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When the Child who Offended has a Unique Brain

The words, labels and understanding of brain diversity and development are changing, controversial, and just beginning to be understood. This article uses the term “unique brain” to encompass conditions that cause a child’s brain to experience and react to the world in a way that is different than the majority of children. The most commonly identified and studied are diagnoses of autism and ADD/ADHD. The resource list at the bottom of this page includes links to learn more about these and other conditions.

Most young people who sexually harm their siblings have a brain that is functioning within the typical or normal range for their age. 

The vast majority of young people who have a diagnosis relating to a unique type of brain do not cause sexual harm to anyone. They are actually at higher risk to experience sexual harm or exploitation from others, both within and outside the family. See 5WAVES list of tips and resources for protecting and guiding the sexuality of children with disabilities.

Brandy’s note: I am not aware of any published studies that have looked specifically at sibling sexual trauma and any type of unique brains. But in every platform or group I have joined for parents of sibling sexual abuse, I have encountered a noticeably high percentage of parents who are also dealing with a diagnosis of autism and/or ADHD in the child who caused the harm. The article below is based on the few studies that have examined the intersection of unique brains and harmful sexual behavior, and on personal observations of experiences that seem to be common in the families I have met. I hope this page will bring helpful insight to some individuals and parents who are facing both of these challenges. It is not meant to explain more than a piece of a complex situation, it is not an authoritative guide, and it does not apply to every situation or family. I am also painfully aware that the resources available in real life to deal with these situations are often quite limited.

“How did this happen?” It is a question any parent who discovers that one of their children has sexually violated another asks themselves, repeatedly. They examine every aspect of their children and their parenting, leaving no stone unturned. If the child who caused the harm has been diagnosed or suspected to have a unique brain, that is one of the many angles they consider. Below are some common questions and concerns of parents who face that situation.

 

Could my child’s unique brain–diagnosed or not–have been a piece of the puzzle or a step on the path that led to their harmful sexual behavior?

 

There are many possible ways that a unique brain can increase the risk of a child causing sexual harm to a sibling. None of these are a full explanation, and they do not free anyone from responsibility for their choices. But they can be an important piece in understanding a child’s perspective and preventing future problematic sexual behavior.

 

  • Social isolation, awkwardness, or naivety

  • Limited ability to engage in age-appropriate sexual interactions with peers

  • Tendency toward obsessive interests and hyper-focus 

  • Increased risk for pornography addiction 

  • Increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation, in person or online, including those who may coerce them to engage in sexual behavior with a sibling

  • Not receiving sexuality or body safety education that they can understand at school

  • Difficulty reading facial expressions or other social cues, including signs that their sibling is in distress or wants a behavior to stop

  • Sensory sensitivities that may bring strong or unique reactions to sexual touch or images

  • Impulsivity which leads to difficulty controlling sexual behavior 

  • Tendency to spend more time with younger children and siblings who may be their social or intellectual peers but do not match their physical size and sexual maturity

  • Inability to predict other people’s emotional or physical reactions to their behavior

  • Difficulty recognizing and abiding by social norms and taboos, including those around sexuality

  • Experiencing puberty according to their age, but mismatched to their social and behavioral maturity

  • Difficulty recognizing and understanding another person’s perspective, reactions or intentions when it differs from their own.

  • Possibility of side effects from medications that act on the brain.

I don’t want my child to be given a free pass or excuse for sexually violating their sibling because they have been diagnosed with a unique brain. If they knew that what they were doing was wrong, why does anything else matter?

 

No diagnosis should ever be used as a sole reason to explain harmful sexual behavior. It should never be a reason to exclude a child from treatment or shield them from appropriate consequences. Some parents will need to advocate for their child’s need for treatment and their siblings’ need for protection, if legal and social service systems are reluctant to provide this.  

 

It is also important to understand as much as possible about a child’s way of experiencing the world and the extent to which they can realistically be expected to control their behavior in various situations. Knowing something is wrong and even wanting to avoid doing it does not make a person capable of controlling their behavior in every situation. If a child’s unique brain affects their ability to control their behavior, it is important to know this so the child can be taught extra skills and receive extra support or supervision going forward.

 

Why should I even try to understand a child who shows no empathy for their sibling or remorse for the damage they caused? 

 

There are some siblings who truly do not care, cannot care, or don’t want to care about the welfare of others. In other cases, they do care but it is hard for others to see, or they care but have difficulty understanding their sibling’s suffering. Possibilities to consider include:

  • Delayed processing of a communication or social interaction–by the time a person comprehends what happened and the damage that was done, the interaction is over. 

  • A person may be feeling remorse or empathy but it does not show in a typical way via their facial expressions, tone of voice, or eye contact.

  • Empathy requires caring, but it also requires an ability to correctly imagine what another person is thinking or feeling. Many people with unique brains care very much about others, but need extra help and time to correctly understand another person’s experience or point of view.

  • Some people with unique brains are especially sensitive to other people’s feelings and reactions, and have difficulty managing their own strong emotional reactions to this.


 

How do I know this diagnosis can be trusted?  How do I find out more if I suspect my child has a unique brain but has not been diagnosed? 

 

Labels and diagnoses are quickly changing.  It is challenging to truly discern how another person’s brain is experiencing the world, in the context of their unique personality, social and cultural situation. It is known that many people with autism learn to mask or camouflage their autistic traits–particularly people who are marginalized in other ways as well. Practitioners’ approaches to diagnosing and treating unique brain conditions vary greatly depending on the place, time, and philosophy of their training. False positive and negative diagnoses, or missed diagnoses, are always a possibility. Parents may need to be persistent in advocating for providers to pay attention to their child’s true nature. See the resource list at the bottom of the page for more information.

 

My child has multiple diagnoses, and they keep adding them and changing them. It’s overwhelming and confusing to me–let alone to my child.  

 

It is truly challenging to discern between differing or overlapping mental conditions and unique brain possibilities. It is very common for children who have any type of unique brain to also have other diagnoses or risk factors in their lives. Sometimes these come about as a result of being born with a unique brain–for example, a child with difficulties reading social cues may find it harder to form a secure attachment with caregivers. Or a child who was particularly vulnerable to abuse now lives with an inherently unique brain and developmental trauma disorder. In these situations parents may have to look at the diagnosis process not as a destination but as a journey, to be ready to learn more and change labels as needed. And most crucially, parents can strive to look beyond the diagnoses and labels, using the information they gain to better understand and advocate for their child as an individual. It is also important to note that children and young adults who are living with multiple diagnoses or challenges can be expected to have a more difficult time changing and controlling their behavior. 

 

Will my child’s unique brain cause difficulties in navigating the justice system?  

This is definitely a risk. Evaluating and judging people with unique brains according to the standards and assumptions used for the general population can lead to inappropriate responses in police interviews, court appearances, testing and evaluation, even jury trials. 

  • Misjudging a youth’s level of understanding can lead to misinterpreting their intent. 

  • Tools and surveys that are used to estimate risk of future offending can yield falsely optimistic or pessimistic results when they are used on teens with unique brains.

  • Evaluation tools and treatment plans for adults should not be used with youth, and tools for adolescents may be more appropriate for young adults who have social or intellectual delays.

  • Teens and adults who have unique brains may need extra help in understanding legal proceedings, extra time or explanation to respond to questioning.

  • It is easy for judges, police and other criminal justice staff to misinterpret people with unique brains who have atypical facial expressions, tone of voice or eye contact, or who have physical habits such as rocking, hand movements or fidgeting.

 

Will my child’s therapy or treatment for harmful sexual behavior have to be changed in any way to be effective if they are thinking and learning with a unique brain? Will I be able to handle all their extra needs and risks, along with my other children’s need to be protected and feel safe, if they return home?

  • Youth with unique brains may need more specific, exact, structured rules and expectations around sexuality and social interactions, including online interactions and legal boundaries

  •  A child may respond better to therapy or intervention in a particular learning or communication style–typing vs. voice, spoken word vs. written word, visual vs. verbal, for example.

  • Children and teens whose brains tend toward being impulsive may need extra supervision and safeguarding. 

  • Safety planning needs to be realistic in taking into account a child’s current abilities, development, and challenges. It also needs to be realistic in what to expect of the parents or other adults in the home. 

  • Safety planning needs to take into account not only the ways a child's brain may be unique, but also any challenges related to mental health, family support, current or past trauma that may affect a child's behavior.

  • When it is decided that a youth cannot safely live in a family with other children, every effort should be made by all adults involved to give the child who caused harm a normal, safe, stable and shame-free home. 

 

How could I have missed recognizing my child’s unique brain until now? I feel like I’ve failed to understand and protect both of my children. What if my child is already an adult and I never figured it out?

 

No parent can recognize something if they don’t understand it or even know that it exists. The uniqueness of a child’s brain is not something a parent can see. The cues can be very subtle and many children learn to hide or mask their uniqueness in an effort to behave well or fit in socially. The masking process may itself lead to stress and emotional difficulties that contribute to offending behavior. It is easier to understand any child looking backward than it is to recognize cues as a child is growing. It may take extreme circumstances–such as the disclosure of sibling sexual trauma–to focus enough attention on the child to recognize that their brain is unique. This video tells the story of a man who was a world expert on Aspberger's syndrome but did not recognize it in his own child until that child faced extreme adversities in adulthood.  

Additional Resources

What is Asperger’s Syndrome – ASD Level 1? – Dr Tony Attwood

Embrace Autism

Autism From The Inside - YouTube

Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Criminal Justice System

What is sexual consent? An Easy Read Guide from SARSAS 

SARSAS Easy-Read Self Help Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault

CHADD Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

ADDitude:Inside the ADHD Mind Magazine, Website, Resource

Claire Allely: Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Criminal Justice System