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Are Children with Disabilities More Likely to Experience Trauma?

By Pam Dewey • disability, disability and trauma, disabled children and trauma, trauma and people with disabilities, disabled kids and trauma, processing trauma, what causes trauma, how to help children with disabilities process trauma, trauma treatment for disabled children • March 09, 2023

Trauma is much more common among children than you may think. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “More than two-thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16.” That may seem unbelievable, but trauma isn’t just witnessing gun violence or being abused.  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “A traumatic event is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.”

To give you an idea of what traumatic events look like, here is a list from Psych Central:

With such a broad definition of trauma, it makes sense that so many children have faced a traumatic event. Unfortunately, some groups of children are even more likely to experience trauma.

Disabled children are more at risk

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “Studies show that children with intellectual and developmental disabilities also experience childhood adversities and trauma at much higher rates than children without disabilities.” Experts also believe trauma experienced by people with disabilities is underreported because of issues like barriers in communication.  

Some factors put children with intellectual and developmental disabilities at higher risk of experiencing trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “These risk factors include varied cognitive abilities, physical limitations and reduced communication skills.” Because of varied cognitive abilities, some individuals may not understand they’re being placed in dangerous and potentially traumatic situations; for example, they may not receive needed medication, therapy or even daily meals. For children with physical disabilities, being neglected by a caregiver could mean they are not turned often enough so they develop bedsores, they are not bathed regularly or they are confined to their room for long periods of time.

Also, when a person with disabilities has limited speech, non-standard speech or is a non-vocal communicator, it’s harder to communicate with others about traumatic events. It also means they might not be believed. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “Children with [intellectual and developmental disabilities] are less likely to be believed due to their disability.” In other words, a child’s concerns are more likely to be dismissed because others may think they don’t understand the situation or are exaggerating. When their claims are ignored, a child’s unsafe situation may continue, and the resulting trauma may also be unacknowledged, so treatment for their trauma doesn’t occur.  

More caregivers means more risk for abuse

Children with disabilities also typically have more caregivers than other children. In addition to their parents, they might work with home healthcare workers, therapists, special education staff, residential staffing and other medical staff. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network quotes a study by P.M. Sullivan and J.F. Knutson that states, “Sixty-four percent of the children who were maltreated had a disability…The most common type of maltreatment was neglect.” In addition to neglect, caregivers might also abuse or exploit disabled children. This could include stealing money from them, bullying or belittling them and withholding necessary physical accommodations. Again, caregivers may think they can get away with it because the child has difficulty communicating, or because they’re disabled and less likely to be believed.

Medical procedures can cause trauma

Children with disabilities typically undergo more medical procedures and endure lengthy hospital stays. This, too, can cause trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “Children's responses to medical trauma are often more related to their subjective experience of the medical event rather than its objective severity.” For example, a child might be scared before surgery, even when it’s not a major surgery. But their fear causes trauma. Many medical procedures also cause pain, which can be traumatizing for anyone, including children with disabilities. Additionally, being surrounded by beeping machines, strange smells and other sick people can be upsetting and may also cause trauma for children.

Their response may differ from others

Children with disabilities may process trauma differently than other children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states, “Accordingly, children with [intellectual and developmental disability] may be exposed to the same types of trauma as any other child but may experience and process the trauma differently and therefore may respond differently. Further, due to their dependence on others for assistance and security, children with [intellectual and developmental disability] may also have an increased trauma response to any threat to the safety of caregivers.”

A typical child might tell their parents about a traumatic event they experienced, burst into tears or act fearful. However, children with disabilities may experience communication struggles and differences in understanding that prevent them from responding in these ways. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, for children with disabilities, trauma responses “may include: changes in behavior (for example, increased irritability, loss of previously acquired skills, new fears, bed-wetting, and avoiding previously enjoyed activities or people) and trauma-related mental health conditions (for example, anxiety, PTSD, and depression).” Unfortunately, changes in behavior might be attributed to a child’s disability, instead of recognized as a response to trauma.

Trauma can be treated

Children with disabilities don’t have to suffer long-term consequences from trauma. Parents and caregivers know their children better than anyone. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior or they seem off, talk with them. They may have experienced a traumatic event and not know how to respond. Your child might not understand what happened to them was wrong, or that they shouldn’t have been exposed to it. You can talk through these events and teach your child how to respond.

You also might need help uncovering what happened to your child and what is causing the change in their behavior. Some children may benefit from the support of a therapist who specializes in trauma and serving children with disabilities. Fraser is Minnesota’s largest and most experienced provider of autism and mental health services for children. Many of our clinicians are also trained in treating children who’ve experienced trauma.

While children with disabilities are more likely to experience trauma, they can heal and move forward. As a parent, you should watch for changes in behavior and listen to their concerns. If your child needs help processing trauma, Fraser can help. Fraser has served children with disabilities for more than 85 years and specializes in supporting children with co-occurring conditions.