Arresting development

The main finding of a report in 2000 into abuse and disabled
children was that social services were less likely to intervene
following disclosure of the abuse of a disabled child than they
were in relation to the abuse of a non-disabled child.(1) But it
was also noted that in a significant minority of cases adolescents
with learning difficulties – who had themselves been abused – were
going on to sexually abuse other children.

Our study set out to find out more about this phenomenon. How often
do these young people come to the attention of statutory
authorities? What kinds of behaviour might trigger an intervention?
And, in light of the fact that most adult sexual offenders started
abusing when they were adolescents, what therapeutic services are
being offered to prevent these patterns of behaviour from becoming

We looked at the issue from two perspectives: that of staff in
special schools, who work with children and young people with
learning difficulties every day and are therefore well placed to
spot sexually inappropriate behaviour; and that of professionals in
the child protection and youth justice systems.(2)

Eighty-eight per cent of special schools reported incidents of
sexually inappropriate or abusive behaviour between pupils; in
nearly half of schools these incidents occurred at least once a

Most incidents were minor, involving “inappropriate touch”, public
masturbation, “flashing” or the use of sexualised language. But
more serious acts of sexual abuse also occurred: four schools
detailed incidents of actual or attempted anal or vaginal

Despite this, only a minority of special schools had specific
policies in place that outlined how staff should respond to
sexualised behaviour between pupils. Staff agreed that four factors
determined the seriousness of any given act of sexually
inappropriate or abusive behaviour:

The act itself.
Any imbalance of power between the pupils involved.
Attempts at secrecy.
Repetition of the act.

Difficulties often arose when schools tried to get social services
to respond to abusive factors, particularly if contact was made via
the duty team. Cases that reached social services mostly involved
serious sexual offending – often rape. In three cases the victims
included other disabled children. The cases typically came to the
attention of social services via the police, rather than schools or
other children’s services. Backgrounds of abuse or domestic
violence were either known or strongly suspected with most of these
young people: “strongly suspected” typically included situations
where no disclosure had been made, but a schedule one offender
lived in the family home.

In about half of the 15 cases, schools or social services or both
were aware of less serious incidents, which had not attracted an
intervention, prior to a sexual crime being alleged.

Only a minority of these young people attended special schools; the
remainder were in mainstream education. Five had statements of
special educational need (SEN) and five did not.

Staff in child protection and youth offending teams found it
difficult to identify the presence of a learning difficulty, not
least because of inconsistent use of SEN. Despite clues from the
young person’s behaviour and their level of understanding, they
were reluctant to ascribe a label that had not been authorised by
other professionals.

Only a minority of these young people were able to gain access to
therapeutic support services. Some services for juvenile abusers
simply would not work with young people with learning difficulties,
others had long waiting lists or rejected individuals after initial
assessments showed that they were “not engaging with the
therapeutic process”.

Several other important issues emerged that have implications for
best practice. These are the need for better inter-professional
communication, more timely and effective interventions, and the
consequences of labelling theories.

Calls for better communication and closer working between different
groups of professionals are commonplace: they formed the basis of
the Every Child Matters green paper. Research has also
identified the need for more therapeutic services to work with
young people who have some degree of learning difficulty and have
also been identified as sexual abusers. What was perhaps more
surprising was the impact which theories of labelling were having
upon practice in this field.

Labelling theory suggests that the act of ascribing a negative
label to an individual (such as learning disabled or sexual abuser)
places them at a social disadvantage and encourages further
displays of the same negative traits or behaviour. Labels should
therefore be avoided and every person treated as an individual.

Schools and social services appeared reluctant to label young
people with learning difficulties as sexual abusers. This is a
laudable intention, but in some cases had resulted in a failure to
respond effectively to the young person’s need. For example, one
young man was in mainstream school and had no SEN; he was only
labelled as having a learning difficulty after appearing in court
on sex offending charges. His defence barrister had requested
psychological tests that revealed a “moderate to severe learning

Likewise, the reluctance to label sexually inappropriate behaviour
as potentially abusive had in many cases allowed the behaviour to
continue and escalate to the point where it became sexual
offending. The desire not to label had led to a lack of official
awareness of the problem and a consequent lack of

Schools and social services are to be commended for not wishing to
label young people, but they must learn instead to label and record
their behaviour more effectively. We believe that every young
person, regardless of having a learning difficulty or committing a
sexually inappropriate act or abusive behaviour, should be treated
as a unique individual. But we also believe that it is only by
recognising and responding to acts of juvenile sexual abuse that
services can hope to ameliorate its effects.

Refusing to label this problem will not make it go away, but may,
sadly, make it less likely that effective interventions will be
initiated, as therapeutic services will only be set up if demand is
demonstrated. We hope that this study may encourage better
recording of incidents and thereby contribute to the development of
better therapeutic interventions, particularly in respect of early
interventions that can prevent inappropriate juvenile behaviours
from developing into lifelong careers of sexual offending.

RACHEL FRYSON is a research fellow specialising in issues
relating to people with learning difficulties. She works at the Ann
Craft Trust, University of Nottingham and the Norah Fry Research
Centre, University of Bristol.

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This article reports on research from the Ann Craft Trust into
sexually inappropriate or abusive behaviour displayed by some young
people with learning difficulties. It highlights the need for early
intervention and the need for education and social services to
identify the problem without labelling the child.

About the research
Research took place across four English councils, it

  • A postal survey of all special schools (65 per cent response
  • Follow-up interviews with teachers in 10 special schools.
  • Interviews in respect of every case over a 12-month period
    where social services and/or Yots were working with a young person
    (aged 10-18) with a learning difficulty following an incident of
    sexually inappropriate, abusive or offending behaviour (15

(1) Pam Cooke, Disabled Children and Abuse, Ann
Craft Trust, 2000
(2) Rachel Fyson, Young People with Learning Disabilities who
show Sexually Inappropriate or Abusive Behaviours
, Ann Craft
Trust, 2005

Further information

  • More on the work of the Ann Craft Trust at:
  • For advice about therapeutic services in this area, contact
    Respond at:

Contact the author

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