This table details the frequency of domestic violence offenses in the state of Utah in 2012.
The above table focuses in on violence toward family members in Utah in 2012.
I start with these statistics to point out the reality that our children live in. These are numbers from the state of Utah taken from the 2012 Utah Domestic and Sexual Violence Report (link here). I feel we often forget that the world can be a tough place and our students and children live in it. Now think about navigating this reality while lacking the social skills to interpret whether situations are risky or benign.
An Educational Aside
So, I was speaking with a parent of an autistic student I work with and they suggested I write a post about the conversations I have with students, because I do not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics. I thought about what she said a lot and I realized I am unique among a lot of teachers because I am willing to talk about things like puberty, sexual orientation, creepypasta, depression, or suicide with students and I do it with a nonplussed expression that gives the students a sense of calm, or at least a perception that I am in control and not surprised by their questions. This is very important as often times high emotional valence can be a punishing stimulus for anxious kids, particularly anxious autistic kids. So a flat, unsurprised face and calm tone of voice is just what the kids need to be confident in seeking help and answers.
I feel this is an overlooked yet important role for a teacher. A number of students of my acquaintance were moving down a potentially dangerous trajectory had they not sought my advice. Any time I see students starting down a tough path I want to intervene before they go so far they reject help. Looking back, I really fear how some would have turn out had I not taken the time to help them get a grasp on their own thoughts and feelings in those moments.
What do I mean?!?
Obviously, if I can refer any student to a school counselor, school psychologist, or social worker I do. I do not seek out difficult conversations with students. It is always best practice to refer these conversations to the professionals. And I urge anyone that is confronted with one of these tough conversations to at least get a social worker or a counselor involved. These conversations are not easy to have and these professionals can at least mentor us in how to approach the dialogue, if not take the burden away from us altogether.
During my teaching career I have learned that these conversations have a way of hunting me down. Over the last few years, I have found that when I build a rapport with an autistic or disabled student I turn into the only, or one of the very few, adults they feel doesn’t lie to them or treat them like a baby.
So…when they have something on their mind, they ask. And here is the important part, they ask me because they feel they might get an answer. They want an answer. Often this question has been consuming their mind for some time.
Crucial Conversations – How to Begin
I refer to these as crucial conversations based on the self-help book of the same name. These are often conversations that require a certain level of care and skill because the stakes can be high. The student is craving an answer, and they are listening intently. So, if we mess up during our part of the conversation, the student will remember and the impression will stick with them.
Here is my approach when a student clobbers me with a difficult conversation starter:
- When a student asks a hard questions, I take a moment and think. Reflect on the question. Make sure I understand exactly what the student is asking.
- Do not be afraid to ask the student to clarify their question.
- Do not be afraid to sit and listen to the student as they talk.
- Listen with an intent to understand what the students are saying, not with an intent to provide a response.
- Whan answering, be clinical. Use facts, not opinions. Use as dispassionate of language as possible, particularly if the student is highly emotional or agitated.
- Never argue with the students.
- If the student wants information I cannot give them, I don’t. I also tell them why. But I respectfully decline to answer. I refer them to other trusted adults, particularly parents.
- Do not be condescending or denigrating. Ever.
- Always let them come to their own solutions if possible. Volunteering answers does not help them. They are smart enough to solve their own issues.
- Do not badger the students on follow-up. If they do what was decided, great. If not, great. It is their life and they need to take the reins.
Usually, the conversations go thusly. A student asks an honest question or dances around it long enough that I have to stop and address the elephant in the room. I ask the student some basic questions to see what they know and I listen closely. Then I either use a Rogerian method of questioning to guide the student to their own solution or else I specifically fill in the gaps in the student’s knowledge. We have a discussion wherein I serve as a mentor to the student to help them understand what is troubling them. We continue to converse back and forth until either the student is satisfied or else I have to refer them elsewhere to get further information.
Why do I feel it is critical to have these discussions, particularly about Sexuality
Before getting into specific reasons why I find these conversations crucial, I just want to point out that our kids are surrounded by descriptive sexual imagery and innuendo all the time. I will provide an example from my all time favorite cartoon, Animaniacs. The innuendo was epic. And I remember trying to understand a lot of the humor. I knew it was funny and it was a naughty joke. I just did not know what the joke meant.
Our autistic students and children are bombarded by these stimuli, and often they do not have a social context to incorporate these ideas. I have had many ask me to explain dirty jokes from cartoons they loved as kids.
The first reason I feel it is critical to answer question regarding sexuality is some anecdotal information about autism in the state of Utah I heard at a conference. Sabine Fuhrmann, the head of the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) gave a talk on diagnostic issues for autistic women and went on somewhat of a wild tangent. She mentioned, at least in her relatively large sample of adolescent and young adult autistic women she sees for therapy, there is a disproportionate number of girls with the same restricted interests: books and boys. They are interested in books in the classic bookworm sort of way. They obsess about finishing books and understanding every minutiae of the story, scene, characters, etc. They hoard books and use them as an escape.
For the restricted interest/obsession with boys, it is not the typical boy crazy profile as often described by girls. It is a full on obsession with individuals of a differing gender that goes far beyond a crush. It is not even necessarily that the autistic girl is attracted to any given boy, it is just that the girls do not understand the boy and concomitantly feel emotional and hormonal urges to approach and interact with males. In this talk Dr. Furhmann mentioned that often times this obsession leads to highly inappropriate google searching – starting banal and clinical but rapidly expanding to erotic and then into hardcore or dark pornographic imagery rather quickly. She stated that this information leads to dangerously wrong assumptions about how sex and relationships and opens these autistic women to victimization (see here and here for a examples from the research).
Dr. Fuhrmann also mentioned that she saw a tendency among autistic young women in the state of Utah to engage in unprotected, promiscuous sex earlier than their peers. Unfortunately, these girls often do not understand the social stigma of promiscuity (especially in Utah). They also do not understand the implications of having a reputation as a young woman receptive of increasingly experimental sexuality. They also fail to comprehend the long-term psychological effects of engaging in sexual activity prior to understanding the emotional, social, and self-esteem connotations. And, sadly. Many of these relationships end in violent rapes leading to emergency department admissions and eventual psychiatric referrals.
Dr. Fuhrmann recommended a thorough sex education. For young women this sex education should focus on the surface features of gender and biological sex certainly, but there is a need to also spend time with a particular focus on emotional maturity, self-esteem, and what might consequences be of the range of sexual expressions available to the young woman. Also, a focus on the meaning and methods of rejecting and providing consent for sexual activity.
In an earlier post I discussed ABA as compliance training and the potential ramifications of teaching autistics to comply being an increased exposure to sexual abuse. This is being panned out in the research literature. Autistics are disproportionately victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse (see here and here for a examples from the research). Same goes (to a much higher degree) for Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, and any other disabled population looked studies (see statistical tables here and studies here ). I am reiterating these comments below:
[Regarding ABA as mandatory compliance training]
Think about what this means. When a therapist is working with a child, the child is following orders. Much like the quote from Unstrange Mind here. We make demands of children with autism so they fit the archetype we want them to. We demand they make eye contact. We demand they sit 100% still and don’t fidget. We demand 4 legs of the chair on the floor with hands on the desk in class. We demand they fluently use pronouns in conversation, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. But these are their goals. They do not have a choice. Well, they do have a choice: (1) comply and maybe have a bit of fun (or lack of anxiety for a few minutes during a break) or (2) fight back and be punished. If the child indicates they have a good reason for engaging in a harmless but odd or quirky behavior, they are taught that they are wrong. In fact, they are taught that any individuality is wrong. And it is to be shunned.
I fear the repercussions of this compliance. An over-reliance on compliance training as a primary therapy in autism will likely result in an epidemic of autistic adults being taken advantage of by sexual predators, predatory lenders, car salesman, property managers, etc. They may know that the system is wrong, but a lifetime of conditioning has taught them they can only be happy and at peace when they do what others say.
Trigger Warning: The section below entails references to sexual abuse of autistic and other disabled individuals. If this is disturbing to you, please feel free to stop reading here.
Earlier this year I was reading statistics and found some that dropped my jaw to the floor. I will quote a section of one of the documents I read (I also dug into the actual references they cited, and they checked out. Full Document Emphasis mine).
More than 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Forty-nine percent will experience 10 or more abusive incidents (Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, 1995). Other studies suggest that 39 to 68 percent of girls and 16 to 30 percent of boys will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday. The likelihood of rape is staggering: 15,000 to 19,000 of people with developmental disabilities are raped each year in the United States (Sobsey, 1994).
People with developmental disabilities may not realize that sexual abuse is abusive, unusual or illegal. Consequently, they may never tell anyone about sexually abusive situations. People with and without disabilities are often fearful to openly talk about such painful experiences due to the risk of not being believed or taken seriously. They typically learn not to question caregivers or others in authority. Sadly, these authority figures are often the ones committing the abuse. Many special education programs have encouraged students to be compliant in a wide range of life activities, ultimately increasing the child’s vulnerability to abuse (Turnbull, et.al., 1994).
One narrative of exactly these life experiences can be found at Unstrange Mind. It is a sobering and courageous narrative of abuse. I highly recommend the read, but it is very disturbing.
Since I wrote the above I have had more experiences with having crucial conversations. What I have learned is that there is a second element increasing the potential for victimization among disabled people: THEY ARE GIVEN LITTLE TO NO SEXUAL EDUCATION. Often the perpetrators of violence upon them are the ones providing the child their initial exposure to feelings of attraction and love, infatuation, and sex. And often, as mentioned above in the quote from the research, disabled individuals often do not realize they have been a victim of a crime until long after the perpetrator has moved on to another victim.
I feel that if we help our disabled loved ones with knowledge, they will not have to seek it out in potentially dangerous avenues. They will at least have a basic knowledge that can be useful for forming opinions, evaluating situations, and – if appropriate and desired – provide willful consent. Without such knowledge, our loved ones will have to make potentially life altering decisions based on either no or at best incomplete data – and then they will be forced to suffer the ignoble consequences.
Sex and Sexuality
Understanding sex is a tough subject for many autistics. Not because it is emotional, but rather because in the United States we often hide information from them, and they are expected to figure it out socially. Not a great idea for autistics. Especially not a good idea because the internet is often a terrible resource for sexual education. Wikipedia alone can take a person down unwanted paths just by engaging in a well-meaning clicknado (for example, click this link and then follow links that draw the eye. Things can get disturbingly graphic and inappropriate for unaccompanied children very quickly).
I think back to a post written by John Elder Robison on autism and porn. He made an interesting assertion that although devoid of evidence, appeals to my way of thinking. He mentioned that a number of autistics of his acquaintance had gotten in trouble with law enforcement for engaging in dialogue about sex with underage children, particularly 12-14 year olds. In this piece, Robison was specifically referring to individuals in trouble for online activities, not for actual sex with minors.
Robison made the assertion that these individuals were not after sexual content containing children or soliciting sex from minors, but rather they were trying to understand sex; and they were best able to communicate with 12-14 year olds about sex as that was the relative maturity of these autistics given their developmental delay.
So basically, adult autistic men were seeking out sex education from 6-7th graders, because we did not provide them the necessary information in school. Given the actions of these individuals it is clear they have not received “the talk” at home. So they are trying to understand a rich, complex, emotionally stressful topic like human sexuality, gender identity, the act of sex, etc. from whomever they can get it.
This led at times to searching pornographic images of children at these ages. They seek out the dark internet and find images that conform to the sexual maturity level of their “peers” in the chat rooms. And they are aroused by it. Things escalate…
These situations lead to adult autistic men setting up meetings with children to have frank discussions about sex. Not good. Especially not good since this is an act with 2 victims. The adult has no idea what is happening and the child does not either. For very valid reasons we have to deal with the adult as they are legally responsible for their actions. But we are punishing rather than teaching.
This whole thing sounds to me like a problem we could have solved with a simple 2 hour after school sex ed program. Robison proposed answer is early, comprehensive sex education for autistics. Same as Dr. Fuhrmann recommended for autistic girls/women.
Thinking about this, I err on the side of giving factual information. I am not going to discourse with students about sexual positions, perceived positives to drugs, access to deviant activities, and things like that. I will, however, speak with them directly about sex: ranging from sexual orientation and attraction to masturbation and pornography to consent. Below I will outline several examples of conversations I’ve found myself having with students from benign information about health of the sexual organs to more explicit conversations about masturbation and pornography.
Examples 1 through 4 – Puberty
Example 1 – I am just smelling it Dr. H
The conversation that set this blog up was with a parent of a young autistic girl. She had developed a tendency to jam her hands down the front of her pants and then pull out her hand and smell her fingers. I told her to knock it off one day and she looked me right in the eye and said, “I am just smelling it Dr. H”. and kept going. I rolled my eyes and noted the behavior so I could ask her family about it.
Other teachers were freaking out about the behavior as they thought it was just grossness to get attention. So, the girl fulfilled their expectations and whenever they came into the room she would jam her hand in her pants, touch her private parts, and smell her fingers like they were a fine wine.
I asked this girl a simple question, but not necessarily an obvious question if you haven’t dealt with this behavior. My question, does she take bubble baths? Every day she said. With pink bubbles. I asked her next why she was smelling her fingers and she said simply, “Dr H., I smell my fingers because they are smelly”. Well, irrefutable logic on that one. She lacked the verbal skills to give me more helpful information, but she clearly was doing what she was doing on purpose and was not doing it to be deviant in any way (or at least that was how I interpreted it).
I called her mother and asked the same question about bubble baths. Her mother said she did take a bubble bath daily. I then explained what this girl was doing and her mother was surprised. She asked me a few questions to make sure the girl was not stimulating herself or masturbating. When I described the behavior and the responses to my questions her mom was confused.
She asked me what I thought was happening and I had two scenarios. Either this girl was beginning puberty/menarche and her vaginal fluids were starting to take on an odor and she was exploring it or else the bubble baths were not being followed up with a sufficient rinse and the bubble bath was giving this girl yeast infections. She scratched once and then smelled her fingers, and now was seeking that sensory input. Either way a primary care or gynecological physician would be able to ascertain what was going on.
In the end, this mother found the answer the easy way. She waited at home until her daughter went to smell her fingers and her mother took a whiff. It was a yeast infection. Mom went over how to rinse off properly after a bath so she would not itch. She then went to the doctor with her daughter and got the yeast infection taken care of.
Example 2 – Menarche
I have decided I am doomed to be in the room when autistic girls have their first cramps. I guess this is a good thing, but it was irritating at first because I had to explain to female teachers that their female 6th grade girl is having her period and she is being hard to handle and moody because of cramps and hormones not naughtiness.
The first experience I had with this was particularly sad for me. A minimally verbal autistic girl was apparently being very verbal. Crassly at that. She was running around the room screaming and trying to hit the teachers. But whenever she stopped running she would grab her lower stomach, swear, and start running again. The staff was doing their best to restrain her, but to no avail. I was called in because I am big and I have experience restraining violent students.
I walked in and immediately noticed that she was in pain. I asked her what hurt. She screamed at me, but walked over and looked at me. Then started punching herself in the lower abdomen. The staff was marking down her action as self-injurious behavior, but I saw something different. I asked her if she hurt in the bottom of her tummy. She started crying and hugged me. When she was calmed down I noticed something on her shirt. She had what looked like blood on her shirt and it was on 2 of her fingers. I asked where she got the blood and she pointed at her crotch and turned away like she was ashamed.
I ended up spending the last hour of the day sitting on the floor with an autistic girl crying on my shoulder. I called her mother who came as fast as she could. She brought everything necessary to help clean up any issue and some painkiller for the cramps. After mom took her daughter, I had to chide a room full of female staff for not considering that autistic girls can be hormonal and have cramps and periods like any other 6th grade girl.
As soon as school was over I ran to the store and bought a small package of every size of pads so I would be able to help out girls that needed it, since it was clear the teachers in the classrooms had not taken into account that autistic girls go through menarche just like any other girls. I also built up a collection of hygiene supplies to give to teachers to help girls clean up. I can tell you. I was getting some rather odd stares at Wal-Mart that day. It is always fun being watched like a pervert picking up and reading EVERY package of feminine hygiene supplies at the store to make sure they did contain perfumes or bad chemicals.
The next day I met with this girl and her mother. Her mother was mortified that I had to help her daughter through menarche and I said it was fine. This mother asked me what she needed to communicate to her daughter. I told her she needed to give the same information she would give any other girl, but given a number of ways until mom was sure the daughter understood. She also needed to set up a communication plan with the school to let this girl say she is in pain, it is cramps, and she needs a quiet place to sit or to get a painkiller from the office.
For the rest of the year, if I wanted a moment to myself, I had to hide from this girl. She would come up and sign thank you and give me a side hug. Then she would stand 3 feet away from me and mimic my behaviors. But importantly, she came up to me and notified me when she was on her moon (her mom programmed that term into the ProLoQuo2Go) in case she needed my help. TMI to be sure, but I was happy for the communication.
Example 3 – There is Blood on the Pad
The last example is a more extreme one. The other issue I find I encounter rather often is dealing with heavy flow issues with autistic girls, particularly when they have sensory issues that render cleaning their own issue impractical or impossible.
Another 6th grade girl was dealing with her womanhood, I found this out because she came, got right in my face and screamed, “There is blood on the FUCKING pad!” over and over. After 30 seconds that felt like forever, I asked her what she wanted me to do. I got a “Fuck you” for my efforts. Then she tried to punch me and walked away. However, I did notice she had a seriously altered gait. More so than what one would expect. I also noticed that the pad that had blood on it was woefully inadequate to the task as the back of her pants were clearly absorbing something (thank heavens her mom put her in black sweat pant bottoms rather than the customary pink).
I called her mother. Her mom said that she had extremely heavy flow but could not change her own pad. So it often filled up and she spent the rest of the day dealing with a full pad that no longer absorbed the flow (a sensory nightmare I can only imagine). I went online and found a blog post that covered exactly the issue at hand (google cache version here). I had a 45 minute conversation with a mother about period panties (Click this link, and this one for the options) and how they may help her daughter. At least in the short-term.
This mother had a talk with daughter. They discussed her period and her pad and her new special undies that were going to come in the mail. This mom sent her daughter to school and told her to talk to me whenever she had a girl issue.
Fast forward one month. Guess what. I still had to hear where there was blood on her pad, but it was said happily this time. I did have to inform this girl that it was in no way appropriate to flash me her special undies. Undies are not to be shown to others, especially adult men in school. This time, though. I was able to sit down with this girl and have a discussion on what we can do if we are on our period, have cramps, or need to call mom to come help with the blood on the pad.
Apparently this girl was dying to have this conversation with me. She was asking if periods meant she could now make babies. When I said yes, she asked how she could start. I said she would have to get married like her mom and dad and they work together to make babies. Her answer was perfect. “Eew. No. Boys dicks are gross. Did you know they pee out of them?” I said I did but it took a mommy and a daddy to make a baby. Maybe when she is older she would find boys less gross. She said, “Ok. Maybe when I am 30. You are gross. BOY”.
She asked me to describe how her period worked (I am “Dr H” after all, doesn’t matter if I am not that kind of doctor). She also said she was scared because they were going to a gynecologist (“my girl thing doctor”). Her mom described the procedure and she was scared because adults (myself included) told her that she was not to show that part of her body to anyone. I said the “girl thing doctor” needs to see it to make sure you are healthy. Girl thing doctors can be men or women, but they are doctors and thus allowed to examine that part, but only with hers and her mother’s permission. She accepted that logic.
In the end the gynecologist and the parents decided to move toward birth control to see if it could regulate the severity of the pain and flow. I know this because it was loudly announced to me when I next came into that classroom. Fortunately as well, this student now had a new friend she could discuss her girl problems with. Because that was a “Dr” as well.
Example 4 – The feminine hygiene aisle
I mentioned above that I have spent time in the feminine hygiene aisle and on the internet trying to help parents with their daughters’ needs. I have had hour-long conversations with parents about what size of pad was appropriate for their daughter. We have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of tampons for autistic girls that have motor difficulties that would require an adult to assist with insertion or removal of the tampon.
I have had very long conversations with parents about the Diva cup as an option for their daughters. Often this conversation goes into conversations about flow levels as a Diva cup is not appropriate for heavy flow. Also, much like a tampon, there is a high level of dexterity involved with insertion and removal of a Diva cup.
I have had to discuss how to work with period panties if the girl has sensory issues regarding blood or else a crippling aversion to blood. How would the parent deal with pads and removal of the underwear if it has to be done in a way to conceal or minimize the view of blood.
One of my favorite conversations was giving a mother yoga poses and other calming postures her daughter could sit in to reduce the pain during menstruation. This mother even came up with a comfortable way to help bind her daughter in a pose that would help not only release muscle tension, but also assist the evacuation of the menstrual blood.
I also have had conversations with parents regarding sensory sensitivity and bra purchasing for autistic girls. A quick internet search led me to a website that sells seamless underwear for autistic girls (example 1, example 2).
My point here is not to brag about any conversations, but rather to point out that I was the only person that was willing to engage in these conversations with parents to help out their children. I even find myself often the recipient of student confidence because their parents trust me. So I get myself into situations like those described above where the girls are willing to ask me questions because they know I will help them.
Example 5 – What do Boys Learn in Boy Maturity Class?
This example is a girl I met early in my teaching career. In fifth grade she had the opportunity to go to what she called, “Girl maturity” class. She loved gathering the knowledge about herself and her body changes. Then a question came into her head…and she could not shake it. We had to monitor her computer usage because she was looking at all the available sex ed websites not blocked by the school web filter.
Then one day I heard it. “Dr. H, what do they tell the boys in boy maturity?” I was slightly taken aback because this question came out of nowhere, she ran up to me on the playground after watching the other students play a game of zombie tag and asked me.
I had noticed this girl had stopped playing with her peers and spent her time staring at boys, particularly in the general region of their pants. I assumed this was associated with adolescence and I just made sure it was just looking and no touching, so I did not think much of it.
I asked her what she thought they were taught and she said all she knew was that, “boys get boners and those are used for sex”. Somehow I kept a straight face and said, “Okay, that’s a start”. Her teacher looked at me, started laughing, and said, “You asked, I guess you get to answer this. Your problem now. Bring her back to class when you are done.” Then the teacher walked away and left me to my awkward conversation.
I had noticed this girl was constantly getting in trouble for going to unapproved websites about sex on the school computers. Her search history was everything schools do not want to see. We sat down and had a chat. I figured I would rather solve this issue before she went home and hit the wikipedia pages on these topics as the link-nado that may occur can get really raunchy really quickly.
She told me everything she learned in girl maturity (I did not ask, she just unburdened herself on me). Her focus was on her period and how that meant she could grow babies. She knew she had to have sex with a boner in order to make a baby. She would be moody and get a sore uterus when she had her period. Her questions were simple…she wanted to know how boys matured and what their role was in making babies. And what they told boys in their boy maturity class.
So we discussed. She assumed and I confirmed that boys got deeper voices and started growing pubic hair when they were becoming fertile. She had a vague understanding of penis development from the diagrams she had seen (I felt that was enough understanding for her at that point). Here was where she was stuck…she did not understand how erections happened and how that led to sex and babies, a very clinical question indeed. I deflected her followup questions about nocturnal emissions and contraception (which she had read about on the internet) as outside the realm of the important conversation.
Our discussion was simply about what she knew, “boys get boners and those are used for sex”. We talked about how both boys and girls can be attracted to each other and their bodies sometimes are not always under their control. So when she feels all fluttery inside and wants to cuddle a certain boy, there is a boy equivalent that has a physical manifestation. She asked if that was when, “boys get all wiggly in class” and touch themselves to adjust their crotch and I said it was similar. She then started asking about all the how-to of sex and I cut that one off. Told her she had to get that info from her mother as I was not authorized to explain how sex is done. She eventually accepted that answer.
So, boys and girls mature. Boys get awkward feels and girls get awkward feelings toward each other. Boners are useful for sex. She has had her period and thus is fertile and can have babies. The conversation went alright and she seemed much more at ease and settled. I did make her promise to stop searching for sex topics on the school computers and she agreed. Her curiosity was sated and she was able to move on to her next inappropriate topic of conversation (but that is another story entirely).
More importantly, she stopped asking the boys on the playground about their penises and she started playing on the playground again rather than surveying the development of her peers’ genitals.
Example 6 – Sexy Princess Peach
This student was one of those students that an inexperienced teacher could be forgiven if they didn’t think this student was autistic. The student had exquisite acting skills when it came to social skills and interaction. They could turn appropriate or inappropriate social interactions on and off at will. Until one day this ability was lost. The student looked like they had a full regression. They were unable to engage in class and distanced themselves from all social stimulus.
I was confused, so I thought I would get to the bottom of it. I tried my unusual social interaction tricks but they all failed. I did hear the student was mumbling something about Bowser so I took a chance. I started asking the student how to pass levels on Super Mario Bros. 3 and he engaged.
We went inside so he could “show me” how to beat these levels and he went right to YouTube and showed me how to find the right videos. Cool. I asked if he knew of any other good Super Mario videos and he surprised me. He said yes, but they were not school appropriate. I tried to get clarification but was shut down. He went back into his shell and went back outside without a word.
The next day I tried again and made more progress. We were having a conversation about Super Mario Bros. 3 being the greatest video game in the history of video games. I said I agreed and wondered what he liked most about it. His answer was, “Princess Peach is Sexy”. Oooooookay, NOT the answer I was expecting. I asked for more information and he told me that if “…you went on google and typed, ‘sexy princess peach’, ‘peach sex’, or ‘super mario sex'”, I would find some really good videos. He even told me his favorite websites for these pictures and videos. When I checked the website I was somewhat traumatized. It was extremely graphic, depicting not only animated sex but a lot of violence and abuse toward female recipients.
Great. I am used to autistic students having a fantasy experience separate from the rest of us, but now I had to deal with a pornographic one? I needed to help address this so I dove into the conversation. Apparently, this student matured rather early and was very sexually attracted to virtually all the girls in the school (so a normal 5-6th grader). The way this student described it was as a constant frustration and no way to escape frustration. That was until…one day they figured out how to, as they called it, “whack off”. Given this student’s obsession with playing Super Mario Bros 3 and the fact he did little else, this was when his little inspiration struck.
So I have absolutely no problem at this point of the conversation. Sounds like normal kid behavior to me. That was until the student told me he wandered over to his computer and turned on google. He then sought out naked pictures of Princess Peach, and then fell head first down the rabbit hole. He was spending every waking moment at home when he was not eating dinner surfing the internet for pornographic Super Mario cartoons and masturbating. This past time had become an obsession and this obsession was slowly turning into a personal little world this student was immersing themselves in. That is a problem.
I asked the student if they had ever searched these terms at school and he said no, he had not, because he knew that the school had filters on the computers that would not let him. I then asked if he had any printouts or anything that we needed to get rid of for being school inappropriate. He said no, he did not need to since he “…has a good memory”. Uh oh. Now we get to the fun questions…does the student ever misuse the bathroom at school. Thankfully no, but they had considered it.
The student thought he was doing a really good job keeping it just at home. I agreed and said I was VERY happy none of this had made it to school. But, then I asked him the question that turned the conservation towards positive problem solving, I asked if he was he hanging out and doing stuff with his mom, dad, and sisters or whether he off by himself. He said he was not talking to his family anymore, so I asked why. He said he didn’t have time. Then he got my point on his own (thankfully). I asked if anyone in his family knew of his obsession. He said he did not think so.
We had a conversation about self-control. In no way was this a conversation about not masturbating or looking at inappropriate things on the computer, I know that is a losing battle with any young male. The conversation was about letting things that are fun or fascinating taking control over us. Was this student willing to give up control over their entire life to spend every waking moment looking at naughty pictures of a video game character? Were they willing to let a silly thing like that get in the way of hanging out with family and playing the Nintendo? Was this student willing to not make friends at school and be lonely because they let this urge take control. Again…this student understood.
The student asked what they could do. I said that it was not my issue and he needed to figure that out. But what did have to happen was his behavior at school needed to return to his normal personality. I do not demand social butterflies, but I did want him to be able to interact with his peers and interact in class with the teacher and paraeducators. He said he felt embarrassed to talk to his mom about it and I said I was sure he would. But, it would be a lot worse if they caught him doing it and then yelled at him for it. If he came forward he would cut off any anger. I did warn him his parents would be confused and potentially angry, but it would pass.
Within the week we had our student back. He was able to interact with his peers and teachers appropriately. He played at recess. He was still obsessed with Super Mario Bros. 3 and that was fine. His mother reported he was more social at home and they had their son back.
I never did ask the student what they did as I felt it was not my business. But they did thank me for helping them and they felt better about stuff again.
Example 7 – Pornhub
A few years later, I had almost an identical set of conversations with another student that had discovered PornHub. This student’s parents came up to the school social worker and unburdened themselves about their son’s problems. They did not know what to do as they had their son manage the home computers, so he had the administrator password so they could not install any filters without them just being bypassed.
The social worker was very clinical and asked for data regarding frequency, durations, etc. The parents were clearly embarrassed, but the social worker was trying to figure out if this was normal 6th grade boy behavior or something more. It was more. WAY more. So the social worker and I brainstormed a plan. I would deal with the issue at school and the social worker would set up something for home. The difficult part of this conversation with the parents is that neither the social worker nor myself care if a 12-year-old masturbates. We both understand if you forbid that kind of behavior it will only become covert and increase in frequency. The family wanted a no tolerance policy, but did not want to be the ones to police it.
In the end, I had a very similar conversation with this student as I had with the one addicted to Mario porn. I asked the student what they liked to watch. They told me proudly. They had already moved toward more aggressive and potentially violent pornography. I asked how much time they watched PornHub a day. They told me it was basically from the moment they got home until dinner, then after dinner until bedtime. They made clear that they were not touching themselves the whole time, they were watching the videos all the way through.
I said okay, then asked a few questions. I asked if the student thought it was okay to spend all of their time locked away watching porn. I asked if they saw it as an obsession or an addiction, or if they were just doing it. He admitted it was an obsession as he was always thinking about it. At that point, he said it was a problem and he had never thought he had lost control. I asked a more difficult question that needed to be addressed given the topics of the pornography being watched – particularly of sleeping women being “had sex with” by men (rape), or violent/aggressive sex wherein a man is clearly physically dominating and overpowering a woman. I asked if he thought what he was seeing was how sex works or if it were fake. He said he did not know. I asked another question. How would he feel if his mother or sister were treated that way. He looked mortified. He had never personalized what he was seeing. He thought that violence and aggression were part of sex because porn showed him so. It had not occurred to him these women were being paid to act and submit themselves to this treatment.
I pointed out that sex is most often gentle and loving. If consenting adults choose to be more extreme that is between them. But it is never, under any circumstances, an okay thing to do to hit or otherwise abuse a woman, and it is never appropriate to engage in sex without explicit consent. Sleeping is not consent. He was ashamed that I was telling him this, but he needed to hear it as he honestly did not know. His only sex ed had been what he found on PornHub and Wikipedia. He promised me he would “get it under control” and I did not have to worry about anything. So far as I know he did take care of it as the issue seemed to go away and his parents never brought it up again.
Fortunately, I was able to help this student understand the difference between enjoying and obsession about pornography. I was also able to help the student understand abuse, violence, and nonconsensual sex are never okay. And luckily the student was able to figure out and implement his own solution before the problem escalated into real life.
Example 8 – Oedipus?
This student was a mess so far as sexuality was concerned when I met them. They had already repeatedly molested at least one other male student in the school, exposed themselves to other students multiple times in the restroom and made sexual overtures, and I had to escort them to the bathroom in the nurse’s office and have them leave the door cracked open so nothing inappropriate (e.g., masturbation) could happen in the bathroom. I was notified this student was just nasty and naughty and had to be punished into compliance.
Obviously, I ignored this advice. I did some research and noticed this student had received a number of office referrals the year before for groping the female teachers. The student would go in for a hug and his hands would go to work (specifically grabbing butts if a front hug and burying his face in the breasts or if a side hug he went after both breasts and buttocks). This was additionally problematical because it was clear that he was receiving sexual stimulation from this (i.e., tumescence). One day, while walking to the bathroom, the student stopped, looked at me, and asked a surprisingly innocent question. He had been staring at a teacher in front of us in the hallway that had a tight maxi skirt on. He asked me why he loved to watch her walk down the hall so much.
Thankfully, the school psychologist was in, so we went to her office to chat (after the student used the restroom obviously).
We explained the idea of boys finding girls attractive and watching them walk. They look at women’s backsides as attractive because they are a sign that women can make babies, and additionally if we watch TV we see that all the men watch women walk, so we learn to do the same thing. He understood that and said it was okay. He asked to watch her walk some more and I said no. Following women around and staring at their backsides is creepy.
He then asked a more problematical question. He asked if it was inappropriate that he got erections watching his mother walk around the house. Needless to say we were confused at this point, as there was some information that was missing. After letting the school psychologist ask a few more questions we came to the missing info. This student’s mother did not believe in wearing clothes in the house. So she walked around wearing a pair of panties and that was it. And, being a young boy going through precocious puberty, this student was noticing. And staring. And responding. And thoroughly enjoying what he was seeing.
According to his responses, he was scolded by his mother when he was physically aroused and was told it was inappropriate for him to look at his mother like that. So, he was confused.
I love the school psychologist for her answer to this – because she beat me to it. She told this student that any time he sees a woman without a shirt on, he is going to be aroused. Breasts turn men on and men are honed in to stare at breasts, hips, and buttocks of women. There is no way around it other than to look away. It is natural. It does not matter if they belong to mom, grandma, a peer, sibling, or a celebrity.
He felt better about the situation after that point. We didn’t.
The school psychologist and I had some meetings with the mother and some outside agencies to discuss this issue specifically. We had to describe to the mother that this student was confused sexually given he was showing a normal response to female nudity and was being punished for it. We also described that we felt some of that confusion was coming out in school in the form of inappropriate sexual exploration of self and others – particularly victimization of same sex peers. We needed a plan to move forward as a team to help this student as no one wanted them to end up incarcerated on a molestation or public indecency charge.
As a team, we developed a plan. Mom was left to decide if she was going to wear a cami or a bra at home or if she was going to just ignore any erections so long as the student was not stimulating himself (I never found out which plan they went with). The student was going to have a discussion with both parents about maturity and sex, focusing on which areas of the body were never to be exposed to others or touched on others, even through clothes. They also were going to have the classic birds and bees conversation with the student since he was going through precocious puberty.
Within two weeks, the only behavior that remained was the student trying to feel up teachers by giving hugs. I solved that one by telling the other adults that were hugging him to knock it off, they were not supposed to hug him anyway. I then explained to him why I took that action. I wanted him to know his actions had consequences and that I was looking out for his good. After that we had no more sexual acting out behaviors at school. The student seemed happier, as well.
My TL;DR is simple. Talk to disabled people about sex often and early. If you have to explicit teach attending in a classroom, you have to explicit teach about sexuality. It is an unavoidable issue. If you don’t have these conversations, you are dooming them to have to learn it the hard way and from potentially unreliable sources like the internet.
In my opinion it is very important we have these crucial discussions with our students when the moment arises so the lessons we teach are reinforced by coming immediately after having a problem solved. Our autistic loved ones and developmentally disabled loved ones need to know how to say no as well as how to say yes and give consent. They need to know how their bodies work, as well as how the bodies of other genders work. They need to be told limits for their own behavior as well as the behavior of others. They need knowledge. They can use knowledge to grow. They can use knowledge to gain self-esteem. They can use knowledge as building blocks for emotional well-being.
Knowledge is power. And sometimes, we have to empower our autistic students, even if it is uncomfortable and awkward. Chances are, no one else will. At least not anyone we want teaching them these things.