Sexuality and Autism: Having “the talk” with your child
Having “the talk” with our children can be uncomfortable. Despite this discomfort, it is vital to educate pre-teens and teens about sex. While neuro-typical children may learn about sexual norms from friends, classmates, and educators, kids on the autism spectrum have some blind spots. Given their lack of awareness of social cues and sexual innuendo, speaking to them directly about sex is the best way to tackle this health issue.
Sexuality is an ongoing conversation, not something that takes place in a single evening. Some topics are best left for the pre-teens years, while others are appropriate as soon as your child can comprehend what you’re saying. Regardless of their age, the purpose of these talks is to protect your child, help them be socially appropriate, and give you some peace of mind.
Here are some basic topics to cover with young kids:
Good touch and bad touch (boundaries). Who they are allowed to touch and who can touch them. This may be a good time to discuss circumstances under which medical professionals can touch them.
Times when it is appropriate to undress.
Times when it is appropriate to touch themselves. Talking to your child about masturbation can be difficult but they need to understand the need for privacy. Even young children get pleasure from touching their genitals so talking about this openly and early is a good idea.
Since your goal is to raise a happy, healthy child, it is important to explain to them that the desire to be physically close to another person is something nearly everyone experiences. And the desire to feel good is also normal. However, the timing and circumstances of when this all takes place is the part that causes parents the most stress.
Here are a few suggestions on how to prepare for addressing this aspect of their sexual health:
Think ahead – be proactive. Teach these topics before you believe they are relevant for your child. Just because your son or daughter spends most of their time alone, online, or with your family doesn’t mean they aren’t getting sexual messages. I’ve worked with dozens of teens on the autism spectrum who love anime. There is tons of sexual content available in some of those programs. You want to be the main source of sexual information for your teen, not Japanese animators.
Be concrete – use appropriate words. This means to use “penis” and “vagina” rather than “wee wee,” etc. Also, refer to talks about sex as just that, “talks about sex” rather than “the birds and the bees.”
Be consistent and repetitive about sexual safety. This requires you to be mindful of how you talk about sex and sexual violence in the presence of your child. If you’ve stressed the importance of boundaries to your child but talk openly about a circumstance where someone was “asking for it” because of how they were dressed, you’ve undermined the message of sexual safety you’ve established with your child. You’ve indirectly given them the message that boundaries are not fixed but dependent on how someone is dressed.
Find someone of the same gender to teach the basics of safety and hygiene. If you don’t have someone you trust to help you with this, ask your child’s doctor or nurse if the topic can be addressed during their next check-up.
Strongly reinforce all appropriate behavior and redirect inappropriate behaviors. For example, if a child is likely to masturbate in class or in public, give him something to carry or hold to redirect their energy. And just as important, if you’ve noticed a positive change or single positive behavior, praise it!
Teens on the autism spectrum are just like neuro-typical teens: they have hormones surging through their bodies, which is going to lead to a natural curiosity about sex. While you (and they) can expect that they will have healthy sexual encounters in the future, their social circumstances may make them more vulnerable to negative sexual encounters. Attention from peers can be flattering when they’re not used to getting it and they may not be socially sophisticated enough to know that the attention they’re receiving is for the sole purpose of sexual activity. To help your child navigate this, in addition to discussions about safe sex and contraception, direct questions about new friends may be useful. Asking your child what they like about their new friend and how this person friend treats them is a good place to start.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who interacts with your child wants to use them. But acknowledging that this is something that could occur makes sense: violations of a sexual nature are the number one crime committed against and by individuals with disabilities. Giving your child direction and information about their sexual health and safety are key tools to help them navigate the world when they are out of your supervision.
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