Sexual Awareness and Autism
Sexual curiosity and behaviors within young children are an important part of development whether the child
has autism or not. The curiosity ranges from questioning, to looking at others, to “playing doctors” to
imitating adult sexual behavior. In the early years, we give children information on being a boy or a girl. It is
also helpful to give them correct names for their body parts including penis, vagina and anus. These terms
should be taught using relaxed and open language. Through all these phases the child is learning more about
his/her body which is a positive approach to self esteem and learning to have respect for their own body as
well as others.

Children will fondle themselves during early childhood. Not responding to this behavior is fine in the early
years. As more children with autism are integrated in the community, access to sex education becomes
essential for them to understand the sexual standard established by society. Training, guidance and support
are needed for parents who desire to be the primary sex educator for their child with autism. Sexual
awareness is normal. Sexual feelings are normal, and there are many ways of expressing one's sexuality. If a
person has a disability, it does not change any of this.

People with disabilities are sometimes harassed and treated as less than someone without a particular
disability. This can have a deep impact on the individual's self-identity. Often, people with developmental
disabilities feel they are bad or that something is wrong with them. In addition, they can feel that their
normal sexual feelings are also bad or wrong. Humans' sexual drive is a natural process; it is not optional.

Masturbating

Masturbation is an issue that can present behavior problems at all ages. Masturbation is a form of self
stimulation common in autism.  Stimulating activities that are pleasurable are common in autistics.
Interacting with children on the autism spectrum who masturbate can provide additional concern as the
behavior often occurs in inappropriate situations. For the parent it can cause concern in being able to explain
and guide the child to understand that there is a time and place for private acts.  In addition, this kind of
behavior can create strong emotional reactions from adults due to the sexual and moral beliefs.

Children with autism don’t understand that masturbating in public is improper they may need constant
reminders and repeated interruption. In managing this behavioral issue it is important to take each child and
his/her behaviors in perspective and respond according to your familiarity of the child and situation. It is
important to be creative in your approach and open to learning from the child and yourself. It is normal for
all children to explore their bodies. Masturbation is a normal part of life. Some children have learned to
comfort themselves by touching their genitals and will use this at sleep times, during stressful periods,
changes in routines, environment and additional changes occurring within the family such as a new baby in
family, or moving to a new house.

Redirecting Masturbation

Remember that children who are very young are primarily pleasure-seeking beings, and almost all of their
behavior is intended to meet that goal. And young children learn ways to soothe themselves. Stimulation of
the genital area can be one of those ways. Because you don't want it to develop into a habit pattern, it is best
to distract the child, but in a casual manner. There is really no need to 'set limits' around the behavior, but
interrupting it by redirecting and distracting can be useful.

Rules and limits are a part of life. Children need these to help keep themselves, others and the environment
safe. Guidelines establish clearly for children what it is you want them to do. Example: Rule. “Don’t run
inside” is translated to Guideline “we walk inside”. These same principles apply to children who masturbate
at inappropriate times. The development of proper behavior occurs over a period of time with repeated
reminder of rules and limits established. Depending on the skill level of each child the rules and limits are not
necessarily changed but presented and re-enforced in ways that allow children to understand and take part in
the process of enforcing the rules and limits. This process is an important part in the development of
children's social skills, communication and being a valued member of society.

In some cases, children with autism, succeed on consistency of behaviors, rules and routines. As long as
the adult is constant with the rule and what is said, the learning often is accomplished and the child will be
able to comply with the requests given.
These aspects are normal for all children but may be emphasized for a child with autism due to the specific
behavioral characteristic the child may display. If the child is masturbating in his/her room or in a private
manner it seldom is a problem. Each child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will be different and
individual.

The following strategies are just some examples which may be useful to support the behavior guidance
process. This list is only the beginning and it depends on a variety of factors such as environment, length of
time child is in care, child’s interest, likes, dislikes, skills already achieved. The strategies are divided into
developmental areas however some strategies overlap and assist in a variety of developmental areas.

Helpful Strategies

•        If the child is verbal, does he/she ask specific question about body parts, reproduction or intimacy. If
so aim to respond accurately and appropriately to child’s developmental age. Avoid using nicknames about
body parts and keep answers brief and simple.

•        Observe the child when the masturbation occurs to assist in what may trigger the behavior e.g. end of
day, at rest time, anxiety, separation from parent, being excluded by other children, noise level of
environment.

•        If the child is masturbating in front of others respond “You have found that feels good but it is also
something that is special and private. I would like you to wait until nap time or when you are at home”.

•        Provide the child with other ways to comfort themselves such as carrying a cuddle toy, manipulating
clay or other sensory materials.

•        Aim to interrupt the behavior without showing emotional reaction.

•        Redirect the child to an activity that will distract them from masturbation.

•        Ensure that the child’s clothes are comfortable and not too tight, too loose or curled in order to avoid
the child’s attention to the genital area.

•        Ensure that all caretakers are consistent with the response and redirection to where everyone uses the
same words each time.

Some individuals with autism may need specific instructions about social expectations. Some manners, ways
of expressing, or sexual etiquette may not have meaning for them in the same way a person without autism
might experience them. For these individuals, it is important to provide them with an abundance of
information about social rituals and restrictions. Role playing, discreet reminders when in public and
observation are all helpful.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise, so do the growing demands for services
by families. However, little attention has been given to simplify parents' understanding of their children's
emotional and behavioral characteristics of sexual development. While increased public awareness of the
impact of autism has led to the advancement of many family-centered services to help parents, there is still a
shortage of support services to teach parents how to address the growth and development of sexual
behaviors of their children with autism.

There appears to have been little research into the sexuality of people with autism. Regardless of what we do
not know, it is clear that many people with autism do have a sex drive and express it through solo
masturbation, exactly like the majority of adolescents. As parents, it is critical that we give our children a
loving understanding of human sexuality. If we give them the message that their sexuality is special and
natural, then they will have some information with which to balance the conflicting messages they may
receive from the beliefs of society.
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