Teaching sex and sexuality and boundaries around masturbation to those with autism ASD

How do I teach sexuality to a person with ASD?

Sexuality for those on the spectrum can be a heated topic. We have a hard enough time talking about appropriate behaviour and boundaries around sex and sexuality even as adults, let alone to children who might have issues around general appropriate behaviour and boundaries to begin with. Common issues around inappropriate sexual behavior are: inappropriate touching of others, excessive masturbation, masturbating in public, dangerous forms of masturbation, masturbation that doesn’t result in climax increasing frustration, public nudity, discussion of inappropriate topics at inappropriate times, and a lack of knowledge on how to navigate sexual feelings and urges. So how do we deal with growing hormonal feelings and establish ground-rules for children on the spectrum?

Yes it’s uncomfortable, but this is just another skill set you need to help your child master

Sexuality and masturbation are taboo subjects in our society, but like many social skills they need to be taught to our kids on the spectrum explicitly. Try not to be embarrassed about having to deal with these subjects in a more head-on way then you might be comfortable with. Like toileting, sexuality is a very important skill to master in order for a child with ASD to find future independence and be included in the world around them.

Start Early

Start teaching sexuality early. Also “think it forward”. What I mean by this is it can be cute to let a preschooler run around naked when at home, but what happens when this becomes a habit that is hard to break as the child ages? I know someone who made this mistake with her son, allowing him to be in underwear and a T-shirt when he was at home. Now the rule is pants are on until it’s time for bed. There was too much self-touching with just underwear on.

Look for teachable moments and use appropriate language

Look for teachable moments rather than sitting down and having “the sex talk”. Use correct terminology and forgo the cute words like willy and wee-wee. The initial reaction you have to questions and statements from the individual is critical in creating an open dialogue. Try to remain non-judgemental. Communicate with the team around the person with ASD, letting them know family values, religious beliefs, and rules. There is a misconception that talking about sexual feelings will create them; this is untrue. Sexuality is a normal part of being human, disabled or not.

Teach rules and skills

For children that are concrete thinkers, teach rules and skills. Many individuals with ASD follow rules well and understand those types of boundaries. Make sure everyone who works with that child knows the established rules as well. You can teach the “why” behind the rule if the child is at a higher social-cognitive level. Keep in mind the cognitive level when teaching concepts. Does the person understand abstract concepts? Can they apply what they’ve learned in books to real life? Think about how the person learns best: using computers, through visuals, reading, video modelling etc.

How to deal with masturbation?

Let’s talk about masturbation, one of the frequent concerns surrounding sexuality. Be specific about when and where masturbation can happen. If you say it’s OK in the bathroom, the person with autism may take that to mean any bathroom (school, mall, grandma’s house). Say which bathroom is fine and which ones are off limits. Same goes for bedrooms – which ones, with the door closed, and shades drawn if the window faces the street. When can masturbation take place? What materials can be involved (i.e. lubricant, ejaculating into a towel).

Do some detective work on when masturbation is a problem. If it’s attempted at school or work, is it to avoid a task or seek attention? Recognize when it happens and see if it occurs within the context of another activity. Teach the rules around masturbation and reinforce behavior that you want instead of masturbation when it isn’t appropriate. Consider clothing modifications like belting pants, no sweat pants, and check for medical problems if masturbation is occurring frequently.

For young people that are sexually frustrated, provide assistance in the form of instructional how to videos, lubricants, or appropriate sex toys. Provide alternative sensory input such as deep pressure or a tactile activity like a stress ball. Use a “how to” visual task breakdown of masturbation with pic symbols showing the steps involved. An OT should be able to provide some ideas.

Find “safe people” for the person to talk to about sex

Establish a safe person for the individual with ASD to talk to like a sibling, friend or other family member. Talking to parents can be hard no matter who you are. Monitor also what the person is watching. Are they learning inappropriate sexual behavior from TV, movies, or music videos?

Teach the Circle of Friends to deal with inappropriate touching

To address the inappropriate touching of others, teach the Circle of Friends. Categorize who gets hugs and kisses and who gets a hi-5. Make others around that individual aware of what you’ve taught regarding Circle of Friends. Don’t assume that all touching is sexual in nature; it can be a need for sensory input. This is also true of nudity. Disrobing may be a need to get out of restrictive clothing or bothersome fabrics or clothing tags.

Special thanks to Treena Gower of the Society for Treatment of Autism – the information I outlined here was given in one of her helpful and informative talks.

Recommended Reading 

The Boys’ Guide to Growing Up

The Girl’s Guide to Growing Up: Choices & Changes in the Tween Years

Intimate Relationships and Sexual Health: A Curriculum for Teaching Adolescents/Adults with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Challenges

It’s Perfectly Normal – Updated Edition

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