CW: Sexual harrassment
For the purposes of this article, we will be using the real names of body parts and discussing sexual behaviors. We will be focusing on autistic children with penes specifically, but obviously this applies to any person.
One commonly asked question from parents, therapists and behavior analysts when talking to Neurodiversity activists turns to the age old question, “How do you stop an autistic teen boy from touching their privates?” This is often equated to a self-stimulatory behavior that a penis-having autistic does to self-regulate.
First, touching a penis is not a self-regulating sensory response. By reducing it down to this, we are making an assumption that the autistic person is not sexual and does not get sexually aroused. This is both infantilizing and inaccurate. It is important to note this. While there are asexual autistic people, and some information shows it is higher than in the general population, this is not true for every autistic person.
Second, if we presume the first statement, then we must recognize that stimulating a penis is inherently a sexual act even if it is not directed at a person. This is incredibly important to understand. Stimulating. A. Penis. Is. Inherently. A. Sexual. Act. Full stop. No matter the reason you attribute to it, this can lead to your penis-having autistic sexually harrassing another person, and they do not have that right based solely on being disabled. That’s both ableist and predatory.
Third, consent goes both ways. We teach the importance of consent to neurodivergent bodies. Autonomy is a human right, and we cannot have that without consent. That human right extends to all people, neurodivergent or not. It is incredibly important to teach all neurodivergent people that they have the right to give and withhold consent, but also that they must ask for consent from others. This is the most important for sexual interactions.
What can you do as a parent or professional?
- Above all, teach consent. Teach that your child body is their own and that other people’s bodies are theirs. Teach them to ask for permission before doing anything that impedes on the rights of others. Teach them they are allowed to withdraw consent whenever they feel uncomfortable and that others are allowed to do the same with them. A favorite in our household is “My body is mine. Your body is yours.”
- Teach them the correct terms for what they are experiencing. It’s not self-stimulatory behavior. It is sexual behavior. Allow for the fact that they are experiencing sexual arousal and that it feels good. This is not a problem for it to feel good. It’s what their body was designed to experience as part of their reproductive system.
- Teach them that all sexual acts REQUIRE explicit consent in the presence of others. If they are not of an age where it is appropriate for sexual relationships, then teach them that it is a private act to be done in private for their safety and the safety of others. “You can touch your penis, but you need to be alone in your room or the bathroom. And wash your hands after.”
- Reteach these lessons regularly. Expand on them as your child gets older. These talks can and should start when they are in preschool. They can be taught then reminded and referenced as the need arises. It’s not a simple fix. It has to be retaught and reinforced regularly because as a child grows older, exploration of sexual feelings is going to happen and is natural. If we do not teach it, the consequences are severe for both the autistic person and for people in the communities they live.
These are hard subjects for most to confront. Whether due to views on sexuality, due to infantilization of disability, or simply because it is hard, for far too long these issues have gone unaddressed. However, we must presume competence even in sexual behaviors and presume autistic people able to learn to be better, do better and be safe for themselves and others.