How should I approach the topic of sexuality with my 13-year-old Aspergers son?
The subjects of puberty, relationships, and sexuality are major sources of anxiety for teens with Aspergers (high functioning autism). Sexuality is often a tough subject for moms and dads to negotiate, as well. They often take a neutral position with these topics, hoping their kids learn about relationships by example and that the heavier, difficult topics are taught in school health class. While this approach does not always end poorly, it is a recipe for disaster when Aspergers is involved.
Teaching your teenager with Aspergers sexuality and puberty information is crucial. This is not information you want him to learn from his classmates, or worse, by doing his own Internet searches. Mother/fathers of kids with Aspergers should start with the very basics of sexuality, and move on to dating and relationships, since the social ability of a person is so intertwined with their sexuality.
Here are several important points to consider when teaching your youngster with Aspergers sexuality, puberty, and relationship information:
1. Adolescents with Aspergers need sexual education. During puberty, adolescents with Aspergers will develop the desire for sexual interactions. It's important to be explicit about the changes in their body and their emerging feelings. Moms and dads may want to help adolescents feel positive about their changing bodies. However, subtle explanations about sexuality will not register or may be misinterpreted. To help the adolescent understand sexual boundaries, moms and dads or caregivers must give detailed instructions as to what's appropriate depending on the adolescent's age and social abilities. Books or videos that are age appropriate may help the person with Aspergers better understand sexual relationships and behavior.
2. Be frank and straightforward. Speak using easy to understand descriptions and correct terminology.
3. Intimacy can be a struggle. People with this disorder struggle with the back-and-forth nature of intimate relationships. Dating and courtship can be confusing, as they rely on so many subtle or hidden rules and meanings. A teen with Aspergers may find empathy a foreign emotion, causing the other partner to feel isolated and alone. With social skills training and behavior therapy, the skills necessary to achieve an intimate relationship are within reach.
4. Make sure the information you are sharing is age-appropriate. For example, you would be less detailed for a 9-year-old than you would for a 16-year-old.
5. Repetition is necessary when teaching kids with Aspergers. Short sessions repeated over time will work best on any subject.
6. Sensory issues may impact sexuality. Hypersensitivity or under responsiveness are common in adolescents with Aspergers. This can impact their sexual behavior, either reducing the desire to be close or causing them to be overly needy of sex. When it comes to sexual behavior, they may not understand boundaries or limits. Moms and dads may want to use appropriate visual aids to explain touching others inappropriately, keeping their bodies appropriately clothed and touching private parts in public.
7. Sexual relationships challenge adolescents with Aspergers. The subtle cues of dating and sexual relationships may be difficult for adolescents with Aspergers to navigate. The syndrome is commonly known by a lack of social awareness or skills, communication difficulties, obsession with a particular topic or subject and poor coordination. Their social skills may impact the type of sexual relationships they develop. There is very little research into sexual behavior and adolescents with Aspergers. However, most adolescents who suffer with the syndrome show interest in sex. Society's norms on sexuality will not be intuitive to the person with Aspergers. The subtle cues of dating and sexual relationships may be difficult to navigate.
8. Use visual aids, like books and videos to engage your teenager in the conversations.
* A word about Aspergers adults: Adults with Aspergers may present the sexual behavior of adolescents. Since Aspergers is a developmental delay, adults may experience sexual behavior similar to adolescents. They may be delayed in their social skills, which would manifest in their sexual relationships. These adults need to be made aware through observation or research which sexual behavior is age appropriate. Obsessive behavior is a symptom of Aspergers and may carry over to sexual relations. Also, some medications used to treat symptoms of the syndrome may also impact sexual desire.
On the issue of sexuality, there are two extremes, and you often find Aspergers teens clustered at both. On the one hand, there are the shy, prudish teens who consider it a big deal to unbutton the top button on their shirt or to wear shorts. At the other end, there are teens that think nothing of nudity and aren’t concerned who sees them. Surprisingly, there are also a number of confusing teens who flip back and forth between the two extremes.
Both types of Aspergers teens create social issues with the "prudish" type often being subjected to bullying over their appearance. They also often have problems attending gym class. These Aspergers teens often face longer-term life and relationship issues because social rejection in the teen years can often have lasting consequences. All too often, these teens have major issues with dating and with meeting others. In this regard, some of worst problems stem from their conservative dress sense and the fact that they would never set foot in many of the places where social activities are conducted (e.g., dances).
Not surprisingly though, it's the more "relaxed" types of Aspergers teens who tend to get themselves into the worst trouble. There's no mistaking the problems that girls who are just a little too forthcoming when talking about sexual issues or who flirt inappropriately attract amongst the less controlled members of our society. Male issues tend to be more likely to involve the police, or violence.
Your Aspergers teen’s tendencies will generally start to become obvious from an early age (typically around 5 or 6 years). One parent states, “My children are sent outside fully clothed to play, but frequently when I look out of the window, I see the discarded piles of their clothes on the ground and find them happily jumping around stark-naked on the trampoline where all our neighbors can see them. No amount of correction seems to get the message through. Even worse, they seem to have an unhealthy fascination with their organs and with ‘potty talk’ when their friends have mostly outgrown this.” The big problem with this delay is that it brings the parent uncomfortably close to puberty (a time when such frolicking and talk ceases to be innocent and becomes altogether more dangerous).
Like all teens, Aspergers teens are curious about their bodies and those of others around them. It's fairly normal for some younger kids to show themselves to others ("You show me yours and I'll show you mine"). Unfortunately, this is where the sexual and social delays and fascination with the wrong subjects can cause big problems. It is not uncommon for an Aspergers youngster to remain focused on the "show and tell" stage for much longer than their friends.
The other issue affecting teens with Aspergers is obsession. Aspergers teens are well known for forming fixations on objects, concepts and even people. These obsessions need to be monitored carefully lest they get out of control. It's not at all uncommon for Aspergers teens to develop sex obsessions, even without a partner. Most of these obsessions are perfectly safe behind closed doors, but if they are even discussed openly, there could be social problems (Aspergers teens have a tendency to say just a bit too much).
It's much more critical that “sexuality” gets discussed with Aspergers teens (versus teens that do NOT have Aspergers), because Aspies have more naivety and greater scope for trouble.
What exactly should be discussed?
Here are some ideas to help you, the parent, get started and keep the discussion going:
• Clearly state your feelings about specific issues, such as oral sex and intercourse. Present the risks objectively, including emotional pain, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. Explain that oral sex isn't a risk-free alternative to intercourse.
• If you're uncomfortable, say so — but explain that it's important to keep talking. If you don't know how to answer your adolescent's questions, offer to find the answers or look them up together.
• Don't lecture your Aspergers teenager or rely on scare tactics to discourage sexual activity. Instead, listen carefully. Understand his/her pressures, challenges and concerns.
• Let your Aspergers teenager know that it's OK to talk with you about sex whenever he or she has questions or concerns. Reward questions by saying, "I'm glad you came to me."
• Your Aspergers teenager needs accurate information about sex — but it's just as important to talk about feelings, attitudes and values. Examine questions of ethics and responsibility in the context of your personal or religious beliefs.
• When a TV program or music video raises issues about responsible sexual behavior, use it as a springboard for discussion. Remember that everyday moments — such as riding in the car or putting away groceries — sometimes offer the best opportunities to talk.
Be ready for questions like these:
What if my boyfriend/girlfriend wants to have sex, but I don't?
Explain that no one should have sex out of a sense of obligation or fear. Any form of forced sex is rape, whether the perpetrator is a stranger or someone your Aspergers teenager has been dating. Impress upon your teenager that “no” always means “no”. Emphasize that alcohol and drugs impair judgment and reduce inhibitions, leading to situations in which date rape is more likely to occur.
What if I think I'm homosexual or bisexual?
Some Aspergers teenagers wonder at some point whether they are gay or bisexual. Help your teenager understand that he or she is just beginning to explore sexual attraction. These feelings may change as time goes on. Above all, however, let your child know that you love him/her unconditionally. Praise your child for sharing his/her feelings.
How will I know I'm ready to have sex?
Various factors — peer pressure, curiosity and loneliness, to name a few — steer some Aspergers teens into early sexual activity. But there's no rush. Remind your child that it's OK to wait. Sex is a “grown-up” behavior. In the meantime, there are many other ways to express affection — intimate talks, long walks, holding hands, listening to music, dancing, kissing, touching and hugging.
If your Aspergers teenager becomes sexually active — whether you think he/she is ready or not — it may be more important than ever to keep the conversation going. State your feelings openly and honestly. Remind your teenager that you expect him/her to take sex and the associated responsibilities seriously.
Stress the importance of safe sex, and make sure your Aspergers teenager understands how to get and use contraception. You might talk about keeping a sexual relationship exclusive, not only as a matter of trust and respect, but also to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Also, set and enforce reasonable boundaries (e.g., curfews and rules about visits from friends of the opposite sex.
Your child’s doctor can help, too. A routine checkup can give your Aspergers teenager the opportunity to address sexual activity and other behaviors in a supportive, confidential atmosphere — as well as learn about contraception and safe sex. For females, the doc may also stress the importance of routine HPV vaccination to help prevent genital warts and cervical cancer.
With the parent’s support, your Aspergers teenager can emerge into a sexually responsible adult. Be honest and speak from the heart. If your teenager doesn't seem interested in what you have to say about sex, say it anyway. He/she is probably listening – if not to you, to someone else (who may or may not have good advice).
Do not hesitate to enlist professional help for your teenager with Aspergers. Sexuality can be a stressful, anxiety filled topic. Your teen’s doctor and/or psychologist can help you if you have difficulty. With the right resources and professional assistance, if necessary, you can successfully prepare your teenager with Aspergers for adult relationships.
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