The birds and the bees and adolescents with autism

Dr. Peter Gerhardt was a speaker at the 2nd International Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders which I attended at the National University of Ireland Galway earlier this week. Dr. Gerhardt  is a specialist in adolescents and adults with ASD.  He has over 30 years of experience using Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) to teach adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders.


In one of the conference workshops, he focused on sex education for children with ASD.

Because of the language, communication and social deficits that people with ASD have, sex education needs to be adapted to fit the unique needs of young adults with ASD.  His workshop at the conference focused on sexual safety and social issues related to sexuality and advocated for an ABA approach to sexual education for children with autism.

I have summarized some of his main points below.

SEXUAL SAFETY
Sexual abuse is common among adolescents with ASD.  Therefore, it is extremely important that children be educated about what is and what isn't inappropriate touching.  Children need to understand that not being touched is a right.  They need to understand who can and cannot touch them. Most importantly, children need to be taught when and how to say no and that secrets about being touched are not okay!   Many children with autism have difficulty recalling events so parents need to practice having their children tell them if someone touched them and where they were touched.

Children with autism need to be taught basic skills like locking the bathroom door particularly in a public place and what activity is appropriate in a locker room at school or at a gym. Even at home, children with ASD need to have rules regarding where they should be dressing. For example, when they were younger and had a bath they may have walked around the house half naked.  Now as adolescents that type of action is not acceptable. After they have a bath or shower, they need to be taught that they shouldn't leave the bathroom without getting dressed or putting on a bathrobe. If they are getting dressed in their bedrooms, they need to understand that the door, curtains and/or blinds should be closed to protect their privacy. For girls with ASD, it is important that they understand who can and cannot help them with menstrual care. 


SEXUALITY
Dr Gerhardt emphasized that like all people, those with ASD are sexual beings and should be taught what they need to know to have a sexually healthy life. Some adolescents with ASD may show more interest in sex than others which is normal.

One issue that children with ASD often have is trouble with the concept of personal space. As we grow older, our personal space increases and most normally developing people automatically understand this.  Parents need to make sure that children with ASD understand how personal space has changed from when they were younger and that they need to respect other people's personal space.

Dr Gerhardt emphasized that sexual education for people with ASD needs to be:

Simple
Visual
Individualized
Repetitive
Concrete

He gave a few examples which demonstrate how difficult an issue sex education can be for children with ASD.  One example was the term "girlfriend". Children with ASD need to know there is a difference between a girl who is a friend and a girl who is a girlfriend.  Another example given by Dr. Gerhardt was the use of slang terms to refer to body parts.  Children, at an age appropriate time, need to understand what slang terms like "pussy" and  "balls" can mean otherwise they will think a pussy is a cat and balls are toys you play with.

Dr Gerhardt recommended that parents and/or educators make their own materials for use in sexual education. He suggested that medical photos of actual human body parts would be more effective for adolescents with ASD than diagrams or illustrations.

He also warned that if children with ASD access porn on the internet it can skew their perceptions of what is and isn't appropriate sexual conduct.  

Dr. Gerhardt was a funny and informaive speaker and I would highly recommend you see him speak if possible.  

I am listing some links to material from Dr Gerhardt that will provide you more information on this important topic.

http://www.howard-autism.org/docs/Workshops/Gerhardt.pdf

http://autism.about.com/od/transitioncollegejobs/f/sexed.htm

http://card-usf.fmhi.usf.edu/conf_files_07/Sat_BO2_Track3-Sexuality_and_Sexuality_Instr_(Gerhardt).pdf



©Mary M Conneely T/A Advocacy in Action

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