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

HELP: My Little Boy is Showing Masturbatory Behaviors

Hi 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!
 Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, at or

This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism

Angelina M.

Angelina M., MS, BCBA, LMFT 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.  Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, at or

  • Avatar Jennifer Stevens says:

    I agree that young children discover themselves at an early age. Is it normal when a 5-year-old does not want to do anything else in school but that? Other strategies were tried that were preferred. Escape maintained behavior has been increasing. When mom appears, she will put on her pull up and pants without avoidance. I am concerned this is another escape maintained behavior that is occurring. Or, is it something else? Feeling the need to touch yourself for over an hour and stop as soon as mom comes in the room is strange to me. I have been working with young children with autism for 20 years. I have MS, certified Early Childhood Special Education Teacher and RBT, and finishing my certificate program as a BCBA.

  • Avatar Angelina says:

    Hi Jennifer. To answer your first question: no, that is not considered typical behavior for a child to spend significant time masturbating at school. You could try using DRO on an interval schedule. Each interval that passes without masturbation behavior earns a reward of some type. Start very small: 30 seconds, or one minute. Then build up to bigger intervals. You could even combine DRO with a token system. Each interval earns a sticker, and after 10 stickers the child gets a break, for example. Other reward ideas might be a preferred treat (a very small piece of course), time on the iPad, etc. Lastly, I would recommend a formal functional analysis to make sure of the function before implementing any other strategies. Hope these ideas help!

  • Avatar Teresa Allison says:

    I have a 6 year old son with non verbal autism. I noticed his interest in sensory stimulation of his private area (PA) as early as 2 years old. He would remove his diaper and touch his PA to different surfaces. Examples are super soft blankets, The couch and its corduroy fabric, warm mobile devices such as our iPad.

    The behavior was present but not often from age 2 to age 5. Then at age 5.5 he started touching his PA with his hands. Once he discovered that feeling his masturbatory behaviors became a concern.

    As a person who accepts masturbation as a normal behavior in general I did not want to address the issue in a way that would shame my son, however I was concerned because he did not understand that this was not something he could just start doing when ever and where ever he chose. It didn’t matter if we had company or if we were at the Wal-Mart shopping – If he felt like masturbating he would just start up with no regard.

    I discussed the issue with his Dr and together we decided that the most important thing needing to be understood by my son is that when he does masturbate he needs to do so in his own private space. So I designated the bedroom as the space he would use and redirected him to the space when he would start touching his PA in un-designated spaces.

    He picked up the concept very quickly and in no time was independently going to his private space when he wanted to touch his PA.

    He started kindergarten a few weeks after he understood the necessity of only doing that in his own private space and it did not become an issue with him doing this during school. He seemed to understand that at school his clothes were to stay on at all times.

    Feeling victorious about the fact that he understood appropriate places and non appropriate places I thought we had won and I could put the concern away.

    I quickly learned that complete acceptance of his masturbation and allowing him to have his own private space to do so was not the solution.

    Allowing with no restrictions caused his actions to progress and he was in his private space for the bigger part of every day.

    I tried to redirect him with other sensory stimulation ideas I had read other parents had tried with their autistic child but had no success because I could not find anything that was anywhere near worth trading the Masturbation sensory feeling in for.

    Made another appointment to discuss options with my new concern and his Dr’s advice was brilliant.

    His suggestion was to redirect my son from using his private space as often as he was. Because I had already unsuccessfully tried to redirect with other stimulating activities his suggestion was to put my son in a situation he was not comfortable in. Instead of offering him a different sensory activity that he enjoyed – we went with the opposite feeling by adding a sensory activity that he did not enjoy.
    An example of that is the vacuum.
    My son holds his ears when I run the vacuum, blow dryer, bath water, etc.

    We felt that he would be confused by the expectations if he were being told he can not have private time sometimes when other times it is ok so instead we decided to leave the choice up to him.

    When I want to redirect him from his PA I get the vacuum out and start cleaning his carpet. At this point he has to make the decision to stay and continue what he finds appealing or get far away from the noise that he does not find appealing.

    This suggestion was the one that worked for us. Now he can still enjoy his private time and when I feel it has become excessive I can redirect without him knowing it was me making the choice for him. It is a decision he made on his own. =)

  • Avatar Jubi says:

    My Son is 4 year Old with autism, he should this behavior too and i am scared of it because i don’t want him to carry this behavior when he will be adult, I cannot just tell him to stop because he can’t really understand me. I tried putting some spicy things in his hand, i am spanking to his hands everytime i caught him doing it. I am scared and i want him to stop it.

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