Sexuality and Autism Spectrum Disorders
Let's get the obvious out of the way: students with ASDs grow up to be adults with ASDs. Many, if not most, will have the same urges, impulses, and desires as the rest of the adult population. And, though their parents and caregivers might not want to ponder this, the student with an ASD will experiment and eventually engage in romantic physical contact with another person. Some will get married as adults and have children of their own.
Teens are teens, regardless of any unique traits or challenges, and this topic can't be ignored, even if parents have wanted to avoid this topic for centuries. The best thing we can do is offer some advice to prepare young people to help them deal with emerging sexuality.
I'm only going to post a few thoughts for now, until the presentation is finished. I'll post the outline of the talk within a week for any comments and suggestions before the event. The comments are admittedly generalized, but might not apply to every circumstance. I do appreciate all children and teens are unique, so adapt this advice to your situation.
There will be significantly more detail in the eBook, where such content is more appropriate.
Q: When do we start talking about sex?
A: Elementary school, if not sooner. Children notice mom and dad are different, from mothers nursing to people wearing different types of bathing suits. Because children with ASDs tend to be literal, don't try to use cute metaphors or unusual words for real biological information.
In the early grades, explain that some parts are private. Don't merely give the explanation, "It's wrong for someone to touch you there." Explain that reproductive organs are special and should be protected. Yes, protected. I've found that language works well for many parents.
I've been asked why this is important. Now for a sad truth: students with disabilities, including cognitive and learning challenges, are more likely to be manipulated by predators of any age. I have visited schools where young boys in fifth and sixth grade were sexualizing and trying to "play" with the girls. You have to explain what is and isn't appropriate before there's a problem.
By late elementary, you should be explaining "where babies come from" in some detail.
Q: How blunt should I be with a preteen or teen?
A: Extremely blunt. Set real boundaries, with good explanations. Explain, bluntly, that only adults are ready to be parents. Stress this from adolescence through the teen years. Sadly, one of the most common lines used by same-aged teen predators is, "Don't you want to be a grown up?" That's followed by the, "You want to be my boyfriend, don't you?" Talk about such lines and why they are lies. Call them lies, too, because that's what they are.
Q: But I want to avoid scaring my teen about sex. Isn't that important?
A: I understand many parents want to talk about the importance and "naturalness" of sexuality. You do need to remember that your child might be socially vulnerable. It is essential to balance that vulnerability with your desire to be a "cool" or "open-minded" parent.
Get through friendship, crushes, and simple "dating" (like middle school movie dates) first. Your child first has to develop the social skills for building deep emotional relationships (ideally) before you deal with him or her having sex! Let's deal with the first kiss before condom questions.
Q: What about things teens try? You know… those things.
A: Everything from holding hands to kissing to masturbation is something you need to discuss openly with your teen. These talks aren't easy for any parent. You have to decide when they are appropriate discussions based on your child's particular social development. If he or she isn't dating, then long talks about touching aren't valuable. You need to talk about things before they happen, but not before the other "steps along the way" have occurred.
I'd discuss holding hands early, since students do that at school (even when it is banned). Before your preteen or teen as a "movie date" or attends a school dance, I'd explain kissing. Tell your child you only kiss certain people on the lips. Yes, that really is a conversation you might have to have. I've met a parent of a young teen girl who was letting "boy friends" kiss her at lunch. You can already imagine the horror of the parent. Don't overreact in such cases; the young girl didn't understand she was doing something wrong. She thought people liked her more.
Social naivete puts many students with ASDs at risk. Do not forget this! They really do need guidance, often more guidance than other teens. It is a challenge for parents and teachers, who are used to teens making and learning from mistakes.
I'll be going into far more detail in the eBook and at the presentation. Yes, tough topics.
Q: My teen doesn't have basic social skills. Do I really need to worry about sex?
A: Yes. Your teen is still living and participating in a highly-sexualized environment: school. Real friends and "friends" will be on their own sexual journeys towards eventual romance and love. Many, if not most, teens with ASDs want to be like other teens. Mimicry is how many of us survive in social situations, so we mimic the good and the bad behaviors of our peers.
Passing for normal can include engaging in behaviors we might not have an impulse to try, but many of us want to be accepted. I wasn't that interested in some things I did as stupid teen... from trying beer (still hate most alcohol) to cigarettes. Peer pressure is almost universal. As a teacher, I would have to admit things are much more sexualized at an earlier age today than in the 1970s and early 80s!
Q: Aren't some people with ASDs asexual?
A: Are you asking because you hope your teen falls into this category? Yes, some are "asexual" in that they do not have strong physical impulses. However, many "asexual" people with ASDs still seek out emotional connections and relationships. Even a non-sexual relationship has emotional depth and comes with all the standard risks of being hurt if it ends badly. All relationships are important.
These are just some of the questions I'll address.
I am preparing a slideshow and an eBook on this topic. Both the slides and the eBook will be freely available as soon as possible so everyone can comment on them and help improve the "v1.5" versions. I never consider any presentation done, since audiences tend to ask great questions I hadn't considered. The eBook will be in ePub format.