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How Human Trafficking Threatens the Autistic Community

Written By Mrunmayee Jere and Edited by Edited by AJ Crow


As we enter into Autism Awareness Month, it is essential to realize the different ways common disturbances in our world affect those with autism. Our Future of Change’s main focus, human trafficking, is a considerable threat to the autistic community. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, [and it] affects every community… across age, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds'' (O’Gorman).

Human traffickers are ruthless--they target those with specific characteristics. This includes those with autism as mental and physical disabilities are considered risk factors for potential trafficking victims (O’Gorman). Traffickers often groom potential victims early – gaining their trust, making false promises, and otherwise manipulating individuals into believing lies about love, protection, a better life for families, and financial gain. Unfortunately, victims can often be taken advantage of by their own caregiver, as individuals with autism and other disabilities often rely on someone to meet their basic needs. This leads to an uneven power balance, where the victim has learned to comply with the wishes of their caregiver, which could carry over into a relationship as trafficker and abuser (Shoup). The Adult Advocacy Center mentions a specific example, claiming, “an adult potential victim with a developmental disability [was taken advantage of when] the potential trafficker posed as a boyfriend and made the victim believe that counselors, family, and friends did not want her to be an independent adult” (Shoup). He then used this insecurity to trick her into engaging in commercial sex with other people (Shoup).

It is challenging to examine the precise dangers trafficking poses to those with autism, as there has been very little research on the topic; however, when one takes a look at the sexual abuse statistics for autistic people, one can better understand the harm of trafficking. Ben Wolford from the organization Medical Daily writes that “in one Canadian study, 95 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder were interviewed regarding sexual abuse. An astounding 78% of those interviewed admitted to being involved in sexual scenarios under coercion or pressure” (Wolford). Given that there are over 400,000 victims of sexual assault of those twelve and over, the potential risk of human trafficking against those with autism is worrying (Truman and Langton). Human trafficking, in general, has two significant motives: to suffice sexual needs and to suffice labor needs, which presents the harmful intentions of these traffickers (Shoup). Dr. Gloria Arroyo-Grubbs, a chiropractic physician in Vancouver, makes the point that this high number could be due to parents not teaching the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships (O’Gorman).

There are various methods of preventing human trafficking in the autistic community, and one of them is being aware of the potential warning signs. Autism Empowerment mentions that some likely behaviors of these victims include “habitual running away, chronic fear and anxiety, an inability or an unwillingness to explain where the person has been, having older boyfriends or older friends, or seeing a drastic change in types of friends” (O’Gorman). Parents of young children with autism should also be keeping track of their child’s belongings, as “unexplained money or expensive gifts, keys to unknown locations or hotel rooms, tattoos or brands, STDs, or unexplained bruises or broken bones” are all warning signs that should be taken seriously and reported to the authorities (O’Gorman). Brenda Huffstutler, a Crime Victim Advocate and Mental Health Clinician, suggests that the best way to prevent human trafficking of one’s children is to be involved in their children’s lives. She also advises that if one is not comfortable talking with their child about this topic, it is essential to have another trusted adult or mentor available for their child to speak with (O’Gorman). Given the complexity of the internet in the modern-day, it is also crucial that parents monitor their child’s browser history to avoid them succumbing to human trafficking. Huffstutler suggests that a wise initial step would be to take your child “to an electronic/phone store and have them assist you in setting parameters you are comfortable with” (O’Gorman).

In short, human trafficking is detrimental to the autistic community; those in the community are at significant risk of being targeted, as they are often in situations in which they are more likely to trust others. During Autism Awareness Month, it is crucial to keep in mind the signs of human trafficking, especially if one is a parent of someone with autism, and to know what to do if one suspects that someone is being trafficked. Let us all join together and spread the word to prevent this horrible crime, and together, the world can become a safer and happier place for neurodivergent people.



Works Cited

O'Gorman, Tara. “Human Trafficking - Protecting Our Most Vulnerable.” Autism

Empowerment, Autism Empowerment, 21 Oct. 2017, www.autismempowerment.org/2017/07/01/human-trafficking/.


Shoup, Leigha. “Human Trafficking a Concern for Disability Community.” Adult Advocacy

Center, Adult Advocacy Center, 23 Jan. 2020, www.adultadvocacycenters.org/blog/human-trafficking-a-concern-for-disability-community.


Truman, Jennifer L, and Lynn Langton. “Criminal Victimization, 2014.” Bureau of Justice

Statistics (BJS), 27 Aug. 2015, www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5366.


Wolford, Ben. “Why People With Autism Are At Higher Risk For Sexual Abuse.” Medical

Daily, Medical Daily, 18 Aug. 2014, www.medicaldaily.com/sex-abuse-risk-higher-people-autism-prompting-calls-better-sex-education-298430.


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