My Little Boy is Showing Masturbatory Behaviors
I am a mother of a five-year-old autistic boy. Even though he is attending occupational therapy sessions, he is showing masturbatory behavior at times. Do you have any suggestions or tips for controlling these behaviors? — Jan
There’s something we need to get out of the way before going any further…these behaviors are a completely normal part of development. Children begin discovering their bodies in this way anywhere between the ages of two and six. While adults see masturbation as a sexualized behavior, children are simply experiencing pleasure. It’s important to note that difference.
There is not a dirty or immoral motivation for kids to masturbate…it just feels good. It’s the same reason a child might twirl their hair or why so many kids with autism flap their hands or walk on their toes. So, although masturbation is an uncomfortable thing to deal with as a parent, it’s a normal part of growing up. As long as the masturbation is occasional and not interfering with his ability to do other things, there’s no need for alarm.
OK, now that we’ve covered that, let’s get into some things you can try to help curb this behavior:
1. Create a safe space and time when masturbation is acceptable.
For example: “You can only do this in your room when you are all alone.”
Like I mentioned, masturbation is very typical at this age. While many cultures and religions forbid it, masturbation can be a healthy part of growing up. It teaches children about their own bodies and allows them to discover new sensations. By setting up clear boundaries on when and where that behavior is appropriate, your son will learn that it’s OK to explore himself, but with restrictions.
If the frequency of his masturbatory behaviors becomes a problem, you may also set a limit on that, according to what you and his pediatrician feel comfortable with.
2. Refrain from vilifying your child or his body.
Whether you approve of masturbation or not, we do not want your son to learn that he or his penis are bad, wrong, or yucky. If your personal beliefs do not support exploratory touching, it’s critical to convey this in a way that does not make your son feel ashamed. Consider also that this type of conversation may be better received in the future. There is certainly time as he grows up to discuss religious or cultural beliefs about masturbation.
Keep in mind that it is very possible for a five-year-old to misinterpret a conversation about “sin,” for example, and end up feeling badly about himself and his body. Sexual shame carries into adulthood and can have a tremendous impact on self-esteem and relationships in the future. Point being—if you do not approve of masturbation, be careful when and how you choose to address this.
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3. Provide alternatives.
I have worked with several kids who had inappropriate masturbation habits, either doing it too much or doing it in public, and I always warn families that it’s not easy to replace these behaviors because nothing feels quite as good to your child. Nevertheless, try to come up with sensory activities that will provide other forms of pleasure. This can be things like gently stroking his back with your fingernails, using a pronged scalp massager, or massaging his feet.
Teach him ways he can stimulate himself, other than masturbation, too. For example: he can stretch, rub lotion on his hands, or run a soft brush over his arms to give himself goosebumps. You can also engage him in highly-reinforcing activities that don’t necessarily provide sensory pleasure, but bring him pleasure in other ways. For example: watching his favorite movie, cooking his favorite meal together, or going on a walk to the park.
I hope these ideas help! Continue working with his occupational therapist for additional ways to manage this behavior if it becomes a problem, but remember—it’s normal for his age!
Angelina M. works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families.
She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism