Sexuality and The Autistic Teen
Any family with an autistic child wrestles with the behaviors that, to some extent or another, are symptomatic of the disorder. Parents and siblings cope with repetitive behaviors and emotional swings, with trouble communicating and developing social relationships. But, as the autistic child approaches adolescence, a whole new set of problems arises.
Adolescence is a period during which individuals learn about themselves as individuals and as social beings. A great deal of this learning takes the form of relationships with other individuals and groups that provide feedback, approving and disapproving. Teens mature, to some extent, as they learn to process these relationships and the feedback. For some, this process starts before 13 and for others it lasts beyond 19, but the process itself is understood to be stressful.
The teen years are a record of discovering “the other,” understanding that the individual is not the center of or measure of everything. Some of this passage occurs through sports or other forms of competition. They have to come to terms with a future that they have only so much power over. And, there emotions are stirred by strong friendships and relationships. They are confused and distracted by coinciding pulls to fit in and to their own person.
Physically, teenagers are changing in shape and body chemistry. They wrestle with instinctive needs and socially acceptable behavior. Hormones seek immediate satisfaction, but prudence manages the delivery. Their sexuality they are born with will be shaped by the environment they find themselves with, but it will not happen in a straight line development but an organic dynamic they can only understand in retrospect.
Autistic children suffer from a wide spectrum of difficulties, so it is difficult to pinpoint the problems they can expect during adolescence. But, by the time an autistic child approaches 13, the parents are well aware of the degree of his/her functioning level.
High-functioning autistic teens may attend school regularly, and many do well in honors classes. They may play sports and participate in many school activities. Still, they will usually encounter some problems in dating and other social situations. They made require training to social behaviors or personal relationships that usually come more easily to other teens.
For less able autistic teens, the same social relationships that can disappoint teens may prove traumatic. Peer isolation or rejection may reinforce habits of withdrawal and disengagement.
Schools in the United States are required to provide for the needs of such children, but they do this with varying degrees of funding and competence. Parents know they have to pursue resources, insist on support where available, and do the work themselves as often as not.
Autistic teens require some detailed orientation to school facilities. They need to get familiar with the plant, understand where classes and support are located, and learn the rules of cafeteria and locker room behavior.
- · Parents are advised to help their teen appreciate the need for personal hygiene and clothing choices, lest those issues contribute to their isolation.
- · Parents should explore the teen’s social relationships by meeting their friends, encouraging contact, and setting up socially acceptable environments, such as study groups.
- · Parents need to build an understanding of sexual behaviors. Autistic teens are not likely to pick up “the facts of life” from other teens or teachers. Double entendre and sarcasm are not easily grasped. Gossip and rumors have no tangible reality to the autistic teen, and they are not likely to differentiate between the talk and the fact.
- · Parents are advised to use anatomical language describing body parts beginning at an age appropriate to the degree of their child’s functionality. They should discuss appropriate touching and dressing and what to do if they are touched inappropriately. Masturbation or self-touching in public need to be addressed. But, since right and wrong may not be understood values, training has to be directed to reward and distraction.
- · Parents need to address certain behaviors daily. For example, they need to calendar work to encourage interest in others, discourage avoidance of others, and deepen their insight into their own problems. Autistic teens, unlike other teens, have little awareness that others think differently or separately from them. This makes them appear distant and rude.
- · Parents need to listen actively and creatively to their teen’s feedback on their behavior and that of others. They need to press to discover the teen’s fear and concerns.
Understanding that, while autistic teens are “behind” other students in peer and personal relationships, they develop sexually at the same rate is an important first step. There are issues that need to be addressed, partly, to allay the parents’ fears of pregnancy, public nudity, or inappropriate sexual contact.
Assessing what an autistic teen knows about sex may require the help of a professional, so parents may start with their child’s pediatrician and/or psychologist. Work with this consultant to create a program of behavioral training that addresses the teen’s specific needs. There is the story about the kid who asked where he came from, and after the parents went through an elaborate explanation of human sexuality, the child pointed out that all he wanted to know was where he came from because his friend came from Cincinnati. The teen does not need more information or more behavior than is appropriate to the issue at hand.
The best that parents can do it to be proactively involved, knowing that the parents of “normal” or neuro-typical teens, as often as not, do not act as accountably. There are many resources on-line and a of number to help. Parents might also remember that as many teens as not do not develop sexual relationships until their mid-twenties, and almost half are virgins until their early 20’s; such facts might reduce their personal stress. books
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