Life is filled with challenges for all of us, and for kids on the spectrum, the challenges can be even more difficult. As anyone who has experience with the spectrum knows, we often concern ourselves with education and social interaction as main goals for helping our kids. After all, life is made up of one social interaction after another, and learning to navigate these contacts properly can have a role in your quality of life.
When dealing with other people, we have to be aware of the other person’s feelings – their perceptions and interpretations of what we do and say – and we have to accurately interpret what they do and say. This is hard enough for all of us as we grow up, but it can be even more difficult if we misinterpret those same feelings and actions.
To help our kids with autism, we spend countless hours teaching them to understand the nuances of conversation and body language. Many experts will tell you that in reality, body language is about 80% of conversational interaction, which makes it crucial for everyone to get it right so we can react correctly to others and enjoy a positive conversation.
This type of teaching never stops. The consequences of a less-than-positive interaction with others can be isolation – the inability to make friends and maintain relationships with people. That’s why there’s a push to help our kids learn and use the right techniques to get along with their peers.
What I want to discuss is another type of human interaction that we all experience: the sexual relationship.
For people who are not on the spectrum, the world of sexuality can be fraught with problems, hardship, disappointment, and confusion. For people who are on the spectrum, growing sexual feelings and physical changes can create situations that are not only confusing, but can lead them to engage in inappropriate, unwarranted behaviors that could cause legal issues.
I am not equating autism and all of its various presentations with sexual deviance or criminal behavior. I am saying that in the modern age, this life experience can bring our kids to places they are not prepared for, and in their genuine attempt to deal with these feelings, they can interact with others in ways that are contrary to the law.
These issues can be first seen when puberty begins. As human beings, our senses are heightened when our sexual hormones begin to increase, and we take notice of people of the same or opposite sex that we find attractive. We can also be influenced by curiosity about our own bodies and the bodies of those we come into contact with. These are all normal, natural, and healthy aspects of growing up. For most of us, we learn to control these feelings and curiosities and seek out acceptable opportunities to explore our feelings.
Having served as a career law enforcement officer, I have seen this period of time pass by without incident for the large majority of young people. For others, however, there were more difficult incidents, ranging from inappropriate comments meant to elicit sexual conversation or flirting, to touching incidents that can be viewed as sexual crimes, even if the person wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. The reality is that touching someone in a sexual way is wrong if it is not consensual.
For kids the on spectrum, this period of time can be very difficult, especially if they don’t understand personal boundaries or have a good sense of what is appropriate. Even if the kids are purposefully experimenting with each other, they can run into trouble if the age differences are too great.
I have investigated incidents where a 16-year-old boy with the mental capacity of an 11-year-old was engaging in “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” type behaviors with a 10-year-old boy. There was no indication that the interaction was indicative of sexual orientation; rather, it was sexual arousal and curiosity mixed with opportunity and another person with the same curiosities.
Even still, they were separated by six years, which in the eyes of the law, can be the deciding factor in pursuing criminal charges regardless, of the older boy’s mental capacity. Even though we might all have insight into the mindset of the kids involved, there are not many, if any, state statutes that make exceptions for kids on the spectrum with low IQ or capabilities. The result is often arrest and court action, and most parents and guardians are not prepared for these realities.
I have seen other incidents involving kids sharing photographs of their nude bodies, accompanied by comments of a sexual nature. In some of the incidents, the ages of the kids involved have been more than six or seven years apart; this is potentially criminal and can be devastating for the kids and the families involved. Sharing nude photos of themselves and the bodies of other kids can be viewed legally as creating and distributing child pornography.
When I interviewed the families involved, the majority of them expressed shock and surprise that their child was having these feelings, let alone acting on them. Access to the Internet is one of the things to consider. Playing online video games or having access to smartphones might be considered the norm today, but we have to evaluate each child based on his/her level of responsibility and maturity. For kids who attend specialized schools with other kids with special needs, the parents and the school must be prepared for these types of interactions before they begin.
As an investigator, I learned to understand some of the realities of life for the kids and families on the spectrum. I saw the effort it took to stay on top of the issues and anticipate the future, while at the same time, dealing with the everyday needs of their children and life.
The onset of sexuality brings with it its own set of challenges, and for our kids with special needs, we must be aware of changes as they begin to appear and react accordingly. For many parents and guardians, this aspect of their child’s life catches them by surprise emotionally and intellectually, which can place them in jeopardy as it pertains to the law.
Here are a few things to consider:
- Have a talk with your child’s doctor well before puberty begins and learn what signs to look for when the changes start.
- Talk to a counselor with specific training with kids on the spectrum and sexuality issues so the topic can be handled with as little stress as possible and you are prepared before anything happens.
- Talk to your school officials and find out how they handle student interaction when it comes to sexual matters and how they monitor these issues.
- Learn the law of your state as it relates to sexual interactions between children under age 18 and over age 18, so you will know what to expect if something happens.
- Pay attention to Internet access and smartphone access. If a phone is deemed necessary, make sure you activate the parental controls to limit access to web sites and contacts, or consider an old fashioned flip phone that allows phone calls but not Internet access.
- Consider “Key Stroke” software so you can check where your child is going on the Internet and what they are looking at, as well as who they are contacting. Many pedophiles seek out kids with disabilities, hoping they are easier to manipulate.
- Prepare yourself for these changes in your child. They are stressful enough for children and parents in all families; get yourself information to help with the needs, thoughts, and feelings of your special needs child.
Human nature is what it is, children run the gambit of intellectual abilities, and sexuality is a built in drive for all of us. Because it is a drive, it is something that must be recognized, understood, and controlled. Helping our special needs kids through this time in their lives can be challenging, but preparing before it begins can make the transition from childhood to adulthood easier for you and your child in order to help avoid any unanticipated problems this part of life can bring.
Joseph Pangaro is a 27-year veteran of law enforcement. He retired in 2013 at the rank of Lieutenant and currently serves as the Director of School Safety and Security for a large school district in NJ. He is also the owner of Pangaro Training and Management, a company that provides training to the public and private sector on a host of topics. Mr. Pangaro is also a staff writer for the magazine NJ Blue Now.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism