This is a post by one of my Spring 2013 interns, Rebecca. Find more posts from her and other current and former interns under the Intern Corner section. – Shanna
Masturbation and sexual violence in particular are two topics that can be especially challenging to teach but absolutely necessary.
Masturbation is normal for all individuals, regardless of developmental ability. The exploration of genitals and self-pleasure is a common human experience which generally begins in infancy. Individuals on the spectrum are no different. In fact, most individuals on the spectrum learn to masturbate on their own at some point in their life, however, many have trouble reaching orgasm during masturbation. The challenge to reach orgasm may become problematic for two reasons: First, it may result in ritualistic behaviors. Second, it may be the only realistic outlet for sexual release for some people with autism. If masturbation becomes a problematic behavior perhaps due to a lack of orgasm, check out The Center for Disability Information and Referral; they will be able to refer to informational videos about masturbating to orgasm.
Regardless of whether or not the behavior is ritualistic, a strict structure around masturbation is will help the individual to understand when masturbation is appropriate and when it is not. Designate areas where it is okay to masturbate. For example, an individual’s bedroom is generally a good option. Avoid teaching the bathroom as an appropriate place to masturbate because using the bathroom may become a stimulus to masturbate. Set up rules that designate an appropriate time to masturbate. Teach the individual that sometimes, masturbation is not an option. Provide the individual with alone time or private time and give them the tools (verbal, ASL, PEC, etc) to communicate their desire for private time. If this individual follows a strict schedule, incorporate private time into the schedule. If/when the individual requests private time, refer to the schedule reminding them when they will have time to themselves.
Part of the teaching process regarding appropriate masturbation is teaching inappropriate masturbation. When someone is engaging in inappropriate masturbation, interrupt the behavior by asking the individual to cease the behavior without emotional affect. Remind the individual of when masturbation is appropriate with whatever means you communicate (such as verbal, i.e. “private time in bedroom” or visual, i.e. image of their bedroom). Then redirect individual to an appropriate activity. Particularly successful redirections may include ones that require the use of their hands (bead work, puzzles, etc.) a physical activity (bouncing on a ball or trampoline), or one that requires a lot of focus for that individual. If their bedroom is available, you may redirect them to their bedroom. Be wary of redirecting them to their bedroom immediately because the individual may learn to request masturbation by engaging in it. Perhaps create a first/then demand i.e. first puzzle then private time, or have them engage in another activity and once engaged have them practice requesting private time appropriately.
Sexual violence is another challenging topic to approach. Although there is no absolute way to completely protect a person you love with ASD from victimization, there are steps that can dramatically decrease the likelihood of abuse. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests the following steps:
1. Teaching children accurate names of their private body parts.
2. Avoid focusing exclusively on “stranger danger.” Keep in mind that most children are abused by someone they know and trust.
3. Teach about body safety and the difference between “okay” and “not okay” touching.
4. Let children know that they have the right to make decisions about their bodies. Empower them to say “no” and determining when they do and do not want to be touched, even in non-sexual ways (e.g. politely refusing hugs), and to say “no” to touching others.
5. Make sure children know that adults and older children never need with their private body parts (e.g. bathing or going to the bathroom)
6. Teach children to take care of their own private parts (i.e. bathing, wiping after bathroom use) so they don’t have to rely on adults or older children for help.
7. Educate children about the difference between good secrets (like surprise parties – which are okay because they are not kept a secret for long) and bad secrets (those that the child is supposed to keep secret forever, which are not okay)
8. Trust your instincts! If you feel uneasy about leaving a child with someone, don’t do it. If you’re concerned about possible sexual abuse, ask questions.
Obviously many of these lessons depend on the developmental abilities of the individual and some of these are unrealistic for some individuals. Adaptations can be made to communicate these messages. Additionally, supporting a school or program in their efforts to make an individual with ASD as independent as possible (eating, bathing) is critical. Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, by Feather Berkower is an absolute must read for every parent (present or future) and caretaker. Although her books targets prevention techniques for parent’s with typically developing children, many of the concepts and ideas are applicable to those with ASD. Feather will completely blow your mind and change your concepts around what prevention work means. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
Sexual violence in the neurologically different population is happening at astounding rates. Additionally, individuals on the spectrum who have been abused may engage in abusive behaviors towards younger siblings or ASD peers without an understanding of their actions. There are steps to protect the ones we love on the spectrum from suffering in this way. In fact, individuals on the spectrum should instead be given the support to live happy and sexually liberating lives! May we move in that direction.
*Peter Gerhardt does fabulous work regarding the intersection of autism and sexuality. Much of the information in this blog came from articles he has written and lectures he has given at conferences. For more information I recommend a quick google search on his name. Lots of quality information will pop up. Also, don’t forget to talk to talk to the therapists, caretakers, and teachers in your life. They too may have some fabulous suggestions in this arena. Why not make this this education process a team effort. Two heads are (almost) always better than one!