association: What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Developmental Disabilities

Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health Education, Science and Practice at the Boston University School of Public Health: Conversation on Sexual Violence With Emily Rothman and Gina Scaramella

National Council on Disability: Not on the Radar – Sexual Assault of College Students with Disabilities

National Institute of Mental Health: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Added to My Favorites

This content was added to My Favorites.

1 of 3 documents are ready for download

The document "Long document name goes right here" is ready. Downloads expire after 14 days. Your remaining documents will be ready in a few minutes. Lorem ipsum dolor, sit amet consectetur adipisicing elit. Quod deserunt temporibus qui nostrum aliquid error cupiditate praesentium! In, voluptatibus minima?

Go to the Document Center