Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault

supportSAsurvivorIt can be overwhelming to hear that someone you care for has been sexually assaulted or abused. This person needs your support and friendship now more than ever, and you want to be helpful – but what do you say?

It’s important to first understand that every survivor is different, and the effects of sexual assault can vary with each individual. Some survivors experience physical reactions, such as changes in sleep or appetite. Some may appear “jumpy” or on edge. Many exhibit emotional reactions, such as crying or expressing anger, while others may look more stoic.

Your loved one may experience some combination of these effects, or none of them. There’s no “wrong” reaction to being violated.  Whether the survivor in your life is a friend, family member, or partner, there are some things you can do to try to provide comfort and support.

Things to Say to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor:
  • “I believe you.” Survivors often do not tell people what happened in valid fear that they won’t be believed. Even if parts of the story sound unclear or strange to you, do not question your loved one. That’s the job of the police, if the survivor chooses to contact them. Your job is to be supportive and understanding.
  • “It’s not your fault.” Nobody ever deserves to be treated in this way, and it’s never the survivor’s fault. Don’t come to the perpetrator’s defense, or attempt to understand why they did this, even if you personally know them.
  • “Thank you for telling me.” Whether the assault happened recently or years ago, it takes a lot of courage for the survivor to tell their story. You can provide safety by acknowledging their trust in you.
  • “I love you. I care about you.” Survivors often worry that their loved ones will see them differently. They frequently blame themselves for the assault, and feel unworthy of others’ care. Reassure them that they are loved and valued.
  • Nothing. Sometimes, simply being present and providing a listening ear is more helpful than trying to find the right thing to say.
Things to Do to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor:
  • Have patience with the healing process. It can be difficult to watch your friend struggle with the effects of sexual assault. You don’t want this person to hurt anymore, so it may seem tempting to push them towards recovery. However, your impatience could make the survivor feel ashamed, or worry that they’re bothering you. Be helpful by reminding your friend (and yourself) that healing is a long process, and doesn’t happen in a straight line.
  • Meet your loved one where they are. If they’re feeling upset and want to talk, be available to them. If they’re tired of talking and want to do something else, respect that as well. Continue to invite your friend out for fun activities as you normally would, and express understanding if they turn you down.
  • Ask how to be comforting. Some survivors may really want physical touch in the form of hugs or hand-holding, but others may feel uncomfortable with it. When in doubt, ask your loved one what would be helpful to them.
  • Avoid saying that you understand exactly how the survivor feels. It is wonderful to have empathy and compassion for your loved one, but that doesn’t mean you know exactly how they think and feel. Even if you are a survivor yourself, every situation and experience is different, and so are people’s responses to those experiences. Let the survivor tell you how they feel.
  • Know your own limits. You might be a really supportive friend, but you’re not that person’s therapist, and it’s not fair to them (or to you) to put pressure on yourself to fix their problems. Be realistic about how much help you can provide. If you believe your loved one may need professional help, gently suggest the idea, offer to help find someone, and then allow your friend to make their own decision about it.
  • Take care of yourself. Hearing that something awful has happened to someone you love can bring about many feelings. You may find yourself feeling angry, sad, guilty, or helpless. If you are a survivor yourself, you may also be feeling triggered. All of these reactions are normal, but still deserve to be processed. Seek frequent support from a therapist or other loved ones. Remember that in order to effectively care for someone else, you must first care for yourself.

Survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones are welcome to contact Austin Family Counseling in order to be connected with a knowledgeable and caring therapist. For safety-planning, information, and support, the RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) website and hotline (1-800-656-4673) are also helpful resources.

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By: Amanda Robinson, LPC, RPT


Autism Spectrum Disorder: How You Can Help (Part 2)

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When people think of various services for people with autism spectrum disorder, they most often think of professionals who are board certified behavior analysts, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, etc. While that is certainly correct, counselors can be overlooked–which they absolutely shouldn’t be.  Counseling can be beneficial for a number of reasons when working with people on the spectrum–after all, they are people too and have everyday issues like neurotypical people.  

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By: Julie Burke, LPC-I
Supervised By: Susan Gonzales, LPC-S

What Does Counseling Look Like for Someone on the Spectrum?  

Counseling can help an individual:

  • Work on self-esteem, self-advocacy, and increased autonomy
  • Assist with social interactions
    • Nonverbal behavior
    • Eye contact
  • Social communication
    • What small-talk is and how to participate in it
    • Interpersonal communication
  • Determining strengths and how to utilize them

That is a short list of what counseling can look like–there are many other topics that are helpful to explore.  

“It is never too late to expand the mind of a person on the autism spectrum.”Dr. Temple Grandin

Counseling can also be incredibly helpful for people who are not on the spectrum, however, are impacted by someone with autism–for example: caretakers, parents, siblings, etc.  Often, parents can feel helpless and/or confused and in need of direction and siblings can feel resentment or confusion about their brother/sister.  

Needless to say–a lot can be done.  

But I’m Not a Counselor…What Can I Do to Help?  

Help can look like a variety of things!  For example, it’s important not to focus entirely on someone’s deficits.  It’s easy to focus on things someone cannot do, but that is wholeheartedly unfair and does not give credit where credit is due. Rather, do what you can to provide support for people–accommodate deficits as appropriate and help people on the spectrum succeed.  If you are stuck trying to get someone on the spectrum to complete something they just cannot (or will not) do–take a step back and determine if this task is important for you (or the individual) and realize if you’re trying to force someone into something they aren’t or can’t be.  While accommodating deficits can (and is) beneficial, it’s also important to hone in on a person’s strengths and help individuals practice tasks that exploit their strengths as much as possible.  

On a broader level, however, there are a ton of opportunities for outreach.  April is National Autism Awareness Month.  During April, the general goal is to gain increased: awareness, action, inclusion, acceptance, and appreciation for individuals on the autism spectrum.  This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • “Light It Up Blue” Campaign
    • Click the link to learn what “Light it Up Blue” (or LIUB) means!  Wear the color blue on April 2 and check out different buildings across the world (including the Empire State Building and the Doha Tower) as they go blue!  
  • Put on the Puzzle
    • The Autism Awareness Ribbon is the most recognized symbol of the autism community.  The ribbon has different colored puzzle pieces all over it; the colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families affected with autism while the ribbon signals hope.  
  • Increase your awareness by reading a book or watching a movie
    • Autism in Love is a great documentary about the lives of different adults and the challenges they face in life (in general) and when looking for love.  
    • Books by John Elder Robison or Temple Grandin are both great resources and insight from two adult individuals who are successful and living with the spectrum.  There are also great children’s books too.    

Needless to say, a lot can be done.  A diagnosis of autism can be scary, confusing, and even overwhelming for all people involved (eg: the person with autism, parents, siblings, caretakers, etc.) but there are great resources and people who care out there.  

For information about the diagnosis itself, check out Autism Spectrum Disorder: What You Need to Know (Part 1).  


Autism Spectrum Disorder: What You Need to Know (Part 1)

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April is Autism Awareness Month and April 2, 2017 was the ninth annual World Autism Awareness Day.  In an effort to increase awareness and advocacy of what autism is and how beneficial counseling can be for individuals (or family members impacted by someone) on the autism spectrum, it seemed appropriate to share this knowledge.  

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By: Julie Burke, LPC-Intern Supervised by
Susan Gonzales, LPC-S, LMFT-A

When reading this, if the following sentences are the only ones that stick with you and help you gain insight when living, working, or interacting with someone on the spectrum, then I have my done job as the author of this blog.  If/when you (or a loved one) is diagnosed with autism, do not get stuck in “label-locked thinking”–do not get invested in the word “autism” and what that means to you, your neighbor, or society.  Do not focus solely on the diagnosis itself–rather, focus on the symptoms that exist as a result and how it is best to handle those symptoms and what is best for the person.  

What Exactly Is Autism?  

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that generally appears in the first three years of someone’s life.  It is considered a spectrum condition because it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees; once you’ve met one person with autism, you have done just that–met ONE person with autism.  Generally, people who have ASD have difficulties with communication, behavior, and social relationships; behaviors associated with autism include, but are not limited to: delayed learning language, difficulty making eye contact, narrow and intense interests, poor motor skills, and sensory sensitivities.  

A person on the spectrum may exhibit all of these behaviors–or none–and from person to person, the severity of it can differ significantly.

Facts & Figures from the Autism Society and Autism Speaks:

  • About 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder.
  • Prevalence in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 births.
  • Boys are nearly 5 times more likely than girls to have autism.
    • Approximately 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls have ASD.
  • More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities in the United States.
  • There is no medical detection or cure for autism.
  • Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
What Are Sensory Sensitivities and What Do They Look Like?

Sensory issues can manifest in different ways…there are different categories of sensory issues.  Someone on the spectrum can display:

  • Sensory seeking behavior–which may lead to inattentive or over-focused behavior
  • Sensory modulation–through either under-responsiveness or over-responsiveness with movement sensitivity and/or extreme taste/smell sensitivity

It is important to be mindful that, often times, when people on the spectrum are experiencing various sensory issues/sensitivities, a common response is to zone out and/or pull away–which may be perceived as rude or being inattentive, however, that is not the intent of the person at that point in time.  Rather, they are trying to process their surroundings and do what they need to do for themselves at that point in time.  

Types of Sensory-Related Issues:
  • Visual-Processing Problems:
    • People with these types of sensory sensitivities may…
      • Flick their fingers near their eyes
      • Avoid fluorescent lights
      • Dislike multicolored floor tiles or anything that forms a lattice or grid
      • Dislike things that move rapidly or unexpectedly
    • Helpful tips for people with visual-processing problems:
      • Experience with different pale-colored sunglass lenses to protect eyes from various sensitivities
      • Wear a hat with a brim if you’re under fluorescent lights
      • Print reading material on colored paper that does not have significantly contrasting colors
  • Auditory-Processing Problems:
    • People with these types of sensitivities may…
      • Cover ears around loud sounds
      • Have difficulty hearing hard consonants (and may hear vowels more easily)
      • Have a strong, negative reaction to certain words
      • Cannot hear when there is background noise
    • Helpful tips for people with auditory-processing problems:
      • Wear earplugs in noisy places
      • Loud sounds may be better tolerated when they are expected or if someone is well rested and not tired
  • Tactile Sensitivity
    • People with these types of sensitivities may…
      • Only wear certain articles of clothing or want to take off all clothes
      • Seek deep-pressure stimulation
      • Pull away when hugged by a familiar figure
    • Helpful tips for people with tactile sensitivity:
      • Providing various pressure-giving objects (eg: weighted blanket or vest) or firm massages –if wanted/needed
      • Try to make clothing more comfortable (eg: remove tags, try to make it as soft as possible)
  • Olfactory Sensitivity
    • People with these types of sensitivities may:
      • Avoid or be attracted to certain substances and smells
      • Throws a tantrum in the presence of some smells
    • Helpful tips for people with olfactory sensitivity:
      • Be mindful and aware of smells & scents that cause strong reactions
  • Taste Sensitivity
    • People with these types of sensitivities may:
      • Eat only certain food
      • Avoid food with certain textures
      • Only eat food that are a specific color
    • Helpful tips for people with olfactory sensitivity
      • This can be a struggle because if someone is adamantly opposed to trying or eating a specific food (or color of food)–sometimes people have to get creative with their ideas.  Sometimes consulting with other professionals (eg: dietician) may be the best solution.  

It’s also important to reiterate–a person on the spectrum may display some, all, or none of these sensory sensitivities and if they do, it can be to varying degrees.  The examples above are a little more obvious (and perhaps extreme), but a general awareness about them can be helpful.

For information on how counseling can benefit people affected by autism spectrum disorder or how you can help, check out Autism Spectrum Disorder: How You Can Help (Part 2).  


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