15/09/2015 14:10 BST | Updated 15/09/2016 06:12 BST

The Fight Against Child Sexual Exploitation Mustn't Forget Children With Learning Disabilities

Recent scandals in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere have brought the issue of child sexual exploitation to the forefront.

The country has rightly been shocked to hear that thousands of children across the country are being sexually abused. As leading children's charities, Barnardo's and The Children's Society have been at the forefront of the campaign for an overhaul of the system to prevent such horrific crimes from ever happening again.

Some progress has been made since then, and although there is still much more to do, there is now some support in place for victims to help them deal with the impact of abuse and to cope and recover. Government funds have also been invested in identifying young people who are at risk of sexual exploitation, to avoid it happening in the first place.

Yet thousands of especially vulnerable children at risk of sexual exploitation are not on the authorities' radar when it comes to tackling this abuse.

We recently launched a new report - 'Unprotected, Overprotected' - in partnership with Comic Relief, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD), Paradigm Research and Coventry University. It reveals how children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children. They face additional barriers to their protection and to receiving support.

Most shockingly, we found that significant numbers of children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected. This lack of protection is largely caused by the false perception that they, unlike other children, do not need sex and relationship education or accessible information about how to keep safe online and as they go about their daily lives.

Many of these vulnerable children are particularly hidden because few of them meet the high thresholds that services put in place to decide which young people they give support. There is also a worrying lack of awareness that young people with learning disabilities are being sexually exploited - or face an increased risk - and there is a lack of specialist services. This is ultimately leading to a failure to implement existing national and local policies.

It is absolutely crucial that governments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland ensure that accessible and relevant sex and relationship education is made available to children and young people with learning disabilities too.

More training for professionals is also desperately needed and services across the field must work together to better prevent, identify and provide effective support for these children.

But this alone is not enough. There needs to be more awareness that children with learning disabilities are being sexually exploited. Parents and communities as a whole need more information and support to help them keep these children safe.

Each and every one of us can help to protect children with learning disabilities, but as a society we must be prepared to fundamentally change our attitudes and approach to how this group of young people are treated and supported. Only then can we take the necessary steps to protect these children and make sure that no one uses their disability to sexually exploit them.

Javed Khan is chief executive of Barnardo's

Matthew Reed is chief executive of The Children's Society