Experts advise parents to begin teaching their young children on the autism spectrum about sexuality at an early age – five years ahead of when you think your child needs the information. Children on the autism spectrum learn from repetition, and starting early gives you and your child time to absorb these very important concepts and lessons.
Sex education for young children should be simple and to the point. The following topics are meant as guidelines for topics to discuss with children in preschool and elementary school:
- Body parts
- Boys vs. girls
- Public and private
- Appropriate and inappropriate touching
- Introduction to puberty/body changes
When discussing body parts, don’t use complex diagrams; instead choose accurate, simple diagrams which are realistic portrayals of the human body, including sex organs. As your child gets older, you may want to consider using real pictures, including pictures that show what males and females look like at different points in development (including variations in size and pubic hair). You can also use a hand held mirror to help find out if your child can name his or her body parts and genitals and tell you the function of each part. When talking with your child, use the real names of each body part instead of just saying “down there.” However, it is important, when your child is ready, to teach vernacular labels for body parts, so that your child understands what these are if and when he or she hears them.
In discussing the differences between boys and girls, discuss anatomical differences, but try to stay away from gender stereotypes. Make sure your child knows that it isn’t always easy to identify girls from boys; easy short-cuts, such as hair style, don’t always apply.
When discussing privacy issues, be explicit about your family’s values and rules, but also discuss social norms (particularly if they differ from those of your family). Discuss what naked is, where it is ok to be naked (certain parts of your home and at the doctor, for example), who can see you naked, what body parts are “private,” covering up before exiting the bathroom after a shower, and checking to make sure no one can see in when you change (doors closed/windows covered). If you teach your child about privacy at an early age, steps to maintain privacy (wearing a robe when you get out of the shower, for example) will become habits and part of your child’s everyday routine.
The conversation about appropriate and inappropriate touching can emerge naturally from your discussion about privacy. In addition to touching genitals, there are other inappropriate touches, including an unwanted hug or kiss. Be sure to discuss context with your child. This may be one of the most difficult concepts for your child to understand, but it is important that your child learn that what may be appropriate in one situation, may not be in another, even if the person is on an “approved” list.
Discussing these topics with your child on the autism spectrum will be complicated by language and communication problems and social competence. You will need to be accurate, concrete, and repetitive when teaching your child about sex. Just as in other areas of learning, break larger portions of information into smaller chunks and use visuals and even Social Stories™.
My First Human Body Book by Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver; Dover Publications, 2009. This is a coloring book that teaches all parts of the body and body functions.
Human Body Puzzle by Melissa & Doug. This is a 100-piece, double-sided, cardboard floor puzzle. One side displays the musculoskeletal system and the other shows the internal organs and the circulatory system.