As a parent, it is always difficult to discuss the concepts of personal space and bodily autonomy with children. Things become even more complicated for parents of kids with intellectual disabilities. Many times the child’s biological age may be higher than their intellectual age, making the subject at hand even more incomprehensible for them. In some other cases, they may not be equipped to raise questions like their neurotypical counterparts.
One way to have the talk is by empowering them with information regarding their bodies, personal boundaries. Depending on their maturity level, these issues need to be discussed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children with intellectual disabilities in a manner that is appropriate for them.
When it comes to autistic children aged 9 to 12 years and younger, parents can start by sharing the following information with them:
The best way to do this is by helping them learn about all the different body parts. Start by using visual cues like books and dolls. You can also incorporate this information into their daily routine such as when they are taking a bath, or perhaps when you are helping them get dressed. While teaching them about their different body parts, tell them about their genitals too.
Make sure that you use formal terms to describe their genitals like ‘vagina’, ‘penis’ and ‘buttocks’, to help them understand that these too, are like other parts of their body.
Private and public body parts
When you speak about the different parts of their body, differentiate between private and public body parts. This will help them clearly demarcate what is okay to be done in public and what is not acceptable. Demonstrate when it is okay to be naked and when they should be clothed.
For example, they can be naked when taking a shower or changing clothes but otherwise, they must be clothed. You can use mommy and daddy as examples to illustrate your point. While talking about this, you can also explain to them how they shouldn’t undress in front of anyone but their parents, or other, trusted caregivers.
Setting personal boundaries
Autistic children often find it difficult to understand social cues. As they begin to gain a sense of self by learning about their bodies, it is also recommended to explain to them the concept of ‘personal boundaries’.
These are simply a set of rules that define not only how your child behaves around others but also how others behave around them. This also includes setting up clear rules about who can touch them and who cannot. Similarly, it is also important to teach them how they should not invade the personal space of others. For example, while talking to a person, they should not stand too close to them or that it is not okay to randomly hug or kiss a person, even if they really like them.
Good, bad, and unwanted touch
Teaching them about good touch, bad touch, and unwanted touch is also extremely crucial. Give them examples of good touch like doctors can examine both private and public body parts, or parents can wash their genital area clean while giving them a bath. But other than a few such exceptions, no adults should touch their private parts. On the same lines, explain to them how adults would never need any help with their own genitals.
Most autistic children are uncomfortable with physical contact. If that’s the case with your child, empower them to say a clear ‘NO’ to any unwanted touch. For example, a hug from a friend or a peck on the cheek from a relative. Teach them to reach out for a handshake instead, or to politely decline any such advances. Even if your child is non-verbal, it is important to come up with a sign to indicate their discomfort around certain people to you.
Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of autistic children goes way beyond ‘stranger danger’. Of course, the concept of stranger danger is important too, but in the majority of sexual abuse cases, it is someone the child knows and trusts, rather than a stranger. Encouraging your child to learn these important skills will help them better navigate the complex social structures they will soon encounter as they go through puberty as teenagers.