The Autism Society of Oregon recently hosted a seminar on puberty and sexuality, and even though I had to drive 352 miles round-trip to attend, I made it a point to do so. I could not pass up an opportunity to obtain valuable information regarding this challenging stage of development.
The seminar covered strategies in dealing with puberty, teaching our ASD children about sex education, how sexuality develops over the span of childhood and teenage years, and why this information is important for kids with developmental disabilities to learn. Because such a wealth of material was presented, I intend to break up what I learned into several posts over the coming week or so.
“Nothing is delayed about puberty!” This was probably the most important point of the seminar. The second most important point was the distinction between puberty and adolescence. Puberty refers to the physical changes happening with the body, whereas adolescence pertains to the emotional and social changes in development. The two do not usually occur simultaneously with ASD kids. This important fact hit home with me. I thought about my son and how I had just assumed that because he was indicating an interest in girls that he had hit adolescence, and that is not necessarily so. I learned that he is probably indicating an interest in girls because he is reacting to his typically developing peers, whom he wishes to emulate. It doesn’t mean that he’s emotionally ready for it, even though his body is keeping up with the typically developing peers. In fact, I also learned that in some cases, puberty in ASD kids can occur earlier than in non-ASD kids. But adolescence usually occurs later. As one of the presenters aptly put it, “Adolescence is fractured from puberty.”
Some parents don’t want to think of their ASD children as sexual beings due to believing that they will be childlike forever. This is a common stereotype about people with developmental disabilities. Other stereotypes include assumptions that they are “asexual,” that they are unable to understand sexual desires, or that they have uncontrollable sex drives. Belief in these stereotypes discourages a perceived need for sex education. But without it, ASD kids are at risk for sexual abuse, inappropriate behavior in public, and possible diseases or pregnancy. It is imperative that our ASD kids are taught sex education at a level that they can comprehend, which can be accomplished by writing an IEP goal around Health/Human Sexuality Education. Of course, it can also be taught at home.
How do we do that? The short answer: Start young. The seminar presenters recommended starting off at an early age by teaching self-acceptance and an awareness of all body parts, including gender-specific parts. This also should include a talk about privacy and which parts should not be touched by others, etc. It is just as important to provide this information for ASD children as it is for typically developing children. They need to have this awareness. Even non-verbal children can absorb some of the information, and it may help to protect them. For their sake, we need to try.
Up next: What to teach during puberty – self-care and hygiene, personal space, masturbation, and appropriate levels of affection with others.