Bodies and body parts: helping autistic children learn about them
Learning about bodies and body parts helps autistic children understand and feel comfortable with their own bodies.
These tips can help you teach your child about all the parts of their body:
- Use everyday moments: for example, while your child is having a bath or while you’re helping your child get dressed are good times to introduce the names of body parts.
- Look at a book: you can use the pictures to help your child learn the names for the parts of the body and understand the differences between boys and girls.
- Sing songs: songs like ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ are a fun way for children to learn body parts.
- Play games: you can add naming body parts into a game your child enjoys, like being tickled – for example, ‘Now I’ll tickle your toes!’
- Use dolls with realistic body parts: you can name the body parts when you’re playing with your child.
- Colour a picture: your child might enjoy colouring pictures or doing drawings of different body parts while you label them together.
- Use visual supports and social stories.
When autistic children learn about all parts of their bodies, it can also make it easier for them to learn about their genitals. If you teach your child the names for genitals at the same time as other body parts, your child will learn that these are body parts too, just like toes and arms.
It’s best to use formal terms like ‘vulva’ or ‘penis’ when you’re talking about genitals. But it’s also a good idea to teach your child other informal names for body parts – for example, ‘boobs’ for breasts. Your child might hear these words at school or other places.
Boys’ bodies and girls’ bodies
Learning the difference between boys and girls and how bodies change as you grow up helps autistic children get ready for puberty.
Looking at pictures in books is a good way to start. When you look at the pictures, you can show your child the differences between boys and girls. You can also talk about the differences between a child’s body and an adult’s body.
You child might like to look at pictures of you at different ages, to see how people change from children to adults.
Autistic children can have a hard time imagining how something might apply to them, so it can help to talk about your child’s own body. For example, ‘When you get older, you’ll grow hair on your face like Daddy’.
Autistic children and teenagers might need longer to understand that their bodies will change in puberty. You can help your child get used to the idea by talking and preparing early.
Public vs private body parts
It’s important for autistic children to understand the difference between public and private parts of the body. This helps children understand what’s OK to do in private but not in public.
You might want to start with the idea of naked versus clothed.
Bath time is an ideal time to do this. It gives you the chance to talk about when it’s OK to be naked and when you need to wear clothes. For example, ‘It’s OK to be naked in the bath or shower’, or ‘I have to wear clothes when I come out of my room’. You could also use dolls or pictures to help.
You could also make a list with your child of when it’s OK to be naked in front of other people, or when it’s OK to see other people naked – for example, when your child is getting changed for swimming. This might be a written list, or pictures of places like the changing room.
You can also talk about what things are OK to do in public, and what you should do in private. For example, ‘When I go to the toilet, I should shut the door’.
Visual schedules can help with this. For example, you might have pictures of your child walking into the toilet, closing the door, using the toilet, washing their hands, and finally opening the door again and leaving. It’s a good idea to keep the schedule in a place that’s easy for your child to see, like next to the bathroom sink.
Personal boundaries and bodies: good touch and bad touch
You can build on your child’s understanding of bodies to help them learn about personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are limits and rules about how we behave around others and how other people behave around us.
Personal boundaries include rules about who can touch your child’s body and when. ‘Good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ can be useful ways to explain these rules to autistic children.
Touch can be good or bad depending on the situation. For example, your child’s doctor might need to check all of your child’s body parts, not just the public ones. Another example is hugs. A hug from a classmate is OK, but a hug from a stranger is not.
You might make a general rule that a bigger or older person shouldn’t touch a child’s genitals, which are private parts of the body, without good reasons. Good reasons might include keeping genitals clean – for example, when you wash your child in the bath. They might also include checking that genitals are healthy – for example, when a doctor checks your child.
Likewise, let your child know that a bigger or older person will never need help with their own genitals – for example, while having a bath or going to the toilet.
Visual supports can help you explain these differences. For example, you could use a picture of a hug from a friend with a green tick, and a picture of a hug from a stranger with a red cross. Clear photographs of appropriate behaviour and touching can also help.
Personal boundaries and bodies: unwanted touch
Some autistic children don’t like physical contact, and that’s OK. It’s good if they have the ability to express it appropriately.
Along with good and bad touch, you can also teach your child about unwanted touch. For example, if your child doesn’t want a hug from a relative, your child can learn polite ways to say no. These might include just saying ‘No thank you’, holding their hand out to shake instead, or holding their hand up for a high-five.
If you’re worried about offending family and friends, let them know that you’re teaching your child basic personal safety skills, including what to do about unwanted touch.
Personal boundaries, good touch and bad touch are important personal safety skills for autistic children. You can help your autistic child learn these skills by doing a circle of friends activity. A circle of friends is a picture that shows your child and the different people in their life.