It’s a metaphor
I need to come back to this.
I don’t want to, but I feel like I have to.
For two reasons.
One is that I fear I may have left you with the wrong message – that I don’t think that we should be discussing issues surrounding autism and sexuality publicly, which is not the case. The other is that, quite frankly, I was surprised to find that my very visceral reaction to Mrs Cutler’s article did not jive with that of some of my autistic friends. And when that happens, I am compelled to investigate where the differences are and why.
So let’s start with the first reason.
By no means do I wish to imply that we should not be talking about autism and sexuality or the inherent issues therein. I am not, by any stretch, suggesting that there are not some very serious challenges for autistic people in navigating the sexual landscape, both in person and online, nor would I ever deny that the autistic population gets into some very real trouble when they inadvertently run afoul of the law.
I think that we need to have hard conversations about these topics no matter how uncomfortable they may be. As parents, I believe we have a responsibility to speak openly and without embarrassment nor shame, about how we can best arm our children to handle the unique challenges they will face in this realm, ultimately setting the stage for them to do the same.
However — and I want to be very, very clear about this — I strongly believe that those conversations should not and need not come at the excruciatingly high and wildly inaccurate cost of adding “sexual predator” to the public perception of autistic people.
That’s why I wrote the post that I did regarding Mrs Cutler’s article and why I remain deeply troubled by the way in which she irresponsibly and wrongly conflated autism and pedophilia. I can’t even type that sentence without cocking my head at its absurdity.
But, that said, I am not looking to shut down reasonable and measured conversation about autism and sexual development, or the need for explicit teaching about the complicated intersection of sexual curiosity, desire, impulse, expectation and morality (for ALL children) nor am I against delving more deeply into the reasons that some of our folks might get themselves into trouble — so that we can help to avoid it in the future. It’s that last part of that (run-on) sentence that leads me to the second reason that I’m revisiting this topic.
Michael John Carley posted a link to the article on his Facebook page, citing the controversy surrounding it and asking others their opinions. While he had his objections to the way in which the article was written, I was surprised to find his reaction far more balanced than my own.
In a private conversation that he’s been kind enough to allow me to share with you, he said the following.
… But I have to admit that the notion of some folks wanting kids to teach them about sex, and not the grown-ups they’ve been conditioned not to trust … may have some truth, and truth that works for us.
It humanizes things, and if explored might lessen the number of times our folks get railroaded into sex offender status.
Earlier in the day. my friend John Robison had sent me his Psychology Today column, Autism and Porn: A Problem No One Talks About, written in response to Mrs Cutler’s post. In that column, he said the following:
Very few autistic people will ever have trouble with sex crimes. Very few NT people get involved in sex crime either, for that matter. But those that do are highly visible and the autistic ones I have met needed help much more than punishment. Ignoring that reality is like ignoring the teachers who locked autistic people in basements at school when I was a kid.
He went on to say,
If it’s recognition of autistic vulnerability that gets these people help instead of hard prison time, I am all for it. I have no wish to paint autistic people as potential sex offenders— we are not. But I do feel our differences can place us at risk in some situations and this is one of them.
I hope that you will read the article in its entirety. It’s well worth your time. John asked me for my thoughts on it and this is what I said:
I have to say, it’s very typical of you and all that I so appreciate about your voice: it is reasoned, well thought out and, while based on your extensive experience, NOT presented as universal, nor some ‘troubling trend’ as in Mrs Cutler’s ill-conceived article. You say right up front what I believe is the most important part of this …
“Autistic people ARE NOT by nature sexual predators of any sort. Multiple studies have shown autistic people are likely to be victims far more often that we are perpetrators of crime in general and sex crime in particular. Abuse of people with disabilities is a well-known and tragically common situation. Let’s be absolutely clear on that.”
And you go on to say, “it’s important to remember that most people— with or without autism—will never have an issue with porn. We are only discussing possible autism-related factors for those that do.”
This matters. A lot. I have no problem with an honest discussion of causality in these rare cases, nor with talking about how we can help our kids to avoid pitfalls to which they might well be more vulnerable than their typically developing peers. Indeed, I think it’s vital that we have those discussions, particularly around sexuality and that we figure out how to arm our kids for survival in a world that, as you point out, is very different from the one in which we grew up.
I appreciate your insight, your ongoing efforts to broadly understand and advocate for the needs and challenges of the autism community and your rational analysis of difficult subjects.
Clearly, as poorly as Mrs Cutler’s article may have been written, and as reckless and damaging as her sweeping conclusions were, she obviously raised at the very least tangential issues that are of real concern to people who spend an awful lot of their time deeply engaged in autistic advocacy. So here we are.
And the hard truth is that as the mother of a beautiful autistic daughter, I wake up in a cold sweat more nights than I’d like to admit worrying about the fact that my girl is getting older, that puberty is around the corner, that navigating the minefield of social media is tough enough for my ‘typical’ kid, and that I have no earthly idea how the hell I’ll be able to help her make her way through it when I’m not always even sure that my words register or, when they do, if they hold any real meaning for her.
The reality is that I have no real clue how to attack something so conceptual, so vague, so riddled with conditions and qualifications and situationally dependent answers. I honestly can’t yet fathom how I will go about even teaching her the basics of puberty and development no less how I will then manage to combine that mess with how to handle the interpersonal stuff that’s so damned hard for her without the hormonal component. For the love of God, we’re still trying to figure out how to help her figure out the difference between the words “Why” and “How.”
I don’t have a kid with a facility for language. Words are unreliable, meandering sentences even more so. This is where that gets hairier than ever. Because we HAVE to address this somehow. We HAVE to find developmentally appropriate ways to teach our kids as much as they can take in about how to listen to their bodies, respect themselves and others and, above all, to keep themselves safe.
We have to talk about the changing and stretching and growing of their bodies, about budding breasts and bras and periods and sanitary pads and how we keep ourselves clean. We’ve got to talk about cracking voices, things that get hairy, things that get smelly, unexpected erections, wet dreams, raging hormones that sneak up unannounced and wreak havoc on our kids. We have to talk about where and when it’s okay to touch ourselves and others and where and when it’s not.
These conversations are awkward enough under the best of circumstances; and seemingly impossible in some of ours. But here’s the thing — these things are going to happen whether our kids are currently picking out what to wear to a school dance or choosing which Elmo’s World they want to watch. Physical development doesn’t pause just because minds develop differently.
The changes are going to happen.
And no matter how great our squeamishness about the topics may be, and no matter that they may be compounded by our fear of how to approach them with kids who may not appear top have the facility to understand them, we owe it to them to figure it out. To keep trying. To presume competence. To give them the chance to understand. To talk to them, in whatever form ‘talking’ may take.
About what parts of their bodies are private and what needs to be sacred.
About circles of familiarity – the difference between doctors and family members, teachers and therapists. About why it’s never, ever okay when someone asks them to keep a secret.
About sensory needs and safe (and private) ways to satisfy them versus situations that can put them in harm’s way.
About trust. Where it’s appropriate and where it’s not.
About where and of whom they can ask questions when they have them, so that the Internet doesn’t become a defacto parent.
About BEING the place where no topic is off-limits, where there is no shame nor judgement, just support and information.
This matters, guys. Particularly for our kids. And I really believe that in order to keep them safe, we have to stop prizing compliance above all else. We have to start encouraging our kids to stand up for themselves (with or without words) when something doesn’t feel right. With nonverbal kids, this means showing them that we’re listening, watching, respecting them and trusting them to know their bodies and themselves – reacting and helping when they communicate discomfort rather than always redirecting, ignoring, and ultimately forcing compliance in the name of ‘good behavior.’
We’ve got to stop inadvertently setting up our children to be perfect victims.
It’s hard to know where to start, especially with a kid for whom langauge can’t be trusted. But this isn’t optional. So for Brooke, we’ll start where she is.
We’ll draw pictures of bodies – showing zones of privacy, explaining what stays covered in public, at the doctor, at home.
We’ll create visuals to explain the hierarchies of relationships – mom and dad, doctors, teachers, friends, the postman.
We’ll make maps – showing places where certain things are okay (at home, in the privacy of your own room)and where they’re not (at school).
We bought books. The American Girl series The Care and Keeping of You and Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism . Brooke has no interest in them yet. They aren’t Dora the Explorer or Blue’s Clues. but they’re there, in her room, visible. We’ll continue to introduce them. And in the meantime, we’ll work on presenting their content in other ways that might make it accessible to her.
We’ll keep trying. Just like we do with everything else. And we’ll talk about it here, you and me. And stumble through it together, as we do.
Because with all she got wrong, Mrs Cutler was right about one thing …
Wouldn’t today be a good time, she asked, —in our nothing-stays-hidden culture—to bring the confusion out in the open? Not that we’ll see a ready answer, but at least we could begin a straightforward, sympathetic response before something tragic happens and we wish we’d paid attention.