Onscreen text: Talking about sexuality: Teens with ASD
Dr Sonia Grover (gynaecologist, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne): The conversations with young people about sexuality ideally should be happening before young people have got partners and are thinking about intercourse.
Katharine Annear (disability educator who has Asperger’s disorder): I reckon it’s really important to talk to them, all teenagers, full stop, early as possible, in a way that they’re going to understand about the changes that are going to happen to their body, who they might be attracted to, be it a crush on a school teacher or a bus driver, right through to being attracted to same-age peers. Children and young people have to be taught that this is normal and that they will be sexual beings.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer (psychologist, The ASD Clinic): Clearly things need to be done in a slightly different way to what you would with, say, a normally developing 14 year old. Sometimes, doing things more in a one-on-one way using materials for a child rather than a teenager might be more appropriate. Most of them get there in the end, but it needs to be an ongoing chat. Just assuming that they know stuff like most other 14, 15-year-olds can be a big, big mistake.
Dr Sonia Grover: We need to be careful to acknowledge and recognise that not everyone is going to be heterosexual and make sure that the doors are open for all those discussions, and space for different approaches to life.
Katharine Annear: People need to know that sexual activity with themselves and the right person is completely OK. But they also need to know that there are right times and right places and the right people.
Kerryn Burgoyne (trainer and educator who has Asperger’s disorder): There’s books in the library that may help, which explain in picture format what a man and a woman do, and also how babies are made, and why they grow pubic hair, and why women grow breasts and why we all have to go through that stage.
Onscreen text: Talking about privacy and masturbation
Dolores (mother of James, 14, who is autistic): We did have issues very early on where he’d have his hands in his pants and want to do it all the time. It wasn’t even that he was doing anything, it just seemed to be good, that’s just comfortable. So, we went through that issue of, ‘Hands out of pants, hands out of pants’. Peer support helped because he knew he couldn’t do it there. School helped because they have a no touching policy and you’ve got to also keep your private bits private. So that was easy and we just sort of tended to say, ‘Either in the bathroom or in your room is where you can have your hands in your pants. Everywhere else, no’. And he took that on board pretty well.
Dr Sonia Grover: Sometimes when, particularly younger children, have got into a habit and they’re doing this more frequently, or are doing it when they’re bored, or are doing it when they’re stressed, that there needs to be a reward for not doing it and alternative behaviour options being put in place. ‘If you’re stressed, can we think of something else that you could do instead when you’re stressed, because what you’re doing is something that really would be better not done in public?’
Katharine Annear: There are some very excellent resources around that are actual people that teach young women and young men how to do things in the privacy of their own home. They’re not pornographic. They’re instructional videos about how to masturbate and how to have sexual intercourse, and how to go about it appropriately in a fashion that you’re not going to harm yourself, you’re not going to cause anyone else in your house trauma, you clean up after yourself, all that kind of stuff.
Nancy (mother of Andrew, 19, who is autistic): We also had some sign language introduced to him so that he knows when to stop, or not now. I also found it very helpful to talk to him in a very low voice. So if we’re in public I would just say, ‘We’re in public now. There are other people. Take your hand out of your pants’, and that works out for him.
Katharine Annear: From time to time I think parents and educators have to be prepared to be a little bit surprised by what happens. If your child comes to you with a wicked problem around sex, don’t freak out. You have to just say, ‘OK, well this is something we’re going to have to deal with, and we deal with it openly and get as much support as we can to do this now because this is something we can deal with now’.
Onscreen text: Talking about relationships and boundaries
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: Parents tend to be worried about one of 2 things - will he get a boyfriend/a girlfriend, or, he’s just so interested but doesn’t understand the boundaries.
Dolores: He has shown a little bit of an interest in one of the girls, only just that he says hi to her more than he says to the others. It’s very innocent. Really, it reminds me of like when your kids are just starting school and in kindergarten and they have that first little crush. I know he’s 14 but that’s what it’s like. It’s that real innocent, ‘I like her’, sort of thing.
Katharine Annear: A lot of young men that I’ve worked with, they have an idea about girlfriends and that idea is that they’d like to get one [laughs]. They’d like to get a girlfriend. I say, ‘Well, how are we going to go about this getting a girlfriend? They don’t exactly come on the supermarket shelf. It’s really complex to ask a girl on a date, or even just be friendly with a girl and say the right things that might impress her, or get her interested in you, or whatever’.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: You’re trying to give that message that actually it’s all about friendships and connection, because you’re not doing that so well yet, before we can get into higher forms of connection like having a girlfriend or a boyfriend.
Peter (father of Ellis, 13, who is autistic): The issue that he’ll have is the complicated interactions between the 2 people and the mixed messages about what other people are thinking or feeling, or what their intentions are. That’s hard enough as it is for normal people, so to speak, but I can see that being a real challenge for him.
Lillian (mother of Tash, 13, who is autistic): Relationships and personal boundaries is an interesting one and it is something that definitely has to be taught. That’s something that we’re definitely dealing with in puberty with her.
Kerryn Burgoyne: I would suggest getting some books from the library on modern relationships and explaining what the differences are in acquaintances, friendships, family relationships, like cousins, son, uncles, aunties, et cetera, and it’s OK to give them a hug or a handshake. Teach them how to have a handshake.
Dr Sonia Grover: I’d be a bit careful about making sure that you’ve left your options open because not everyone is heterosexual in their inclination, so I’m thinking be cautious about saying partner and that you may become interested in other people.