Special Needs

Children and Teens with Autism Need to Learn about Sex

| by William Stillman

Recently, I facilitated a discussion with a group of behavioral support staff about sex and individuals on the autism spectrum. Pairing those words together in the same sentence may seem like a typo or misnomer. Why on earth would anyone want to open up a discussion about people with obvious communication, physical, and social limitations and sexuality?

Isn’t it enough that those individuals, their parents, and caregivers grapple with a myriad of other obstacles everyday? When it comes to people with different ways of being and sex, we rarely want to “go there” in our thinking and our overview of what’s needed to support them, especially children.

But, guess what? We need to go there! We are all sexual beings—yes, even children—and we must prevail in creating an awareness of sexuality within the context of presuming the intellect of our autistic loved ones.

In my discussion with those staff persons, I supported them in deconstructing issues of sexuality in terms of a history lesson. Some of the staff were new to the field or quite young, perhaps unknowing of the lineage in which we’ve endeavored to serve persons with mental retardation and autism.

I suggested that, instead of 2007, we digress backward in time to 1957. I hypothetically stated that I was a twelve-year-old boy with autism; I asked the group to tell me about myself and my budding sexuality as follows:

-- Is autism my diagnosis? (Probably not, my label is likely to be “mentally defective.”)

-- Where do I live? (Probably not at home but in an institutional setting.)

-- Why am I there? (Someone convinced my parents that caregivers where better equipped to raise me.)

-- How am I learning about the changes occurring in my adolescent body? (I’m probably not informed about it, period.)

-- What happens if I’m caught touching myself? (I’m severely punished and told I’m a dirty, bad boy; perhaps I’m sexually restrained or confined from others.)

-- How do I learn about sexuality? (From rape and/or mutually-consensual sexual encounters with my same-sex institution mates and from sexual encounters with staff.)

-- Who is educating me about heterosexual relationships? (No one, the females live in buildings way across campus for obvious reasons.)

-- What if I’m female, and get pregnant from a chance encounter or I’m impregnated by a staff person? (My fetus is aborted and I’m sterilized.)

When we fast-forwarded the dialogue to 2007, we considered the propensity for teens with autism to become involved with the juvenile justice system because of sexual-related issues that are oftentimes the source of misunderstandings, miscommunications, or the accused lacking in adequate information.

When we thought about how those young people are sometimes treated within an unforgiving system, we realized that not much had changed in fifty years. One identified obstacle is that young children with autism are adorable—we want to cuddle them, pick them up and sit them in our laps. Those with autism often retain information by association in ways that are very literal and concrete; except what if I’m now thirty-two and I expect to be able to touch others in the same way I’ve been raised to believe is “normal.”

We’ve created a disservice—a sexual set-up—when we send mixed signals and change the rules without educating the individual, who is now reprimanded by inadvertently (or intentionally?) grabbing a caregiver’s breast.

In considering those with autism, it is unpresuming of intellect to believe that the autism label precludes those who experience it from also experiencing sexual thoughts, urges and desires. Instead, some parents, professionals and caregivers prefer the comfort zone of envisioning their loved one as a “perpetual child,” an innocent unaffected and untouched by sexuality—no matter the person’s age, be he twelve or thirty-two.

But it is unreasonable, even audacious, to presuppose the authority to regulate the sexual component of someone’s very humanity by suggesting that they “do as I say, not as I do.” This portends the notion that sexuality is a privilege held in reserve only for those who are conscious and aware, responsible and superior.

Children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum are entitled to information about their bodies, appropriate names of body parts and their function, sexual hygiene, and socially-acceptable sexual conduct. Fears and concerns cannot dictate selectivity in determining who can and who cannot receive this information with the same care and caution as would be shared with anyone to whom this material is introduced. It’s not only fair, it’s humanistic.?
©William Stillman (www.williamstillman.com)

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