Monday, December 13, 2010

Spectrums: Sexuality and ASDs (Kate Altman, M.S.)

One of the (many) neglected areas in ASD research and literature is the subject of sexuality and adolescence. Topics like puberty, sexuality, and related social development, can be difficult for any teen and their parents, but may be particularly confusing and overwhelming for families with teens on the spectrum. These areas are broad—too broad for a single blog post—but it is important that therapists, parents, and even teachers of teens on the spectrum think about how to handle them.

Homosexuality and bullying have been a (sadly) hot topic in the news in recent months. We know that kids with ASDs are often no stranger to bullying and teasing, but we may not always consider that they are also thinking about and struggling with their sexual identities and feelings. Interestingly, some prominent therapists and theorists who focus on teens with ASDs (such as Tony Attwood) have noted, anecdotally, that teens on the spectrum may be even more likely than “neurotypical” teens to explore and question their sexuality. Teens with ASDs may be less likely to conform than other teens, and so may be more likely to explore and entertain non-heterosexual thoughts, feelings, and activities (there is no research evidence to support this claim, that I am aware of at this time).

One of the risks of such self-exploration is not the exploration itself, but teens with ASDs may not protect themselves enough from their peers. One young man I know who has Asperger’s Syndrome, felt that he was attracted to another young man. Therefore, he immediately changed his Facebook status to “Interested in Men”. His classmates noted the change and started asking him questions and making comments and generally referring to him as gay. Luckily, he was not bullied and did not perceive being teased. But he was surprised and confused when he was unexpectedly thrust into the role of “the gay guy” in school. He had not realized that declaring he was “Interested in Men” on his public Facebook page would pigeonhole him as gay in the eyes of his classmates, and he was not at the stage of his sexual identity development to confidently assert he was gay.

What can therapists/caretakers/parents do to help? We must initiate and keep up a running dialogue with kids with ASDs about sexuality and related issues. These areas can be confusing and awkward for teens, and, even more so, for their parents, but the dialogue is crucial. I have told parents of pre-teens: “It is not impossible that your son still has an obsession with SpongeBob AND confusing, complex feelings about his body and sexuality. In fact, it is likely.” If you need help, don’t be afraid to call for backup: seek guidance from a counselor/therapist or another trusted adult in the teen’s life.

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