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  • Unwanted Sexual Contact: Students With Autism and Other Disabilities at Greater Risk
  • Kirsten R. Brown (bio), Edlyn Vallejo Peña (bio), and Susan Rankin (bio)

Ten percent of college students identify as having a disability (Snyder & Dillow, 2011), and a subsample of this population, students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), are increasingly participating in higher education (Geller & Greenberg, 2010). Disability resource offices at doctoral-granting institutions serve an average of 8.6 students with ASD per semester (Kasnitz, 2011), whereas these offices at 2-year colleges serve an average of 16.4 students with ASD per semester (Brown & Coomes, 2015). Furthermore, the participation of students with ASD in postsecondary education is expected to increase as one in 68 individuals is diagnosed with ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

Autism spectrum disorders represent a spectrum of neurodevelopmental differences that can contribute to difficulties in communication and social interactions. In their research on the experiences of college students with ASD, Van Hees, Moyson, and Roeyers (2015) found “challenges frequently reported include nonacademic issues such as difficulties with social skills, interpersonal deficits, organizational and time management difficulties, lacking self-advocacy skills and sensory overload, as well as problems meeting academic demands” (p. 1674). The small but growing body of literature regarding experiences of college students with ASD indicates that students face an unwelcoming campus environment (Brown, Peña, & Rankin, 2015; Van Hees et al., 2015) and experience prejudice (Wiorkowski, 2015). Brown et al. (2015) found that 33% of students with ASD experienced exclusionary behavior and only 67% felt comfortable in their classrooms. Additionally, functional limitations in areas of communication and social-emotional interactions make it difficult for students with ASD to navigate relationships (Van Hees et al., 2015). Challenges in discerning when others are being deceptive or have malicious intent (Dennis, Lockyer, & Lazenby, 2000) place students with ASD at risk for predatory behavior (Edelson, 2010; Sevlever, Roth, & Gillis, 2013).

Very little literature about sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or assault of children with ASD exists (Mandell, Walrath, Manteuffel, Sgro, & Pinto-Martin, 2005). The broader literature indicates that college students with disabilities experience “higher rates of victimization” (Cantor et al., 2015, p. 36); however, there is no existing literature that examines unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault for college students with ASD. [End Page 771] Rather than focusing on prevalence, the existing literature on sexual assault and ASD describes risk factors (e.g., Edelson, 2010) including a lack of sexual knowledge (e.g., Brown-Lavoie, Viecili, & Weiss, 2014); the mistaken belief that individuals with ASD are asexual (Irvine, 2005); and challenges to providing sex education for children, adolescents, and adults with ASD in community settings (e.g., Koller, 2000). Brown-Lavoie et al. (2014) found a relationship between lack of actual sexual knowledge and increased risk of victimization and explained that decreased social interactions and increased social isolation among students with ASD prevent these students from receiving sexual knowledge from peers, parents, and teachers that can mediate the risk for victimization. Edelson (2010) proposed that females with ASD might be at greater risk for sexual abuse and noted this was an area for future research.

Without a better understanding of unwanted sexual contact, student affairs practitioners and scholars have little knowledge to draw on when supporting the growing number of college students with ASD and other disabilities. To address the paucity of literature, we used data from a multi-institution climate assessment to examine the following research question: What is the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact for college students who self-identify as a person with ASD and two comparison groups: college students with other types of disabilities and students without disabilities?


Nine campuses were involved in this study, and university community members completed 104,208 surveys for an overall response rate of 27%. The undergraduate student response rate, which was the sample used for this study, was 21% (n = 37,693). All campuses were public, 4-year institutions. Seven percent of participants (n = 2,735) did not provide a disability status, leaving blank all responses to the question including “I have none of the listed conditions.” Disability was the focal point, and participants with missing disability data were removed from...


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pp. 771-776
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