The Birds, The Bees, and Autism

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that autistic adults are at greater risk of sexual victimization and indicates lower levels of sexual knowledge than their typically-developing peers.  The study revealed that 78% of the participants on the autism spectrum reported at least one instance of victimization versus less than 50% of the non-autistic control group.

The survey-based study asked participants a range of questions regarding unwanted contact, knowledge of reproductive health, contraception, and sexuality. Compared to the control group, the ASD participants were also found more likely to turn to the Internet and television for sexual information rather than their parents, teachers, or peers.

The best way to safeguard our children against sexual victimization is through education, but having “The Talk” with a child with autism can be even more difficult and awkward (especially for the parent) than what’s already an uncomfortable rite of passage for any parent. That’s why we’ve pulled together some basic tips to help you keep your autistic children safe by talking to them about sex.

It’s an awkward subject, which is why we often use euphemisms and metaphors to talk about sex, especially with children. For a child with autism who is extremely literal, however, talk about birds and bees and flowers and trees can be extremely confusing and lead to difficult misunderstandings. That’s why it’s very important to always be as clear and specific as possible. Think about how your child may interpret your words before you choose them. Preparing your son for his voice to change and get deeper like Daddy’s will probably cause less anxiety than bracing them for their voice to “break.”

Be open to any questions and ready to answer clearly. If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, be honest – don’t make guess or make something up. Simply answer, “I’m not sure, why don’t we look that up together?” Your child may ask awkward questions at inappropriate times, so get the whole family on board with the stock answer, “That is a good question, but we’ll talk about it when we get home.” Just be sure to talk about it as soon as you get home so your child continues to go to you with their questions.

Start the dialogue as early as possible by talking with your child about their body and any questions they may have. You want them to feel comfortable talking with you, get used to coming to you with their questions, and develop an awareness of their body. This will help pave the way for the puberty talk.

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with transitions and need more time to adjust to changes than their non-autistic peers. That’s why it’s important to start preparing your child for puberty early. Discus the changes they will experience as clearly and calmly as possible to minimize their anxiety when it happens. Again, be prepared for questions beyond the standard, “Why?” and know how you will handle questions you don’t have answers to.

Don’t be afraid to use pictures (that you deem appropriate) if your child is a visual learner. Remember, you are doing this to protect them. You can show your child pictures of you from infancy to adulthood and notice and point out the more obvious ways that you have changed as you grew up. The idea is to introduce them to the notion of physically changing in a way that isn’t scary. You can also use basic outlines of the body to assist with more intimate lines of discussion.

Talk to your child’s teachers and school. Find out what and how they will handle sexual education every year so you can make sure that home and school explanations and terminology are consistent.  You may determine that the school’s curriculum isn’t paced appropriately for your child or that it assumes more prior knowledge than your child is prepared with. You may need to supplement the school’s lessons by helping your child understand them on a deeper, clearer level. Children with ASDs may need to understand why we have to bathe every day before they accept it. Also concepts like friendship and appropriate behaviors may need to be clarified at home.

Don’t be afraid to get your pediatrician involved in the conversation. They are already experts at not being embarrassed by awkward conversations and this will help prepare your child for future examinations and conversations about contraception and sexual health.

Building your child’s understanding of private vs. public behavior as well as appropriate behavior for both themselves and others can be a bit tricky. Set guidelines about whom your child is allowed to discuss certain subjects with and start to introduce the idea of private vs. public spaces. Let them know what behaviors are only acceptable in the bathroom or the bedroom and when it’s necessary to knock before entering a room.

It can be painful to see our children grow up, and it is a natural instinct for many parents to maintain their children’s innocence and avoid awkward conversations by keeping them in the dark about sex-related issues. For children with autism, that darkness can be a very dangerous place. Misinformation or inappropriate relationships are readily available on the Internet, so be sure to set filters and blocks to safeguard your child while online. Also monitor their computer usage and check their browser history – this may help you understand what information your child is looking for and ensure you are the one to provide it. Keep your autistic child, teen, or young adult safe by always knowing where they are and whom they are with. Always be ready to field their questions, and never be shy about asking them questions. By establishing open and clear communication with your child about their body and sex, you are paving the way for a safer future.