Sex education resources are easily available and accessible by the general population. It is even taught in schools so that children and teenagers know about the changes they will experience during puberty, and learn about good touch and bad touch. However, there are few programmes and resources available to teach those with autism about sex education because people with autism generally don’t take to social cues and peer expectations very well.
Talking to children and teenagers with autism about sexuality can be quite tricky because it requires you to be very direct about the information you want to teach. Beyond just passing on information, it also requires them to learn about values and social competence, both of which might be too abstract to teach in a functional way. Here’s how you can talk to your child about sex:
Personal space is a very abstract social norm that we learn from observing how people behave around us. Children with autism typically lack observation and social imitation skills, which can pose as an obstacle when getting them to understand the concept of personal space. You can teach them about personal space through telling them social stories, using pretend play to model appropriate distance when talking or playing with someone, or teaching them the “one arm length” buffer space. Remember to progressively fade off the one arm length once he/she understands social distancing so that it does not become a habit for them to put their hands out before they interact with someone!
Consent and staying safe from sexual abuse
Teaching consent is very important. Being unable to express discomfort, or not knowing personal boundaries might result in aversive situations. You can teach consent by teaching your child about good touch and bad touch. Good touch could include a pat on the back, touch on the forearms or hands. Bad touch includes all the private parts, between legs, thighs, buttocks, and your mouth.
You can assist your child in identifying these areas of their bodies by teaching them about body parts using charts similar to the one below. You can also ask your child to point these parts out on their own body and tell you if it's a good touch or bad touch area.
When they have mastered this, you can combine the bad touch with saying “no”, or asking for help. You can do this through the errorless prompting method: “Hey buddy, if someone touches your buttocks, what do you say? No.”. Your child will say no. “If someone touches your buttocks, what do you say?” This time your child should be able to say no on their own. You can also pair this with visuals where you point to the body part and ask them what they should say if someone touches them there.
Privacy, like the above, can be taught at a young age. Things like locking the toilet doors when they are peeing, showering or changing, checking if the windows or doors are closed when changing at home, or coming out of the shower wrapped in a towel or a bathrobe. Teaching your child about privacy at an early age will allow them to develop these habits and make it part of their routine as they grow older.
Periods and masturbation
For girls who are about puberty age, you can start introducing periods to them through social stories. These stories can include things like how they might feel (cramps, headaches, fatigue), what they can do, and the things they might need while on their periods. You can even start getting them accustomed to wearing sanitary pads first, and prompt them to change it every few hours so that when it finally happens, they won’t be too overwhelmed by everything happening all at once.
When teaching teenagers about masturbation, be very clear and specific about the rules on where and when they can masturbate such as home toilet, or bedroom toilet. Being specific prevents them from attempting to masturbate in public or school toilets where it may not be the most appropriate. You can even put up visuals at where it is okay for them to masturbate. Always remember to reinforce the desired behaviour. If you see them touching themselves at home, bring them to the toilet and reinforce that behaviour. If they are touching themselves in public, you can prompt them to put their hands in their pockets and reinforce that behaviour.
Sex might be a challenging topic to tackle for many, but it is a part of growing up. By introducing concepts like personal space, good touch, bad touch and the need for privacy at a younger age, it becomes slightly easier to teach your child about the other aspects of sexuailty when they grow older. Most importantly, remember to always be specific and do away with cute or abstract words such as “willy”, “bumbum”, or even “birds and bees”. Instead, use the right terms for it so that your children can learn too!
Written by Cheryl.