Responding to disclosure

As a parent, it’s natural to worry about your child growing up, developing into an adult and becoming ready to take on the world.


As a parent, it’s natural to worry about your child growing up, developing into an adult and becoming ready to take on the world. When your child has an intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder, these worries can feel overwhelming, particularly if your child requires a lot of support or uses non-verbal communication. Many parents are concerned about how their child will be able to tell them if something is wrong, and how they can respond in a supportive way.

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It can be really hard for parents to know what is and isn’t considered abuse, what signs to look for and how to respond. Abuse can look different depending on the individual and the situation. Abuse can include things like:

  • hitting, punching, kicking, shaking, biting, pulling hair
  • inappropriate kinds of discipline including withholding food or removing essential equipment
  • sexual contact by force or by coercion
  • verbal taunts, humiliation, intimidation and insults (bullying)
  • withdrawal of love/affection, emotional support or contact with friends and family
  • spending a person’s money on items that do not benefit the person (including gambling or misuse of NDIS funds)
  • limiting access to food, clothing or personal hygiene
  • limiting access to appropriate health care, or medical treatment
  • restrictive practices e.g. locking someone in a room, requiring constant monitoring/surveillance or forcing someone onto medication for behavioural management

Some people may display physical or behavioural signs when something is not quite right. These might include:

  • physical injury such as bruising, bite marks, pressure marks
  • fear of being with a particular person or excessive compliance with staff
  • increased irritability, aggression, anxiety or depression
  • changes to eating and sleeping habits
  • irritation or injuries to private body parts
  • sexualised behaviour
  • self-injury
  • fear or aggression during personal care
  • excessive compliance
  • loss of social or communication skills
  • frequent drowsiness, hunger and low hygiene

While these signs can indicate abuse, it’s important to note that a person may show some of these signs for other reasons including medical issues and changes to routine. Any sudden and extreme behavioural or physical changes in your child should always be investigated with your doctor.

It can be overwhelming and upsetting to think about how you would respond to a disclosure or evidence of abuse, whether it be your child or another child you know. It’s important that when a disclosure is made or evidence is noticed that a report is made to ensure that the child is safe and supported.

Try to:

  • remain calm and in control
  • reassure the child that they have done the right thing by telling you
  • listen carefully to what the child is telling you
  • reassure the child that you believe them
  • report exactly what has been disclosed to you as soon as possible (see below for services that can assist you)
  • if the child is non-verbal, use writing or drawing to assist them in communicating
  • document the facts about the situation in a diary or a secure computer document. This will help to reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation and assist in communicating information

If you believe the child is in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation call 000 and ask for the Police

It is extremely important that you do not:

  • push the child to disclose more details than is absolutely necessary
  • ask leading questions or attempt to investigate yourself/confront people involved
  • ignore the child

It is also important to take care of yourself when responding to abuse. This can be extremely stressful and upsetting for parents and it is important to make sure you are in a good space to be able to provide support.

If you need to, allow yourself to take some time, take a break to process the situation and to calm down before continuing the conversation. See the self-care page for more information about looking after yourself.

If you have reasons to suspect a child is experiencing harm or at risk of experiencing harm, contact an authority in your state or territory and talk to them about your concerns. If they are in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation call 000 and ask for the Police.

ACT – Office for Children, Youth and Family Support

NSW – Family and Community Services (FACS)

QLD – Department of Child Safety

SA – Department of Child Protection

TAS – Department of Health and Human Services

VIC – Department of Human Services

WA – Department for Child Protection and Family Support

NT – Territory Families

Conversation Starters

I’ve noticed that you don’t seem very happy at the moment; can you tell/show me how you are feeling?
What do you think is the difference between a “surprise” and a “secret”?

Strategies for you to try

Keep an open line of communication with your child and encourage them to feel safe in telling you things

Get to know the people who are supporting your child and communicate with them regularly about any changes in mood or behaviours

Avoid talking about ‘secrets’ and instead talk about ‘surprises’. Surprises make people happy when they find out, they don’t last for very long and knowing about them doesn’t make you feel bad. Secrets exclude others, can cause others to be angry or upset when they find out and they might last for a long time. No one should be asking your child to keep a secret.

Teach your child about safe people and tricky people

Teach your child that they own their body, which body parts are private and the anatomically correct names for their private parts

Teach your child to “NO, GO & TELL” – if someone tries to touch them in a way they don’t like and/or tries to touch their private parts, say/sign no and go and tell a safe adult.

Recognise changes in behaviour and signs of abuse. Ensure that any physical signs are documented and accounted for and behaviour changes are monitored

protect from abuse

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Introduction to puberty for girls
Responding to disclosure

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