A person who is autistic and has a functioning libido will have difficulties expressing his or her sexuality in an appropriate manner. Matters of disease prevention, sexual abuse, birth control, and behavior management are difficult to explain to a young person, or an adult, who struggles with understanding concepts. As with the other things in your child’s life that you have had to take control of, if his autism is severe enough to limit his judgment, you must take control of his sexuality as well. If it is any consolation, it will be harder on you as a parent than it will be on your child. No one wants to deny their child a life full of love and experiences, but sometimes it is the only choice available.
“Informed consent” between two adults is the generally accepted measure of whether a sexual activity is appropriate. Understanding what informed consent is will help you as a parent to assist your child as he grows up. Informed consent cannot happen unless an individual has several qualities:
- A person must be able to communicate to another person the word or the meaning of the word “no.”
- If a person is given different choices, she must demonstrate her ability to make a choice based on the information she has.
- A person must understand that there are appropriate places and times for sexual behavior.
- A person must be able to understand and detect danger and threats in order to react properly.
- A person must understand the word “no” and be able to cease an activity if told to do so.
There are many more factors involved in determining a person’s ability to make an informed choice, but if these are not skills a child has, he is not capable of making sexual decisions for himself. And even if a child communicates well and clearly, social interactions may still be beyond his grasp. Saying “no” does a person little good if they don’t know when to say it.
Although there are many behaviors that can be considered inappropriate, none upset people quite like those behaviors that are sexual in nature. Because of inappropriate behaviors, the deficit in social skills is even more evident and isolating for the person with autism. Children become aware at very young ages that it is inappropriate to touch other people in certain places; a child with autism does not have that built in control and if curious may reach out to touch a body part of someone out of curiosity. This is particularly common in adolescent boys attempting to touch a woman’s breast. Dealing with these behaviors when a child is young is important so that they are not a problem when a child becomes an adult.
This is a difficult subject for parents. When they discover their child with autism actively masturbating with not the least hint of discretion, they wonder how to handle the situation. To keep a proper perspective on this activity, remember that all children masturbate. Neuro-Typical (NT) children just aren’t caught doing it. Children with autism have no inhibitions, because they are unaware of the social taboo against masturbating in public.
The mistake that parents will often make – and it is an easy one to make – is when they find their child masturbating in a public area. Their goal is to stop the behavior immediately, and they will usually shout or sharply pull their child’s hand away. That does stop the behavior, but it also sends a message that sexuality and the human body are bad or dirty.
Your goal should not be to stop the behavior, but rather to redirect it to an appropriate time and location. Masturbating in the middle of the living room is not appropriate, and redirecting your child to his or her bedroom (with a closed door) will solve most of those public displays. Keep in mind that people with autism are dictated by the structure of their routine. If they are taught that their bedroom is the only acceptable location for self-stimulating behavior, they will adhere to that routine.
Inappropriate Touching of Others
The majority of paraprofessionals that work with students with autism are female. Females are also still in a majority as caregivers, whether it be at home, day care, or in other environments that care for children. A young boy with autism who has raging hormones in his system may not understand that touching others in a sexual manner is not acceptable. Do not be surprised if you find out that your son has tried this. You may get a note from school that says, “Your son copped a feel today,” which is a quote from an actual school note received by one parent.
This behavior is not malicious or intended to degrade. Your child has no idea that it is unacceptable to touch another person inappropriately. The behavior must be stopped. It may be somewhat humorous when a ten-year old child does it, but if it’s allowed to continue, it will not be nearly so funny when he is a thirty-year-old man.
Generally, the situation will resolve itself. A girl is less inclined to engage in this behavior. And when a boy crosses the line, a woman’s natural reaction when touched inappropriately will generally solve the problem; most males do not enjoy a slap across the face. The most important thing that parents and school personnel can do is teach your child that this is not allowed in any circumstances so that the behavior is not a problem when the child is too big to redirect him. It is much easier to modify behaviors in a child than it is to change those same behaviors in an adult.
Teaching your children about inappropriate sexual behavior is difficult because obviously you are not going to demonstrate. There are books for very young children that have drawings geared toward children who might not understand the language, which might be helpful. The goal is to help your child with autism learn to control his sexual behavior in a way that will keep him safe.