How Human Trafficking Targets Developmental Disabilities

Image credit: Reaching Victims

Human trafficking and developmental disabilities. Two topics I care deeply about, especially as one of them impact me personally. Human traffickers always target those with vulnerabilities. Anyone on the autism spectrum (or any intellectual disability) are in danger of being targeted by traffickers, as they can be more easily manipulated. 

What is a Developmental Disability?

According to, developmental disabilities are "a group of disorders that affect the development of children." The five types of developmental disabilities include the following: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Cerebral Palsy (CP), Intellectual Disability (ID), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Learning Disabilities (LP). Visit the link to learn more. 

The National Human Trafficking Hotline shared that from January 2015 to December 2017,  "2,116 potential victims that had a pre-existing health concern or disability immediately prior to their trafficking situation." It can only be assumed that these numbers increased during the COVID pandemic.

Why Traffickers Target This Group of People

As I have mentioned before, human trafficking victims have no specific gender or sex, but those with vulnerabilities are especially at risk. Those who come from foster care, abusive homes, or poverty are at risk. Those with these disabilities I listed are also at risk. Why are individuals with developmental disabilities targeted by traffickers? What's the appeal? Based on the research from the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center, here is why:
  1. Difficulty with speech or communication: Majority of people with a developmental disability like autism struggle with communication. It's common throughout the spectrum. Because of that barrier for speech, traffickers can use this against a developmentally disabled person, as they will struggle to reach out for help. You often hear the phrase "Trafficked victims suffer in silence." For those with a developmental disability, this is very literal.
  2. Poor social skills/craving human interaction: A person with a developmental disability, like autism, struggles to make connections. People with autism don't have that emotional connection to people, therefore making friends is extremely difficult. What do human traffickers do? Pretend to care about you and be your friend. Those who live in a controlled environment of being targeted, as that child/adult crave interaction. That child will make a "friend" online or through in-person interaction, and be put in great danger. The National Human Trafficking Hotline shared such a story, from an adult female with a developmental disability, who was trafficked by her "boyfriend" who used her fear of never gaining independence to get her to perform commercial sex.
  3. Lack of sex education: Many children with autism (as well as other developmental disabilities) struggle with touch. Because of this, they don't understand what constitutes a crime, nor don't understand how to object to the unwanted advances. This is largely because parents won't give proper sex ed to their kids, as a form of protection. To add onto this, people with autism who are sexually abused or trafficked are often ignored. Authorities or family members will assume it's just their autism (or developmental disability) that cause them to react that way as they don't like to be touched. 
  4. Require caregivers: There are many with a developmental disability who require constant care. Caregivers, whether it's a hired professional or family member, have an unequal balance of power over the person receiving their care, as that person is almost or completely dependent on them. This can cause a trafficker to take advantage, as they use that same authority and power of that person with a disability.  
This Issue Hits Home for Me

Why did I decide to discuss the connection between human trafficking and autism? Everyone knows I am an outspoken abolitionist on human trafficking, but regarding autism and any developmental disability, I take that personally. My brother is on the lower end of the autism spectrum. To know there are sick people not only trafficking and profiting from being able to manipulate the vulnerable, but there are sick people who are buying this, it's gut-wrenching to think about. This is an issue I don't see discussed enough.

Call to action

We should all educate ourselves on human trafficking, as well as recognizing the signs of human trafficking. There is a bigger call to action here, and that is to actually listen to what someone says. I know we live in an era of "Believe all survivors," but that has become politicized by the Left and the #MeToo movement. What I mean is take the time to listen to what a survivor says, especially if it's someone with a disability. More often than not, they are not listened to. Another action goes out to anyone who knows someone with a developmental disability. Teach them proper sex education, if that person has the mental ability to understand what you are teaching them. Education as well as proper vigilance are key to protecting those with a disability. We must work to protect the vulnerable.

Note: While I did include that many people on the autism spectrum do not know how to form emotional bonds, that is not to say they are unable to do so. For instance, even though my brother is on the lower end of the spectrum, he does form connections. He is extremely close with my sister and I, because he has known us better than anyone else. It's the same for many others with autism, no matter where they are on the spectrum.

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