The Communication Dilemma;
Teaching facts about sex and sexuality to individuals with communication disorders
By Janice Adams
Teaching children and adolescents about sex and sexuality is a challenge without the added complications that can be present because of an individual’s communication disorder. The word "sex" brings to mind a plethora of facts about human reproduction and selfcare, while the word "sexuality" more broadly refers to the convoluted dimension of human relationships, which occur throughout our lifetime. Young people said to be within the popularly coined, "Autism Spectrum Disorder", or more the accurately labeled "Persvasive Developmental Disorder ", have moderate to severe communication problems. Since the individual communication needs of the children vary so widely, only programs of education that address those unique needs, can hope to have any effect. In addition, the type of information presented to the individual, must touch upon both factual areas, such as self-care, as well as how to promote the skills related to appropriate and safe social interaction.
In order to know how the individual communicates and learns, it is invaluable to have a Speech Pathologist involved. The assessment of this professional can help parents and educators alike plot the most effective manner by which to teach. However, parents and all those who are a regular part of the child’s life, must contribute to this assessment. Some individuals within the Autism Spectrum Disorder act and communicate differently when they are with new people or if there is a change of environment. An accurate picture of the young person is not truly formed without the input of all those who are part of his/her life.
Some current, effective methods by which to offer information to individuals with autism include:
Example: An individual reaches out and touches a female’s breasts while gesturing or speaking. He is drawn aside and there is a mutual discussion. Or, if he is not able to comprehend on a purely verbal level, he might be asked to refer to a pocket book which has an illustrated version of his social/sexual circle. He is aided to look at the line drawings that illustrate visuals of inappropriate touch.
Example: Some individuals are able to practice appropriate social interactions by viewing and participating in role playing. The situation might be based on a real scenario that occurred. Individuals are aided to problem-solve the best response to the situation and practice appropriate behaviour. It must be noted that generalization-- or the ability to adapt and apply information learned to new environments--is often a problem for individuals within the Autism Spectrum. You cannot assume that a concept has been learned unless the individual can apply a strategy within a variety of settings with both familiar and unfamiliar partners.
Example: A trusted female models the stages of using sanitary napkins over the course of a week, incorporating red dyes of varying strength which illustrate, literally, the appearance of light and heavy flows during menstruation. A sequence of line drawings list the manner by which to put on a sanitary napkin and go through a routine of hygiene. While it may be practical to put such a visual display on the inside of a bathroom cabinet door in one’s home, a miniaturized display in the form of a pocket book, which the young teen carries, is a better option for use in a school or work place.
Depending upon the needs of the individual, a variety of visuals may be incorporated during incidental teaching, formal lessons, modeling or role-playing:
Examples: Commercially prepared photographs or line drawings can be used which depict not only body parts but safe masturbation, inappropriate touching etc; concrete objects can be used (the actual sanitary products and their containers, condoms etc. while teaching); commercially prepared slides and films can be incorporated; wall charts or pocket visuals can be fashioned that illustrate the individual’s social/sexual circle –‘who’ can be touched, and ‘how’.
Scripted social phrases and/or accurate visuals which match new situations, must be assessed and periodically added to the individual’s personal communication system, as he/she grows.
In addition to barriers created by the need to meet the widely different learning styles of the individuals themselves, huge roadblocks may still exist in the form of the attitudes and assumptions held by many of the people within the individual’s life:
The real danger associated with such misinformation or attitudes is that the individual is ripe for abuse. Without the knowledge of what is, or is not appropriate ---the use of correct social phrases, the names (and slang) for body parts, an understanding of appropriate touch, and so on---the individual does not know how to recognize dangerous scenarios or communicate this information to his/her caregivers. Even a non-verbal individual can communicate fear, anxiety, or seek help, if taught how, and when, to do so.
Humanity has survived as a species because we are sexual beings. This human urge will not disappear within an individual with autism, just because there may be a developmental delay, or a communication problem. Furthermore, the ability to form intimate relationships is one of our markers for ‘quality of life’. At a very young age, children begin to learn how to form such human ties and strengthen them through the use of facial expression and touch. Later, they add verbal communication to their communicative repertoire. Children with the Autism Spectrum, because of their acknowledged impairment when imitating the actions of others, or their inability to easily comprehend the intricate dance of human social interaction, need to have these facets of their education addressed consistently and effectively, throughout the course of their lifetime.