Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Autism, Adolescence, and Sexuality (by Kate Altman, M.S.)

The other day I had the privilege of speaking with two groups of parents at the Center for Autism. The topic? Autism, Adolescence, and Sexuality. Talking with a preteen or teen about topics like puberty, sexual feelings, masturbation, the opposite sex (or same sex, depending on your child’s sexuality) and so on, is never easy or comfortable for parents. Talking with a preteen or teen on the spectrum about these issues may be especially daunting and confusing.

Here are a few tips that I shared with the parents:

-Have the talk early and often. Even if your ten-year-old still spends most of his or her time talking about Sponge Bob, his or her body may already be changing…and he or she is probably noticing. You don’t want your child to feel confused and frightened by physical changes they aren’t prepared for and don’t understand (plus, no one ever said you can’t be into Sponge Bob and have age-appropriate sexual feelings). Also, make sure you speak with your child often about puberty and sexuality, and always invite them to ask any questions they might have. One conversation will not be nearly enough.

-When you talk with your child, use clear, concrete language and appropriate terminology (though you should teach them the slang too, so they will understand what their peers are talking about).

-Use visual aids. Don’t go in solo! There are wonderful books out there that you can read to or with your child to jumpstart the conversation. What’s Happening to Me?* by Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins is a good one with fun illustrations and understandable language.

-Teach your child the unwritten social rules around sexual behaviors. Becoming a sexual person introduces the need for a whole new set of social rules (for example, masturbating in private at home is okay; masturbating in public is not). Your child will become a sexual person, so it is important for you to help him or her learn to experience and express their sexuality appropriately. For helpful resources on approaching these issues, check out Isabelle Henault’s book, Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality* (despite the title, most of the information is helpful for all adolescents on the spectrum, not just those with Asperger’s Syndrome).

Looking for more information on this challenging and complex topic? Contact me at kate_altman@yahoo.com or (215) 592-1333 x 5.

*Both of these books are available on Amazon.com

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