Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sex Education for Kids and Teens with Autism and Asperger's: A Conversation with Sarah Attwood

Puberty and sex can be tough for any parents to discuss with their
children, but it's important. And for kids, preteens, and teenagers
with autism and Asperger's, sex education is vital. Kids on the autism
spectrum may be less socially sophisticated than peers, but their
physical development will progress regardless if they, or their
parents, are ready to handle the changes. For your child's safety and
happiness, parents need to put aside any reservations and start
discussing sex!

Today, I'm talking with Sarah Attwood, the
author of Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and
Relationships for People with Asperger's Syndrome
. (Jessica Kingsley
Publishers, 2008) Ms Attwood has been a sexuality educator in Australia
for fifteen years, and has worked extensively with parents and their
preteen and teenage children.

Patricia Robinson: Sarah, your
book is different than other sex education books because it's
specifically written to adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome. How is
the information in your book tailored specifically to those on the
autistic spectrum? What do you think are the special concerns and
issues of teens with autism and Asperger's?

:You're quite right, Patricia, that young people on the autism
spectrum are going to go through the changes of puberty in exactly the
same way as all other people, and for this reason they need exactly the
same information as everyone else. However, the nature of autism and
Asperger's syndrome means that there are some specific issues which
usually aren't addressed in regular puberty books, and that's why
Jessica Kingsley asked me to write Making Sense of Sex.

Lots of regular puberty books use contemporary language - 'teen talk',
if you like - and while this can be fun and amusing, it isn't always to
everybody's taste, so I decided that it was more important to treat the
subject with respect, and use a straightforward, factual tone
(hopefully not too deadly serious, however!). I took into consideration
that most people with ASD enjoy facts and appreciate being able to
apply logic, so I have always explained 'why' as well as 'what'. An
example of this is when I discuss hygiene (an issue for a lot of
adolescents, whether or not they have ASD!). I explain EXACTLY what
causes body odour, which bits of the body are affected most
specifically, the reasons why it is important to wash regularly (health
as well as social reasons), and exactly HOW to wash. I don't assume
knowledge or make generalisations that can be misinterpreted. Because
of the love of knowledge that most people with ASD have, I have
provided plenty of facts. For example, the usual rule in sexuality
education is to avoid giving young people any sort of hang-ups by
giving facts and figures regarding penis size; it's standard practice
to say something like 'Whatever size your penis is, is exactly right
for you.' This isn't clear enough or reassuring enough for young people
on the autism spectrum, however. So I have given specific measurements
of both flaccid and erect penises (of fully grown men), and plenty of
other reassuring facts about penises, so that there is no room for
confusion or doubt.

I have also been careful throughout the
book to use correct terminology, with a view to modelling this so that
adolescents know how to talk about sex in a respectful way, and can
make themselves understood. There is a whole chapter dedicated to
the subject of sexual language (including slang), as young people with
ASD so often miss out on what is current because they aren't included
in teenage groups.

There are some social issues surrounding
puberty that can be veritable minefields for young people with ASD, and
which are often not included in any detail in regular puberty books -
namely, the rules that surround sexual behaviour (especially public vs.
private behaviour, body parts, places and language); friendships;
coping with teasing, bullying and peer pressure; and handling strong
emotions (a particularly important issue for people on the autism
spectrum). So I have included whole chapters on these subjects, with
some specific guidelines, laid out in dot point format for easy
reference.  All young people need someone they can turn to when they
have questions or anxieties, and research shows that most youngsters
would love to be able to talk to their parents about sexual issues.
Many don't, however, often due to their parents' discomfort with the
topic, instead turning to their friends for information (or
misinformation). Adolescents on the autism spectrum may not be able to
turn to a group of friends, so it is absolutely vital that parents
and carers fulfil the role of mentor. There is no place for
squeamishness or embarrassment - parents and carers MUST educate
themselves and be there for their child. Throughout the book I make
reference to the young person's social mentor, and give many pointers
as to the role this person may take in terms of providing reassurance
and guidance, giving accurate information, and helping with friendship
skills and emotion management.

At the end of the book, I
provide quite an extensive list of resources, both for parents and for
the young people themselves. Some of these are specific to people on
the autism spectrum and some are mainstream but still very relevant.

The book is illustrated with diagrams and cartoons to provide both
detailed information (anatomical drawings etc.) and fun ways of viewing
some of the points made in the different chapters. I hope these
illustrations make the book more accessible and reader-friendly.

Patricia Robinson: Thanks for your comments!